The death of Nelson Mandela has unleashed a flood of commentary on a man who now belongs to the ages. Unfortunately, too much of that commentary ignores the extent to which Mandela – and his winning battle against apartheid – was a part and product of his times.
Specifically, much of the punditry by American liberals has recast Mandela’s story as a simple morality play in which a great man was kept down by his oppressors with the help (or at least the indifference) of American and British conservatives, foremost among them Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In this telling, Reagan and Thatcher are portrayed as having no good or defensible reason for their actions. Instead, the narrative holds that external pressure on South Africa by liberal entertainers and politicians – including economic sanctions imposed over President Reagan’s veto in 1986 – freed Mandela, who went on to prove his conservative critics wrong and earn the admiration of the world.
Not every element of this narrative is factually wrong, but it is missing so much critical context as to be grossly misleading. Reagan was wrong about Mandela but right about the world, and in judging Reagan, that was what really mattered; Mandela was wrong about the world but right about South Africa, and in judging Mandela, that was what really mattered.
To understand Mandela’s flaws, why he was greeted with skepticism on the Right, and why he deserves to be lionized for rising above that skepticism, you must first consider both the global context of the Cold War and its regional impact on Southern Africa. And contrary to the liberal narrative, it was the end of the Cold War and the end of the regional agony of southwest Africa that made Mandela’s release and the end of apartheid possible.
Southern Africa and the Cold War
It is easy to forget now, but as recently as the late 1970s, international Communism was on the upsurge in the aftermath of America’s humiliating withdrawal from Southeast Asia – and many observers at the time felt the Communists had the stronger hand than the West. As an ideology of class struggle, Communism most naturally appealed to the Third World, where the poor are often desperately so and tend to vastly outnumber the middle class. In Southeast Asia, following the North’s conquest of South Vietnam in April 1975, Pathet Lao took control of Laos in December 1975 and the Cambodian domino fell in 1976, leading to one of the worst genocides in world history over the next four years. In Central America, the Communists gained their first foothold on the American mainland when the Sandanistas overthrew the Somoza regime in Nicaragua in July 1979. In Central Asia, the Soviet Union itself invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.
But no region offered more opportunities for the expansion of Communist tyranny in the late 1970s and early 1980s than sub-Saharan Africa, in particular the southern quarter of the continent, which was beset with an alphabet soup of left-wing guerilla movements. South Africa’s immediate neighbor to the northeast, Mozambique, became independent from Portugal in 1975 after nearly a decade-long war of independence. Its new ruling party, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), declared Mozambique a Marxist-Leninist state in 1977, and set itself on a course of persecuting the churches and triggering a massive humanitarian crisis by shuttering the country’s many religiously-run hospitals. In response, a Rhodesian-backed resistance movement, the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), launched a civil war that would eventually claim the lives of nearly a million Mozambicans and created some 5 million refugees, about a third of Mozambique’s population. FRELIMO received Soviet support; while much of the West refused to support RENAMO due to its own savagery, the South African regime eventually became its primary source of support after the demise of Rhodesia and its replacement by Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe.
Inland from Mozambique, and also bordering South Africa, lay Rhodesia, independent from Britain since 1965 and ruled by Ian Smith’s white-minority government. Rhodesia had declared its independence unilaterally, which was resisted by Great Britain (Rhodesia was never diplomatically recognized by South Africa, although its government ended up being effectively propped up by South Africa). Its white ruling regime faced a two-headed insurgency from the black majority population: the rural, Chinese-backed Maoist group ZANU, headed at the time by Robert Mugabe and Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, and Joshua Nkomo’s Soviet-backed ZAPU. In early 1978, under international pressure from – among others – the U.S. and South Africa, Smith agreed to a power-sharing agreement with moderate black Bishop Abel Muzorewa, an accord designed to ease Rhodesia into participation and ultimately majority control by the black majority, while explicitly preserving a political power base for the white minority (including guaranteed legislative seats) and empowering the moderate factions within the black majority. Unfortunately for Zimbabwe’s people, Mugabe and Nkomo rejected the agreement and refused to make peace, and Muzorewa wasn’t a strong enough leader to bring them to heel. By February 1980, the accord had been torn up and Mugabe elected President, where he remains today, with increasingly tragic consequences.
In the 1980s, Mugabe was not yet the full horror he would later become, but he was already a cautionary tale. In 1982, Mugabe sent troops into Mozambique on the side of FRELIMO, and would remain embroiled in its civil war until 1992. Also in 1982, Mugabe ejected Nkomo from his unity government, and Zimbabwe’s North Korean trained and officered Fifth Brigade, engaged in massacres of the Ndebele people, who were on the losing side of the ensuing ZANU-ZAPU feud that would last until 1987. Mugabe was also engaged in a long-running campaign to demonize white farmers (they would eventually face formal confiscation of their land beginning in 2000).
To the northwest of modern South Africa lies what was then the South African province of South-West Africa, now the independent state of Namibia. North of that lies Angola, which like Mozambique had won its independence from Portugal in 1975 (in other words, both Angola and Mozambique had also only emerged from white rule of their black populations in the mid-1970s). Independence was, there as well, followed by a vicious civil war between the Soviet and Cuban backed People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the South African-backed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Savimbi. At the peak of the fighting in the late 70s and early 80s, Fidel Castro maintained anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000 Cuban troops in Angola, a major proportion of the fighting strength on the MPLA side. The CIA had sent covert aid to UNITA under the Ford Administration until the 1976 passage of the Clark Amendment, which banned aid to the combatants in Angola; eventually, in 1985, the Reagan Administration was able to obtain the repeal of the Clark Amendment and provide open support to UNITA.
Meanwhile, South African rule in South-West Africa had been challenged since 1966 by a war of independence launched by the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). By the early 1980s, South-West Africa was in the crosshairs of both the regional and global power struggles between South Africa and the various Soviet-aligned forces in Angola; SWAPO aligned itself with MPLA and its Soviet and Cuban allies. Billions in Soviet aid flowed into SWAPO’s war against both the South Africans and UNITA. The wars in Angola and South-West Africa often spilled over each other’s borders and effectively merged into a single, wider war.
Moreover, given the history of Cold War conflicts from Korea to Vietnam to Hungary to Afghanistan, there were real reasons to worry that this situation would escalate, especially if things went badly for the Cubans. In 1981, the Soviet Union admitted it had military advisers in Angola, after two of them were killed in clashes with South African troops. That threat was one of the drivers of South Africa’s nuclear ambitions; its already-covert nuclear program, under Defence Minister P.W. Botha, went to ground in the late 1970s due to international pressure from both the U.S. and Soviet blocs, although South Africa would retain the warheads until the end of the 1980s.
The region’s various warring factions also had a destabilizing effect on Zambia, which sits to the north of Zimbabwe, as a result of the tendency of whichever faction was out of power in Rhodesia, Angola, South-West Africa or South Africa to decamp across the border into Zambia. And north of Zambia lay Tanzania, under the rule of Julius Nyerere; Nyerere went to war with Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda (to his north) in 1979, the Soviets backing Amin (who was aided by troops from Qaddafi’s Libya and Arafat’s PLO) while the Chinese backed Tanzania.
To put this in American terms, imagine that you were trying to rally support against Jim Crow in Florida, but the end of segregation in the rest of the region had resulted in oppression of whites and attempted genocide in South Carolina, a Marxist regime in Georgia, a civil war in Mississippi stoked by an army from Louisiana, and Alabama invading the panhandle arm-in-arm with an expeditionary force of Cuban Communists.
This was the world in which Botha became Prime Minister in 1978, and in which Nelson Mandela – held in a South African prison since 1962 and sentenced to life in 1964 for conspiring to overthrow the South African government – would increasingly become an international cause célèbre as the 1980s wore on. It was a region beset by one variety or other of Marxist movements (even UNITA had its own communistic leanings) and treated as a playground for foreign interference by a variety of players in the Cold War scene, first and foremost the Soviet Union and its allies. It was a region short on clean hands (as the roster of atrocities committed by virtually all the combatant forces in the various wars could attest) and long on corrupt and brutal governments (in Zimbabwe’s case, a government bent on racial revenge). South Africa was by no means regarded in Washington or London as a virtuous ally, but what it represented was the region’s strongest military and economic power and one that implacably opposed the region’s Marxist tilt.
Mandela The Communist Fellow-Traveler
In Reagan’s search for allies against Communist domination of southern Africa, it’s easy to see why Nelson Mandela would not have seemed a promising prospect. Because, for all his later merits, Mandela gave every impression of being cut from the same ideological and political cloth as Mugabe and the region’s other Communists and fellow-travelers.
The true extent to which Mandela was a believing and active Communist in the early 1960s, or during his imprisonment, remains a matter of some debate to this day. After his death, the modern South African Communist Party claimed “Comrade Mandela” as having once been an active leader of the Party, but then its self-serving motives in wanting as large a piece of his legacy as it could grasp are fairly obvious. But as Greg Myre at NPR observes, “Comrade Mandela” wasn’t that far from the truth:
Mandela’s…African National Congress has been closely aligned for decades with the South African Communist Party. Members of both organizations studied and received military training in the Soviet Union. And while Mandela and other ANC leaders called for a multiracial democracy, many members of his group viewed communist countries as more sympathetic to their cause than Western nations.
British historian Stephen Ellis published a 2011 paper citing documents from the South African Communist Party that state Mandela was one of the group’s leaders.
Whatever Mandela’s role may have been, his open alliance with the Communist Party was often cited by South Africa’s government and some conservatives in the United States as reason to be suspicious of him and the ANC’s intentions.
For years, the U.S. labeled the ANC a terrorist group because it carried out attacks against civilian targets in South Africa. And it was Mandela himself who established the ANC’s armed wing in the early 1960s before he was imprisoned.
Although Mandela’s African National Congress and the Communist Party were openly allied against apartheid, Mandela and the A.N.C. have always denied that the hero of South Africa’s liberation was himself a party member. But Ellis, drawing on testimony of former party members and newly available archives, made a convincing case that Mandela joined the party around 1960, several years before he was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to overthrow the government.
…“Today, the A.N.C. officially claims still to be at the first stage … of a two-phase revolution,” Ellis told me in an email exchange. “This is a theory obtained directly from Soviet thinking.”
Indeed, the remnants of Communist protocol and jargon — “comrades” and “counterrevolutionaries” — live on in the platform and demeanor of South Africa’s ruling party.
His book also provides fresh detail on how the ANC’s military wing had bomb-making lessons from the IRA, and intelligence training from the East German Stasi, which it used to carry out brutal interrogations of suspected “spies” at secret prison camps.
…Its campaign of “sabotage” and bombings over the subsequent three decades claimed the lives of dozens of civilians, and led to the organisation being classed as a terrorist group by the US.
In his book, Professor Ellis, who also authored a publication on the Liberian civil war, elaborates on other murky aspects of the ANC’s past. One is that bomb-making experts from the IRA trained the ANC at a secret base in Angola in the late 1970s, a link disclosed last year in the posthumous memoirs of Kader Asmal, a South African politician of Indian extraction who was exiled in Ireland. He was a member of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, which, Prof Mr Ellis says, in turn had close links to the British and South African Communist parties.
The IRA tutoring, which was allegedly brokered partly through Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, led to the ANC fighters improving their bombing skills considerably, thanks to the expertise of what Mr Ellis describes as “the world’s most sophisticated urban guerrilla force”.
Angola was also the base for “Quatro”, a notorious ANC detention centre, where dozens of the movement’s own supporters were tortured and sometimes killed as suspected spies by agents from their internal security service, some of whom were “barely teenagers”. East German trainers taught the internal security agents that anyone who challenged official ANC dogma should be viewed as a potential spy or traitor.
One of the more notorious episodes was the 1983 Church Street car bombing, which killed 19 people and wounded 217 at a South African Air Force facility. The bombing was pinned on the ANC by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which found it was authorized by ANC president Oliver Tambo. Tambo at the time stated that Church Street was a legitimate target. Botha offered Mandela release in 1985 if he would renounce violence; Mandela refused:
Mandela’s reply was read out by his daughter Zindzi, at a huge stadium in Soweto: “Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people’s organization, the African National Congress. . . . I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free.”
This was a courageous stance, but it was also one that had to concern American policymakers who feared yet another civil war in the region. Peter Beinart argues that Mandela’s immersion in Communist ideology had the unusual effect of encouraging him to move beyond thinking along racial lines, a habit that would stand him in good stead when he sought national reconciliation. But even if this is so, exposure to Marxist thinking had no such effect on Mugabe or other African leftists, and there was no good reason to expect it of Mandela in 1985.
Mandela never really stopped being an America-bashing leftist even after his release; Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed collects some quotes from his later years illustrating that point, as does Tim Graham at Newsbusters. Myre:
Mandela was at odds with U.S. foreign policy on multiple occasions.
He remained loyal to those who provided moral and financial support to his group during the years when the ANC had few friends in the West. This led Mandela to meet and praise leaders such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.
The year after he was freed, Mandela called Castro “a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.”
Mandela also spoke out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and took issue with the U.S. campaign against Iran’s nuclear program.
Michael Moynihan notes Mandela’s lifelong callousness towards the human-rights victims of anti-American dictators, with specific recent examples from Iran.
Mandela would attain world renown as a “political prisoner,” and Reagan himself would demand Mandela’s release in his 1986 veto message:
[L]et me outline what we believe are necessary components of progress toward political peace.
First, a timetable for elimination of apartheid laws should be set.
Second, all political prisoners should be released.
Third, Nelson Mandela should be released to participate in the country’s political process.
Fourth, black political movements should be unbanned.
Fifth, both the Government and its opponents should begin a dialogue about constructing a political system that rests on the consent of the governed, where the rights of majorities and minorities and individuals are protected by law. And the dialogue should be initiated by those with power and authority, the South African Government itself.
But Mandela’s sentence to life imprisonment was unjust only because the system he sought to overthrow was unjust. He was not jailed for peaceable civil disobedience, which he had tried and seen crushed in the 1950s, but for conspiring to violent overthrow of the South African government – and he admitted at trial that he was guilty of precisely that:
“I do not deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the whites.”
“We had either to accept inferiority or fight against it by violence. We chose the latter.” [Mandela and a co-defendant] strongly denied they were Communists. The charges against Mandela, former leader of the banned African National Congress, and the other accused include sabotage involving nearly two hundred incidents.
…Mandela spoke for nearly five hours. He said: “I do not deny that I planned sabotage. I did not do this in a spirit of recklessness. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment.”…
He concluded in June, 1961, that violence was inevitable and that it would be unrealistic for African leaders to continue a non-violent policy when the Government “met our demands with violence.”
He said: “This decision was not easily made. The decision was made to embark on violent forms of struggle. I felt morally obliged to do what I did.”
Thus, Mandela’s release nearly three decades later was not an admission by the government of his innocence or wrongful conviction, but a deliberate step towards reconciliation in spite of his guilt and in recognition of the ultimate justice of his grievances – a gesture that Mandela would reciprocate with a remarkable lack of bitterness despite those grievances.
Should Mandela be condemned for being an anti-American Communist sympathizer? Back in the 80s, Newt Gingrich was one of a group of young conservatives pressing Reagan for a harder anti-apartheid line. Newt, as he often does, frames his defense of Mandela today in the context of America’s own Founding Fathers:
[L]et me say to those conservatives who don’t want to honor Nelson Mandela, what would you have done?
Mandela was faced with a vicious apartheid regime that eliminated all rights for blacks and gave them no hope for the future. This was a regime which used secret police, prisons and military force to crush all efforts at seeking freedom by blacks.
What would you have done faced with that crushing government?
What would you do here in America if you had that kind of oppression?
Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country.
After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech.
As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny. We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army’s dictatorial assault on our freedom.
Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote and the Continental Congress adopted that “all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Doesn’t this apply to Nelson Mandela and his people?
Some conservatives say, ah, but he was a communist.
Actually Mandela was raised in a Methodist school, was a devout Christian, turned to communism in desperation only after South Africa was taken over by an extraordinarily racist government determined to eliminate all rights for blacks.
I would ask of his critics: where were some of these conservatives as allies against tyranny?
Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid? In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government, you accept the allies you have just as Washington was grateful for a French monarchy helping him defeat the British.
Keller takes a similar line:
The early collaboration of the A.N.C. with the Communists was a marriage of convenience for a movement that had few friends. The South African Communist Party and its patrons in Russia and China were a source of money and weapons for the largely feckless armed struggle, and for many, it meant solidarity with a cause larger than South Africa. Communist ideology undoubtedly seeped into the A.N.C., where it became part of a uniquely South African cocktail with African nationalism, Black Consciousness, religious liberalism and other, inchoate angers and resentments and yearnings.
The view of Gingrich and Keller view is the charitable one: that the Communist component of Mandela’s ANC was basically a marriage of necessity, like the Spanish and Chinese anti-Fascist alliances of 1937, or the Western alliance with Stalin a few years later. This is an important point – but the irony is that Newt’s defense of Mandela’s Communist ties is also the conservative defense of not taking a harder line against South Africa in the final decade of the Cold War, while Marxism and Soviet influence menaced the southern part of Africa. It is the sober realization that the long-term and wider cause of freedom may require short-term alliances of convenience with enemies of freedom. Liberals may reject the concept of alliances driven by interest rather than principle, but conservatives, long accepting of this reality and recognizing that the difference between a nation’s allies and its enemies is always a meaningful, should grant Mandela the same understanding as Reagan, FDR, and Washington in this respect: he made the allies he needed to advance a just cause.
Reagan and South Africa
Ronald Reagan had been a keen and interested observer of the African scene for years before his Presidency, and his assessment of South Africa was based on neither ignorance nor indifference, but instead reflected Reagan’s overall strategic view of the region.
Reagan’s own writings – his contemporaneous speeches and diaries, pre-Presidential radio commentaries and post-Presidential memoirs – reveal, first of all, that his attention was far more regularly focused on Angola than South Africa. That’s unsurprising: Angola was part of the larger regional and global proxy war against the expansion of Communist tyranny, whereas apartheid – after the demise of Rhodesia in 1979 – was sui generis, a problem unique to one country.
As to Reagan’s thinking about South Africa, four themes clearly emerge from his writings. First and foremost is the fact that the South African regime was both anti-Communist and pro-American (Reagan was fond of citing the fact that South Africa had been on our side in every 20th Century war and had, at least as of the beginning of his Presidency, never voted against the U.S. in the UN). Given the preeminence of Cold War geopolitics in Reagan’s approach to every corner of the world, that was obviously a paramount consideration.
Second, Reagan was fond of reminding his listeners that the United States was only a decade removed from the painful end of Jim Crow, and that perhaps Americans should be more humble and understanding of the difficulty in bringing an end to such abuses. In this sense, of course, he was at direct odds with American liberals and African-Americans in particular, who viewed the struggle of black South Africans as an extension of their own and – indeed – a litmus test for domestic commitment to civil rights. (Black Americans, of course, are by no means unique in pressing our foreign policy to areas of interest to them; Irish, Jewish and Cuban voters, among others, have long done the same). Yet Western liberals in this period had comparatively little interest in the suffering of black residents of Angola, Namibia, Mozambique or Zimbabwe.
Reagan was not shy about reminding other governments of their human rights violations, and he was not shy about the evils of apartheid. But he also understood from our own experience that while government force may be necessary to prop up systemic discrimination, curing it is a deeper social issue than removing a dictator or a totalitarian system.
Third, Reagan was concerned that South Africa’s black population was a powder keg of tribal rivalries and tensions that could explode if white rule was removed abruptly. This was not a far-fetched possibility, given the then-recent history of the region and the longer history of the tribal conflicts around the Cape (recall that the “national” boundaries of Africa mostly reflect the division of spoils among European colonizers, not national identities). While tribal tensions remain an enduring issue all over Africa, the fear that South Africa would go the way Yugoslavia went in the 1990s proved unfounded, in part due to the unifying influence and example of Mandela (as well as the disappearance of outsiders looking for proxies).
Fourth, Reagan was skeptical towards economic sanctions in general. Bear in mind, he had campaigned in 1980 against Jimmy Carter’s grain embargo against the Soviet Union – and nobody would accuse Reagan of having been soft on the Soviets. Rather, he saw the sanctions as counterproductive and more harmful to American farmers than to their target, and he got them repealed in April 1981. British sanctions against the white Rhodesians had been spectacularly unsuccessful and widely flouted. Granted, Reagan supported the continuance of sanctions against Castro’s Cuba – but Cuba is an island, and aside from impoverished Haiti and tiny Jamaica and the Bahamas, its closest neighbor is Florida. By contrast, as Reagan explained in his veto message in 1986, South Africa’s economy was deeply intertwined with that of its neighbors, and thus even if sanctions worked, they would play havoc on neighboring economies (and, it hardly needed be added, strengthen the influence of the Soviets in those economies):
The primary victims of an economic boycott of South Africa would be the very people we seek to help. Most of the workers who would lose jobs because of sanctions would be black workers. We do not believe the way to help the people of South Africa is to cripple the economy upon which they and their families depend for survival.
Alan Paton, South Africa’s great writer, for years the conscience of his country, has declared himself emphatically: ”I am totally opposed to disinvestment,” he says. ”It is primarily for a moral reason. Those who will pay most grievously for disinvestment will be the black workers of South Africa. I take very seriously the teachings of the Gospels, in particular the parables about giving drink to the thirsty and the food to the hungry. I will not help to cause any such suffering to any black person.” Nor will we.
Looking at a map, southern Africa is a single economic unit tied together by rails and roads. Zaire and its southern mining region depends upon South Africa for three-fourths of her food and petroleum. More than half the electric power that drives the capital of Mozambique comes from South Africa. Over one-third of the exports from Zambia and 65 percent of the exports of Zimbabwe leave the 13,000 workers from Swaziland, 19,000 from Botswana, 50,000 from Mozambique and 110,000 from the tiny landlocked country of Lesotho. Shut down these productive mines with sanctions and you have forced black mine workers out of their jobs and forced their families back in their home countries into destitution.
…As one African leader remarked recently, southern Africa is like a zebra: if the white parts are injured, the black parts will die, too. Western nations have poured billions in foreign aid and investment loans into southern Africa. Does it make sense to aid these countries with one hand and with the other to smash the industrial engine upon whch their future depends?
Reagan was not averse to putting pressure on South Africa, despite its status as an ally; as Peter Robinson notes, Reagan in 1985 unilaterally (by executive order) expanded U.S. military and diplomatic sanctions against South Africa, extending U.S. policies first put in place by President Kennedy around the time Mandela was first imprisoned. He deliberately chose a black ambassador to South Africa, Edward Perkins, in 1986 to send a message to Botha. But he believed economic sanctions could drive the region further into Soviet arms.
Causation is the most elusive of things in history, but just as U.S. relations with South Africa between 1975 and 1986 cannot be evaluated outside the context of the Cold War, the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in February 1990 and his rise from political prisoner to be elected South Africa’s head of state in May 1994 cannot be evaluated outside the context of the end of the Cold War (symbolized by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and 1990 reunification of Germany) and the collapse of Soviet Communism, culminating in the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. The timing of these events was not coincidental.
The crucial event was the signing on December 22, 1988 in New York of the Tripartite Accords, a peace treaty between South Africa, Cuba and Angola brokered by the outgoing Reagan Administration after seven years of diplomacy by Reagan’s long-time Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker (the point man for Reagan’s policies in South Africa, Namibia and Angola from 1981-88). The superpower groundwork for the Tripartite Accords was laid at a June 1988 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow. All parties involved recognized that declining Soviet ambitions in the region meant an end to funding for future Cuban and Angolan adventures; the South Africans recognized as well that this meant less American interest in supporting UNITA. It was time to make the best peace that could be had, and it ensured independence for Namibia and an end to both Cuban and South African military involvement in Angola and Namibia.
Events on the ground also favored a settlement at that point. In the spring of 1988, the armed forces of South Africa and UNITA faced off in battle against Cuba, Angola, and SWAPO at Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola, the largest land battle in Africa since El Alamein. Both sides regarded the battle as a victory, the Cubans because the cream of Castro’s military forces had bailed out an Angolan offensive that had failed miserably the previous summer and gone over to the offensive against the South African army, the South Africans because the Cuban counter-offensive had ultimately been halted at a time when Cuba was running out of support from Moscow. Mandela himself, echoing the Cuban view of the battle, later described it as ““the turning point for the liberation of our continent — and of my people — from the scourge of apartheid.” Regardless of the military merits of these claims, the fact that both sides could claim a face-saving outcome greased the skids for the superpowers to use their financial leverage to force a settlement. It is noteworthy that Mandela regarded that settlement as intimately connected to the end of apartheid in South Africa.
After the Tripartite Accords, other dominos fell in place. Free elections in Namibia followed in 1989, giving power legitimately to SWAPO. With the loss of Soviet and South African support for the combatants, a new Mozambican Constitution allowing for multi-party elections was drafted in July 1989 and adopted in November 1990; a peace treaty between FRELIMO and RENAMO would be signed in 1992. Savimbi, who kept up the fight within Angola, would participate in elections in 1992, although he would eventually be killed a decade later, never having abandoned the sword. But for the most part, the region would still lean left, but would be on its own, free to make its own mistakes. Southern Africa has had a hard two decades since, ravaged by the AIDS epidemic and the decline of Zimbabwe into squalor, but it has nonetheless been an era of relative regional peace.
The end of Soviet-sponsored mayhem in the region was good news for its people, but bad news for a white South African regime whose usefulness to the United States and excuses for resisting racial progress were rapidly evaporating. As in corners of the globe from the Philippines to El Salvador to Yemen to Afghanistan, the end of Soviet and U.S. financing of proxy wars not only toppled Communist regimes, but also eliminated much of the value that alliances of convenience had provided to the United States. The de Klerk government, like Gorbachev in Moscow, recognized the new reality, and set out on the path of making its peace with Mandela accordingly. The end of apartheid is thus not a sour or discordant footnote to America’s Reagan-era victory in the Cold War, but one of the fruits of that victory and one that the Reagan Administration had hoped for and labored for.
In the long run, it is by deeds that men are judged, and most of all by their use of power that the ideals of statesmen are tested. As Shakespeare wrote in Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” In the final analysis, Nelson Mandela was one of those remarkable few whose good deeds would have an impact on the world long after his mistakes and sins faded into history. To a large extent, the reason for this is that Mandela’s character ultimately mattered more than his ideas. His willingness to choose the example of Lincoln in charity towards all and malice towards none, and the example of Washington in relinquishing power when he could have had it for life – rather than the examples of Mugabe, Castro, or Lenin – was the ultimate test of his character, and one he passed.
Reagan and others in the West erred in underestimating Mandela, not because they misunderstood his words or his allies, but because they misjudged the character of the man. After all, as a friend writes, “Those who believe Mandela was obviously a reconciliation-minded hero before 1990 willfully ignore the circumstances of nearly every one of his political type before him, from Mugabe to Nkrumah to Nasser to Indira Gandhi and much beyond. The list of left-wing figures who appealed to liberal principles while out of power, and then governed as bloody-minded authoritarians when in it, is long. In fact, it’s most of them. Caution that Mandela would prove yet another of their number, when his background was so drearily common in their ranks, was simply prediction born of empiricism.” It was common for Marxist revolutionaries – even Castro – to dissemble about their Marxism until they had consolidated power, and perilous to ignore that possibility.
Undoubtedly a factor in the failure to take the measure of Mandela was the lack of opportunities to observe a man who had been held in the most isolated of confinements since the Kennedy Administration. Almost none of the major policymakers in the West had met Mandela or knew anyone who had. Reagan had the opportunity to take the measure of African leaders, as he did of Gorbachev or Thatcher; he met with Mugabe and found him a droning blowhard while he was much more impressed with Mangosuthu “Gatsha” Buthulezi, the Zulu leader who bitterly opposed sanctions but was regarded by the ANC as a collaborator with Botha.
But nobody could meet Mandela. Instead, at most, they dealt with his wife Winnie – and while Winnie’s reputation in the West was higher in the 1980s than it would be subsequently, the fact remains that she was more intimately tied than her husband to human rights violations by the ANC during Mandela’s term of imprisonment, including the notorious practice of “necklacing” (torturing and executing black ‘collaborators’ with the white regime by burning oil-soaked tires around their necks). As the Guardian delicately put it at the time:
In 1986 she embarrassed the anti-apartheid community with the statement in a speech that “we shall liberate this country” with “our boxes of matches and our necklaces” interpreted as an implicit endorsement of the political killings by burning which did enormous damage to the anti-apartheid movement between 1984 and 1987.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission ultimately concluded (p. 581 of its report) that Winnie was “politically and morally accountable” for “gross violations of human rights,” and Mandela would divorce her after his release. In retrospect, it is unsurprising that she did not always present the most convincing face to the West for her husband’s non-violence and forbearance.
Printing The Legend
The fall of the Soviet empire and the collapse of Communism worldwide vindicated Reagan and his allies beyond what anyone else had imagined in the 1980s. Leftists and liberals were left shell-shocked at how comprehensively their arguments had been discredited, and so it should surprise no one that they latched onto Mandela, their one moral victory in the Cold War’s denouement, their one claim to having been right while the conservatives were wrong. Their veneration of Mandela has only grown in the years since, secure in the understanding that telling his story longer and louder than the story of Reagan’s victory over worldwide Communism would teach a new generation a different calculus of the relative scope of the evils of apartheid and Communism. For Barack Obama, for example, talking about Mandela is much less uncomfortable than talking about Obama’s support at the time for the disastrously wrongheaded Nuclear Freeze movement.
But Mandela’s story and Reagan’s are inspiring enough in their own right without distortion, and while it may be historically unfortunate that they misjudged each other – just as Churchill misjudged Gandhi’s cause while Gandhi misjudged Churchill’s grander struggle against Hitler – in the end, both were vindicated in the causes that meant the most to them. History is big enough for both.