Some of the most prominent conservative leaders of the 20th century refused to support Nelson Mandela or his political party, the African National Congress. President Ronald Reagan preferred “constructive engagement” with the apartheid regime. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opposed sanctions against South Africa. Future Vice President Dick Cheney voted against a resolution demanding Mandela’s freedom. All true.
The left is playing up these cherry-picked facts to reinforce their desperate attempt to label conservatives in general and Republicans in particular as racists. They ignore the fact that there were many people who differed with Mandela and the ANC, yet also opposed apartheid. South Africa’s liberal Progressive Party, for example, led by Helen Suzman, opposed the apartheid regime but also opposed economic sanctions against it.
More important, the left is ignoring the context in which conservatives were skeptical of Mandela and the ANC–namely, the fact that they had aligned themselves with the Soviet Union, as well as some of the most villainous figures of the time, including Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, and Muammar Ghadafi. For conservatives, the fight against Soviet communism was the overriding strategic concern, and Mandela had chosen the wrong side.
That does not mean Mandela ought to be saddled with all the evils of the Soviet empire. He kept communism at arm’s length and tried to argue that his partnership with the USSR was a means to an end, much like America’s own alliance with Stalin during WWII had been a strategic move, not necessarily a moral endorsement. Yet it is the most challenging part of Mandela’s otherwise inspiring legacy, and one that cannot be erased from history.
Ironically, for all the laudatory things that will be said about Mandela’s strengths as a leader and organizer, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that led most directly to his freedom. Once communism was no longer a global threat, the West no longer needed to back the apartheid regime, and South Africans had less to fear from a violent revolution. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and Mandela’s freedom was announced a few months later.
The left’s attempt to exploit Mandela’s death is an attempt to revise the history of communism and Democrats’ softness towards it. When Chris Matthews slammed Reagan on MSNBC on Thursday, he wasn’t just trying to settle old scores on the Mandela issue, but to trash Reagan’s legacy of defeating Soviet communism. The left has never quite forgiven Reagan and Thatcher for that crucial victory, even though Mandela almost certainly did.