Reagan and Apartheid -- a Few Reflections

When Nelson Mandela's death was announced earlier this week, I had just a few minutes at my computer before my kids needed to be fed their dinner.

I tried to think of something that reflected my own experience with the South African freedom struggle, and this is what I posted on Facebook:
The South African freedom struggle, which reached a climactic phase my freshman year in high school, introduced me to the idea that the United States could act on the wrong side of history -- that this country, led by supporters of Apartheid like Ronald Reagan, was not quite the noble bastion of real democracy our school textbooks told us it was. It was a difficult but necessary education. RIP Mandela.
A Facebook friend -- we'll just call him "BK" -- soon wrote in with a "correction":
I'm usually the least likely person to defend Ronald Reagan, but this is just wrong. His policy toward South Africa and the ANC was all about anti-communism. That was a hideous failure in judgment and morality, but it doesn't make him a "supporter of Apartheid."
This started a long thread that I won't recapitulate here. Some unpleasant things were said; some people ended up getting unfriended. Enough said.

(In fact, it seems like this debate is not just happening on my particular Facebook feed; it's happening in the media more broadly as well. This conservative site, for instance, is clearly taking note of all of the "liberal" commentators taking jabs at Reagan in the wake of Mandela's death.)

I did think it might be appropriate to do two things that are difficult to do on Facebook: 1) expand out the personal / biographical component of what I wrote, and 2) have a somewhat more nuanced and annotated discussion of Reagan's South Africa policy.

First, my own story:

I started high school in 1988. It was a new start -- I had just transferred from a public junior high school in Potomac, MD to an elite private school inside DC, the Sidwell Friends School. Before Sidwell, I had spent most of my childhood in a relatively protected suburban world, with little exposure to politics. Because of repeated trips to India (especially in those anxious and difficult years after 1984), I probably knew a little more than some 14 year old suburban peers that the world of Nintendo, black felt Guns n' Roses posters, and Redskins' paraphernalia was not the only world out there. But in truth I tended to bracket off my Indian experiences from what I considered proper teen stuff (some Indian experiences: the anxious nights waiting to hear news from family members during the riots; the vehement fights over Khalistanism at the Maryland Gurdwara; and in India itself, the police checkpoints, the sense of fear, bribing corrupt policemen on the train...). I didn't then have the tools to realize that this India stuff was important, because at junior high in the suburbs at least the only thing you had to know pretty much was that Led Zeppelin is awesome and Milli Vanilli sucks.

One of the big surprises then in the new school was that seemingly the entire population of the school -- led by the teachers and administrators, but also including many students -- was engaged in an intense debate about divestment from South Africa. I was profoundly changed by these discussions. In effect, it quickly became clear that 1) the practice of Apartheid was deeply wrong and unfair, and 2) the U.S. policy at the time was doing little if anything to change that. Rather than treat the matter as a distant issue affecting poor black people thousands of miles away, my peers at Sidwell were actively engaged in the cause. Because of those peers, I attended my first protest -- at age 14 -- at the South African embassy.

The lesson that the U.S. might not always act on the right side of things has stayed with me. To a large extent I would credit this experience with making me politically aware.

* * *

Now, what about Reagan and Apartheid? Did Reagan support Apartheid or not?

I think it's pretty clear that Ronald Reagan did in fact support the Apartheid regime. Whether he supported Apartheid as an ideology is a somewhat trickier question.

This interview  with David Schmitz does a great job in running down the main tenets of Reagan's support for South Africa. To wit: he reversed the Carter administration's sanctions, and instead preferred a policy of "constructive engagement." That policy did little to encourage any substantive changes or concessions from the South African regime. In 1985-1986, things became measurably worse within South Africa, and martial law was declared. Many Republicans then abandoned Reagan's position, and the Senate voted to override his veto and impose sanctions against his will -- effectively showing that his policy in South Africa was a failure.

Reagan also supported right wing dictators like Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and of course had blood on his hands in Nicaragua (there is actually a long list; we'll save it).

So anti-Communism was certainly a factor in Reagan's refusal to distance himself from the Apartheid regime in South Africa, but was it the only factor? Wouldn't it be fair to also see him as generally and persistently indifferent to the suffering of black people -- both within the U.S. and outside of it? Didn't he see what was happening in South Africa as a replay of sorts of what happened in the U.S. itself in the 1960s? And if so, what did he do?

At The Nation, there is also a useful summary of Reagan's troubling history vis a vis race and desegregation in the domestic U.S. context:

Early in his political career Reagan opposed every major piece of civil rights legislation adopted by Congress, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. And even if one tries to explain away this opposition on the grounds that it came early in the history of the civil rights movement or was motivated by a misplaced reluctance to empower the federal government, Reagan’s civil rights record during his presidency is tough to justify. As President, Reagan supported tax breaks for schools that discriminated on the basis of race, opposed the extension of the Voting Rights Act, vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act and decimated the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). When you combine Reagan’s political record with his symbolic stance on race issues—his deriding welfare recipients as “welfare queens,” his employing “states rights” rhetoric in the same county where in 1964 three of the most infamous murders of civil rights workers occurred, his initial opposition to establish a national holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.—the Reagan legacy begins to lose much of its luster. (link)
So if Reagan was, by the early 1980s, opposed to Apartheid, given his history on race in the U.S., one would have to wonder what exactly had changed for him? Is it possible that, as President, he knew there were certain things he was not allowed to say or do anymore. But what, given his record in the 1960s, did he really believe about black civil rights?

In using the particular phrase I used, "supporters of Apartheid like Ronald Reagan," perhaps I was not acknowledging the nuance of the "constructive engagement" position -- though history does now show that position to have been at best delusional, and at worst a ruse. While Reagan seemed to give lip-service publicly to the idea that Apartheid was not sustainable, he did not did not do very much to convince anyone he really believed that -- and again, given his history, putting in some effort here seems necessary.  In short, in the context of what was happening in the 1980s and in light of Reagan's own history of opposition to rights for blacks in the segregated American South, the difference between supporting the Apartheid regime and supporting Apartheid itself turns out to be a distinction without a difference.

To insist that that difference is meaningful despite Reagan's long opposition to civil rights in the United States, and his increasingly anomalous loyalty to the Apartheid regime, is to extend a courtesy to Reagan that Reagan himself did not extend to his own political enemies. The same article in the Nation has a classic instance of Reagan's willingness to twist the truth to suit his purposes:

The murder of at least nineteen unarmed protesters by South African police at a march commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre sparked further outrage and activism, culminating in a national day of protest on April 4, 1985, the seventeenth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. On that day 4,000 marched on the South African embassy and fifty-eight were arrested in a sit-in. Reagan evoked outrage in the movement by suggesting that at the Sharpeville memorial the “rioters”—who were in fact nonviolent—had provoked the violence.
In the internet age, we would call this brazen act of disrespect for the dead "trolling." Reagan would have been a great troll.

In some ways, I would rather not have had this debate at all. Ronald Reagan is not the point. The 19 unarmed protesters who died in South Africa on April 4, 1985 -- they are the point. The man who lost 27 years of his life in prison in the name of democracy -- he is the point. Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest leaders and statesman of the 20th century; he should be celebrated and emulated. His shift from supporting authoritarian revolutionaries like Castro and Gadhafi to his pragmatic and forgiving posture towards white South Africans after 1994 is one of the great ideological pivots of all time -- it's one of the main reasons he is remembered with such admiration. He managed to change, evolve, and forgive.

Ronald Reagan? Not so much.