The left media has continued exploiting the death of Nelson Mandela to attack conservatives. The latest version is Sam Kleiner’s attack at Foreign Policy and the Huffington Post, “Apartheid Amnesia: How the GOP conveniently forgot about its role in propping up a white supremacist regime.” Kleiner acknowledges that President Ronald Reagan officially opposed apartheid, and that some GOP leaders voted to impose sanctions. But he tries to claim that Democrats owned the anti-apartheid struggle, while conservatives backed the regime.
As in all such attacks, Kleiner plays down the association of Mandela’s organization, the African National Congress, with global communism. That revisionist step is necessary to make the slander stick, as it obscures the context within which conservatives were reacting. Kleiner has a loose grip on the facts anyway: he writes that “Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in 1988,” when in fact he was freed in 1990. Those two years are crucial: in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, ending communism as a threat and opening the door to Mandela’s release.
But let us accept, just for argument’s sake, Kleiner’s misleading claim that conservatives supported apartheid. An honest comparison of apartheid and communism would have to conclude that communism is, by far, the worse evil. Communism killed millions of people worldwide, in addition to condemning millions to poverty. Apartheid subjected millions of black people to terrible oppression, but killed few–and the black population of South Africa grew during that time. (Notably, life expectancy in the post-apartheid era has fallen dramatically.)
The ANC’s choice to align with the Soviet Union was understandable, given that non-violent resistance to apartheid had largely failed by 1960, and the communists were the only source of arms. Yet on balance, that alliance, in addition to being morally problematic, likely set back the anti-apartheid struggle by a decade or more by alienating allies in the free world. Of course, few Americans who supported the anti-apartheid struggle supported communism. Yet that alliance meant that building such support was more difficult.
There were always a few brave souls, in the U.S. and in South Africa itself, who fought apartheid while opposing communism. One such was Helen Suzman, once the sole anti-apartheid member of the South African Parliament, whose liberal colleagues eventually helped shape South Africa’s constitution to resemble the U.S. Constitution in some respects. Rather than trying to politicize Mandela’s death through historical revisionism, Americans should celebrate the fact that his legacy is a point of rare bipartisan consensus.