Apartheid Amnesia

How the GOP conveniently forgot about its role in propping up a white supremacist regime.

On Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday, the world is celebrating the former South African president and cheering for his recovery. The U.S. Congress even managed a rare display of bipartisanship for the occasion, with members of both parties taking turns to laud Mandela as they stood in front of the Statue of Freedom in Emancipation Hall. "At times it can almost feel like we are talking about an old friend," said Rep. John Boehner (R-OH.) "He never lost faith in the strength of the human spirit," added Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).Today, Nelson Mandela is a celebrated elder statesman that both Democrats and Republicans heap praise on.

This wasn't always the case. When Mandela was imprisoned and struggling to end apartheid, the Republican Party -- through the policies of the Reagan administration and the work of party activists -- opposed U.S. sanctions against the white supremacist regime. Though they didn't support apartheid by any means, they turned a blind eye towards the cruelty of the system and failed to support Mandela in his time of greatest need. Today, Republicans will cheer on Mandela, but the Republican Party's historical relationship with South Africa, and Mandela in particular, exposes a sad chapter in the history of the American right.

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In 1985, Mandela's 22nd year in prison, then South African President P.W. Botha gave a speech affirming apartheid's rejection of "one-man-one-vote" and defending Mandela's imprisonment. The infamous "Rubicon Speech" fueled ongoing rioting in South Africa and prompted the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela's party, to call for the United States to impose sanctions.

President Ronald Reagan and the American right were not sympathetic to that request. "Our relationship with South Africa ... has always over the years been a friendly one," Reagan said in a 1985 radio interview, rejecting any change in policy. Televangelist Jerry Falwell went one step further and visited South Africa the week after Botha's speech to insist that sanctions were opposed "in every segment of every [South African] community."

Right-wing ambivalence toward apartheid in the 1980s was a product of South African support for the United States during the Cold War. In 1969 and early 1970, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, then national security advisor, formulated a policy of increased communication with and relaxed criticism of the white regime. The apartheid system was unlikely to change anytime soon, the Nixon administration thought, so there was little point in pressuring a valuable ally who was working with the United States to contain Soviet influence in Africa.

When Reagan came to office in 1981, he launched a policy of "constructive engagement" with South Africa designed by Chester Crocker, his assistant secretary of state for African affairs. In line with Nixon's policy, constructive engagement was intended to deepen ties between the United States and the apartheid government in South Africa by prioritizing trade. Crocker was a true believer in the power of trade to open up the country to reform: It would eventually become too expensive to discriminate against blacks in the workplace, he thought.

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.

But those who came closest to open support for apartheid were televangelists from the religious right. The socially conservative policies of the Afrikaans regime made South Africa a special cause for many televangelists. Jerry Falwell praised the "Christian country" for its abortion policy in the 1980s, and after his 1985 visit, called for "reinvestment" by U.S. companies and urged his followers to buy Kruggerand coins to help boost the South African economy.

Jimmy Swaggart, another popular televangelist, told his viewers that the conflict in South Africa was nothing less than a struggle between Christian civilization and the Antichrist. In his presidential campaign in 1988, televangelist Pat Robertson called advocates for sanctions the "allies of those who favor a one-party Marxist Government in South Africa." After his race ended, he became even more direct: "There needs to be some kind of protection for the minority which the white people represent now," he said in 1992. And in 1993, he said on his show, "I know we don't like apartheid, but the blacks in South Africa, in Soweto, don't have it all that bad." At a time when the Dutch Reformed Church, the traditional theological backer of apartheid, was reversing its position, the American religious right provided new religious cover -- and they made the case to millions of Americans who tuned into their shows.

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When Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in 1988, Republicans tried to sweep their support for his erstwhile jailers under the rug. President George H.W. Bush hosted Mandela at the White House and praised him as "a man who embodies the hopes of millions." Mandela gave a speech to Congress at which the assembled legislators, including many who had once voted against economic sanctions, interrupted him with three standing ovations and 12 rounds of applause.

Today, leaders of both parties have once again cheered for Mandela. What he really could have used was their help when he was imprisoned on Robben Island, trying to end apartheid.  

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How Morsy Could Have Saved Himself

To avoid defeat, try magnanimity in victory.

Shortly after Mohamed Morsy's ouster as president of Egypt, his ambassador to the United States -- in a remarkable display of political flexibility -- appeared on American television to explain that his boss had been overthrown because he "failed to be the president of all Egyptians." This notion, that Morsy was removed because he pursued a narrowly Islamizing agenda and failed to include liberals in his cabinet, has become something of the conventional wisdom. For example, Thomas Friedman chided the former Egyptian president for having ruled in a "majoritarian" fashion, running roughshod over his liberal opponents, Islamizing the state, and putting the squeeze on critics like the satirist Bassem Youssef. In this telling, what we saw on June 30 was a replay of what we saw on January 25, 2011 -- a revolution by liberals intent on establishing a free and democratic Egypt.

Though there is some truth to this narrative, June 30 was less a revolution than a counter-revolution, carried out not by the photogenic young people who made Tahrir Square a household name two-and-a-half years ago, but by the orphans of the regime that those young people had overthrown. Morsy's sin was not that he sought to Islamize the state -- Hosni Mubarak had done a pretty good job of that himself, and the temporary constitution issued by the new interim government includes all of the shariah-talk that liberals supposedly found so objectionable. It wasn't even that it tried to exclude liberals like Hamdeen Sabahi and Mohamed ElBaradei from governing. According to Sabahi himself, Morsy offered him the vice presidency shortly after coming to power last year. And although ElBaradei has just been named vice president for international affairs, it's safe to assume that the number of protesters who took to the streets to put this widely (if unfairly) maligned man in government is vanishingly small.

No, the sin of the Muslim Brotherhood was not that it failed to work with liberals, but that it failed to work with the old regime. For the almost the entirety of its time in power, the Brotherhood has demonstrated a remorseless, unyielding obsession with rooting out Mubarak's National Democratic Party from Egypt's political life. This extent of the obsession was on full display in one of the last speeches of Morsy's presidency. Before a crowd made up of equal parts dignitaries and rowdy Muslim Brothers from the provinces, he railed against the remnants of the ancien regime -- commonly called the fulul -- and then took a few minutes to tell an unflattering story about a man named Kamal el-Shazly, who was Mubarak's parliamentary enforcer -- and who has been dead since 2010. This odd detour into what is now ancient history reveals the extent to which Morsy and his Brothers viewed as Egypt's primary problem as not the crumbling of its economy or the decay in public order, but the continued presence of Mubarak's allies and appointees in almost every corner of the state apparatus. "One year is enough," the president declared, suggesting that the gloves were soon to come off and a full-blown purge was in the offing. In the end, he was the one who was purged.

The Brothers were not alone in their obsession with the NDP. During the 2011 revolution, the youth of Tahrir made a grand bonfire of the ruling party's headquarters, and in the months after January 25, 2011, practically all of Egypt at least paid a healthy lip service to the need to banish the fulul. Though the NDP made a game attempt to regroup in the weeks after Mubarak's resignation, these attempts were cut short in April 2011, when a court dissolved the NDP and ordered the state to seize its assets, ruling -- in a questionable bit of legal reasoning -- that the fall of the regime "by necessity entails the fall of the instruments through which it wielded power."

But the dissolution of the old ruling party was not enough for the Brotherhood; its ashes had to be scattered to the winds. And the military, concerned only with maintaining its narrow prerogatives, assented. Prior to the 2012 presidential elections, the Islamist-dominated legislature amended the law on the exercise of political rights. That law lists several categories of people who do not have the right to vote or run for office -- prisoners, the mentally ill, the bankrupt. Islamists added a fourth, almost comically specific, category: "Everyone who has in the ten years prior to February 11, 2011, worked as president of the republic or his vice president or prime minister or president of the dissolved NDP or its secretary general or was a member of its political office or general secretariat." The bill was rejected by the courts, clearing the way for Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, to run for president. If the Brothers took a lesson from Shafiq's surprisingly strong showing in that election -- he lost to Morsy by only a couple of percentage points -- it was not that the satraps of the old regime must be accommodated, but that they must be crushed.

Thus, once Morsy won the presidency, the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies made another, even more audacious, run at excluding the NDP. And this time, in order to prevent the courts from overturning their handiwork, they enshrined the old ruling party's political exclusion in the constitution itself. Article 232 of the charter that passed in December 2012 (and was suspended in July 2013) declared: "Leaders of the dissolved National Democratic Party shall be banned from political work and prohibited from running for presidential or legislative elections for a period of 10 years from the date of the adoption of this Constitution." The article helpfully defines NDP "leaders" as "everyone who was a member of the Secretariat of the Party, the Policies Committee or the Political Bureau, or was a member of the People's Assembly or the Shura Council during the two legislative terms preceding the January 25 revolution." It's not surprising that the most intense protests against the Brotherhood began after the passage of the constitution, as NDP-affiliated businessmen and NDP-affiliated television personalities began ginning up the popular anger that exploded on June 30, 2013.

The tragedy of Morsy's presidency, then, is not that he underestimated the ability of the fulul to play the spoiler, but that he overestimated his own ability to confront them. Mubarak's party may have slinked away in the months after February 11, 2011, but it had not disappeared. After all, you couldn't rule for as long as Mubarak did without building a large coalition -- the vast countryside and the hulking bureaucracy are littered with card-carrying members of the deposed ruler's big tent. Morsy's constant talk of purge may have satisfied his supporters, but it could only convince the regime's former cronies that they had no place in the new Egypt.

The disaster that befell Egypt on June 30 -- and make no mistake, the unseating of a legitimately elected ruler at gunpoint cannot be anything other than a disaster -- could have been avoided had the Muslim Brotherhood taken a lesson from their Muslim brothers 5,000 miles away, in Indonesia. In 1998, that country's strongman, Suharto, who had ruled since 1967, was forced to step down by protests remarkably similar to those that brought down Mubarak. But whereas Egyptians tossed their dictator in jail and tore up his ruling party, Indonesians pursued a different, gentler path. Suharto -- a man every bit as corrupt as, and considerably more brutal than, his Egyptian counterpart -- was allowed to live out his days in luxury, and his old ruling party, Golkar, was not only allowed to persist (reliably capturing about 20 percent of the vote in legislative elections), but has been included in every post-Suharto cabinet but one. Indonesians may not have satisfied their powerful desire for justice, but their willingness to forgo retribution and work with supporters of the old regime is what allowed that country's nascent democracy to take root despite its endemic poverty and vast ethnic diversity.

It's not too late, however, for Egyptians to learn the lesson of Indonesia. Now that the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood have once again traded places, will Mubarak's resurgent orphans extend to the Brotherhood the kindnesses that were not extended to them? Given the dramatic campaign against the Brothers in the Egyptian media, the arrests of Brotherhood leaders, and the brutality meted out to Brotherhood protesters, the answer is likely no. But until Egypt's two old regimes -- the Brotherhood's and Mubarak's -- reach a modus vivendi, the future promises only more revolution and counter-revolution. It's not clear how much more the beleaguered masses can take before they begin to yearn for the grim stability offered by a bemedaled general.

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