Officially, the goal of the Reagan administration was to end apartheid. But its behind-the-scenes work revealed a startling degree of comfort with the South African regime -- or at least ignorance of how apartheid worked. For a July 1986 speech to the World Affairs Council in Washington D.C., Reagan rejected a moderate State Department draft and instead instructed his speechwriter, Pat Buchanan, to draft a version arguing that Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) employed "terrorist tactics" and "proclaims a goal of creating a communist state." (Buchanan later dismissed Mandela as a "train-bomber" and defended the hardline position.) Reagan himself never seemed to really understand the moral repugnance of apartheid. He described the system in a 1988 interview with ABC's Sam Donaldson as "a tribal policy more than ... a racial policy."
While the Republicans were dragging their feet, the Democrats were leading the fight against apartheid. In 1985, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) went on a tour of South Africa that included a visit with Winnie Mandela to discuss her imprisoned husband. Upon his return, Kennedy introduced the Anti-Apartheid Act that eventually became law. In July 1986 hearings, then Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) thundered at Secretary of State George Shultz: "I'm ashamed of this country that puts out a policy like this ... I'm ashamed of the lack of moral backbone to this policy."
As it became clear that constructive engagement was failing, even moderate Republicans began to shift. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) broke with Reagan and argued for a sanctions program. Eventually, in 1986, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act with enough votes to override Reagan's veto. "I think he is wrong," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), explaining his break with the administration. "We have waited long enough for him to come on board."
Reagan, however, was not alone. An expansive Republican network supported a hardline stance on South Africa. From the Heritage Foundation to Republican lobbyists to the televangelists leading the religious right, the Republican Party -- with a few courageous exceptions -- didn't think that ending apartheid was as important as maintaining economic relations with South Africa.
The conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation was the main source of intellectual fodder for this position. During the debate over sanctions, Heritage's director of foreign policy studies, Jeff Gayner, argued that the United States should "cease advocating the release of Nelson Mandela" because of his links to terrorism and communism. Michael Johns, the African and Third World affairs policy analyst at Heritage (who would later go on to be a leading spokesman for the Tea Party), carried on the fight even after sanctions had been passed, arguing that capitalism was "the most efficient and promising anti-apartheid program."
Lobbyists hired by the South African regime also played a role in the perpetuation of the idea of Mandela as a threat. These groups lobbied and publicly attacked politicians who opposed the South African regime's interests. Republican operatives Marion Smoak and Carl Shipley led an aggressive campaign in 1982 to defeat Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-MI) because of his support for sanctions. Later, Smoak and Shipley hired now-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) as a lobbyist after he returned from his Mormon mission in South Africa.
Some of today's most recognizable political operatives also played a role in pushing the apartheid government's agenda. In 1985, following his term as national chair of College Republicans, Grover Norquist was brought to South Africa for a conservative conference, where he advised a pro-apartheid student group on how to more effectively make its case to the American public. While there, he criticized anti-apartheid activists on American college campuses: Apartheid "is the one foreign policy debate that the Left can get involved in and feel that they have the moral high ground," he said, adding that South Africa was a "complicated situation."
A young political operative named Jack Abramoff was also involved. From 1986 to 1992, South African intelligence services spent $1.5 million per year to fund the International Freedom Foundation, a lobbying group championing South Africa where Abramoff served as president. One of the group's missions was to delegitimize Mandela's ANC by linking it to Soviet communism. It was Abramoff who oversaw the full-page newspaper ads taken out by the organization attacking Mandela and who helped organize House committee hearings on the dangers of the ANC. When a 1995 Newsday investigation revealed the South African intelligence backing for the operation, Abramoff and advisory board members -- including Sens. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and James Inhofe (R-OK) -- pled ignorance.