Nelson Mandela is being rightly eulogized as a great force for peace and freedom. Though a deeply flawed man, his moral growth allowed him to voluntarily relinquish power, much the same as George Washington. This is an example being taken to heart on the African continent, which may now be fitfully entering a more hopeful era, in contrast to the 50-year bloody disaster of post-colonialism.
What won’t be talked about much is that this was only possible because the West won the Cold War and allowed disillusioned Marxists like Mandela in South Africa (or Gorbachev in the Soviet Union) to move on and become small “d” democrats. This was a startling reversal from the 1970s, when Soviet-backed forces were on the move everywhere in Africa, even fielding a Cuban mercenary army in Angola and elsewhere to conquer their own Communist empire.
In Rhodesia, the white government (which never instituted an apartheid system) was able to peacefully transition to a multiracial democracy in 1979, only to be sold out by Jimmy Carter and (to her everlasting shame) Margaret Thatcher, who insisted the terrorist Robert Mugabe be put in power before sanctions were lifted. Mugabe quickly consolidated a dictatorship which turned that once thriving country into a basket case.
Reagan, however, was made of sterner stuff and no sooner than being elected, was rallying anti-Communists of every color, including those in white South Africa. Reagan deplored apartheid, but he knew the white separatists of southern Africa had taken power because Britain would not defend their political rights and private property during decolonization.
Reagan fought mindless sanctions legislation on South Africa,instead putting forward a policy he called “constructive engagement” to end discrimination and bring about transition to full democracy by working with moderates in that country. This was opposed by the violent and pro-communist African National Congress, which promoted terror tactics and fought bitterly with their black rivals. Many ANC leaders, such as Oliver Tambo, Communist party leader Joe Slovo, and of course, Mandela’s wife Winnie, were merely thugs
Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned since 1962, not for political activity, but for his part in the ANC’s bombing campaign of government facilities. Although unwilling to publicly renounce violence, Mandela was the most thoughtful of the ANC leaders and had long negotiated in secret with the white government. With the end of the Soviet Union and Mandela’s distancing of many of his old colleagues (including his former wife), South African prime minister, F.W. de Klerk was able to work with Mandela on a sensible transition to multiracial democracy while ignoring the most militant ANC members.
In remembering Mandela this week, the left will no doubt attack Reagan on the side (the movie The Butler encapsulates this attitude). But any reasonable examination of Reagan’s policy on South Africa would conclude he was spot on. He understood the real elements at play on the continent, and made the needed time and space available for proponents of genuine democracy to triumph. Of course, he was bitterly denounced as a racist at the time. One of his most shameless accusers was the South African bishop Desmond Tutu. Had this blowhard’s advice been followed, South Africa would have been the same bloody awful, one-party state as exists in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Tutu is now, way too late, quite unhappy with Mr. Mugabe.
Fortunately for Tutu and his country, South Africa, for all its many problems, has had a better time of it. And like a lot of countries in the world, this is due in large measure to the courage and foresight of Ronald Reagan.