In a move that would seem unthinkable today, Senate Republicans banded together with Democrats in 1986 to overturn a Ronald Reagan veto of South Africa sanctions.
It was a Republican-led U.S. Senate that stood up and defied President Reagan in October 1986, voting to override his veto of a sanctions bill that had passed both House and Senate with bipartisan support. Despite aggressive lobbying by the White House, 31 Republicans joined all 47 Democrats for a final tally of 78 to 21, 12 more than the two-thirds needed and a significant blow to Reagan, the first president in the 20th century to have a veto overturned on a matter of foreign policy.
Ronald Reagan delivering speech about South Africa. (Dirck Halstead/Time Life Pictures/Getty)
That his own party delivered the winning votes added insult to injury for Reagan, who was two years into his second term. “The veto [override] was a political symbol that things were changing very dramatically and that accommodation had to be made,” says Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador to Syria and Israel who worked alongside chief of staff and then secretary of state James Baker on foreign policy in the Reagan administration.
It’s hard to comprehend today, when partisanship in Congress seems to trump everything, but in Reagan’s time, on foreign policy both parties generally adhered to the belief that “politics ends at the water’s edge,” a phrase coined by Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI), chairman of the Foreign Relations committee in the late 1940s, defending the bipartisan consensus he achieved with President Truman.
The Senate minority leader, under fire from Democrats and Tea Partiers alike, wasn’t always so easy to hate. McConnell explains why he voted to override Reagan’s veto on sanctions.
By any measure, it was a gutsy move for a freshman. Especially a Republican.
In 1984, two years before the vote, President Ronald Reagan won Kentucky with 60 percent of the vote. The freshman senator squeezed in that same year by a little more than 5,000 votes.
It was 1986, and Nelson Mandela had been in prison for 23 years.
The young Republican saw injustice in South Africa. He thought Reagan was wrong, so he joined the 31 Republican senators who sided with Democrats in voting to override Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.
As heads of state and tens of thousands of mourners converge on South Africa to pay their respects to the late leader, regular citizens are grappling with Madiba’s legacy.
As I stood in line at my bank last Friday morning, the morning after Nelson Mandela died, all the television screens were tuned to the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s blanket coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death. The shuffling Friday queue—a neat cross-section of Cape Town society—paid scant attention to the choirs singing funereal hymns, the interview with an elderly Indian woman who recounted how she cooked a pot of curry for the young Mandela, or the montage of the iconic photographs that had mythologised Mandela even before his death. But when the broadcast went to the streets, and specifically to small crowd knotted around a huge new statue of Mandela in the city of Bloemfontein, people looked up: “I’m here because my son came running in this morning and told me Madiba is late,” a black woman said on the TV screen—'late’ being the South African euphemism for ‘dead’. The woman continued: “He said that he was worried that maybe apartheid will come back.”
The bank line erupted in giggles, and people immediately began speaking to one another. An elderly ‘coloured’ woman said, to no-one in particular, “No, that little boy has nothing to worry about.”
When I intercepted an eye-roll between two black workers which seemed to disagree, one of the men—in blue overalls—said to me, “I miss the old man already.” I readily agreed, and I made bold to verbalise what I assumed to be his skepticism: “There’s still so much to do to make this society equal, though.”
Why, in the days since the South African leader’s death, has the American media been so obsessed with his capacity for forgiveness? Instead let’s remember his insistence on truth first.
If all you knew about Nelson Mandela came from watching American media coverage of his death, you might think his greatest accomplishment was his willingness to forgive. “Capacity to forgive made South African leader extraordinary,” declared Juan Williams on Fox News. “Nelson Mandela was a stranger to hate,” claimed Secretary of State John Kerry. “He rejected recrimination in favor of reconciliation and knew the future demands we move beyond the past.” Added George H.W. Bush, “I watched in wonder as Nelson Mandela had the remarkable capacity to forgive his jailers.”
These statements aren’t wrong. Mandela’s refusal to seek revenge was extraordinary, and it helped South Africa find peace. But for Americans, it’s also the least challenging part of his legacy. Obsessing about Mandela’s capacity for forgiveness while ignoring his criticism of America’s lawless, quasi-imperial foreign policy is like fixating on Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to integration and nonviolence while forgetting his “Poor People’s Campaign,” which in 1968 sought to physically disrupt the federal government until Washington agreed to spend $30 billion helping America’s poor.
Besides, Mandela didn’t reconcile with white South Africans out of some kind of Christlike purity. He always insisted on something in return. In 1985, then South African president P.W. Botha offered to let Mandela out of prison if he renounced violence. It was the sixth time an apartheid leader had offered Mandela a conditional release from jail. And for the sixth time, Mandela refused, insisting that black South Africans would not lay down their arms until the country’s white government did the same. “Let him renounce violence,” Mandela declared, through his daughter. “I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free.” The African National Congress did not suspend the armed struggle for another six years, until Mandela had been unconditionally released from prison and the ANC unbanned.
For a young journalist in South Africa Nelson Mandela as a young ANC leader was a major source on the anti-apartheid struggle. He recalls there late night clandestine meetings and the moment when Mandiba turned to violence.
Amid the worldwide mourning and praise for Nelson Mandela, memories flood in of past desperate times in South Africa when the entire police force was hunting him. Mandela was in hiding, running a campaign to end apartheid. I was a young reporter on the Rand Daily Mail newspaper in Johannesburg and my beat was black politics. Mandela and I met regularly, secretly at night, on a dark street in Johannesburg, so that he could brief me about his plans.
South African anti-apartheid activist, revolutionary and politician Nelson Mandel, 1962. (Mary Benson/Corbis)
Improbably, the only disguise used by this tall, burly imposing man was to wear worker's overalls. Yet he got away with it and for months was sheltered by supporters as he moved around the country organizing a giant strike by black workers.
Mandela became known as the Black Pimpernel after the Scarlet Pimpernel of Baroness D'Orczy's novels of the French Revolution: "They seek him here, they seek him there, they seek him everywhere… That demned elusive Pimpernel."
Rising party stars like Ted Cruz might be trying to pay tribute to the South African leader, but their conservative elders hated him as a dangerous ideologue—and their base still does.
As we mourn Nelson Mandela and honor his memory, it’s important to remember that—for most of his life—he was a polarizing and divisive figure. As my colleague Peter Beinart notes, American conservatives disdained Mandela. Ronald Reagan placed the African National Congress on America’s official list of terrorist organizations, Dick Cheney (along with 144 other Republicans) opposed a resolution urging Mandela’s release from jail, and a stream of conservative intellectuals offered their condemnation of him and support for the regime he opposed.
In 1985, William F. Buckley Jr. voiced his support for South African President P.W. Botha, writing, “The entire continent of Africa is near a state of decomposition, anyone who maintains that such countries as Ethiopia and Uganda…are better off than they were in colonial days is an ideologue.” In the same column, he declared, “Where Mandela belongs, in his current frame of mind, is precisely where he is: in jail.” As recently as 2003, National Review condemned Mandela for “vicious anti-Americanism” and attacked his wife as a “murderous thug.”
You can find George Will writing in opposition to sanctions and Jerry Falwell leading a “reinvestment” drive to counter the push to divest assets from South Africa. The conservative movement was so invested in opposition to Mandela that decades later it has become a problem for the latest GOP generation, which represents a constituency that still hates Mandela as a dangerous ideologue.
To wit, when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) paid tribute to Mandela on his Facebook page, he was met with a stream of angry condemnations. His statement was straightforward and uncontroversial:
The future president of South Africa once considered guerilla warfare and terrorism to overturn Apartheid. Imprisoned for so long, his anger mellowed.
In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography he tells a story about a sparrow. This was in the early 1960s when the late South African leader was hiding out on a farm near Johannesburg with members of the Communist Party and the African National Congress and some of their families. They were plotting what was called “armed struggle” against the Apartheid regime. (Many others would call it terrorism.) But at the time Mandela’s only gun was an old air rifle he used for target practice and dove hunting.
“One day, I was on the front lawn of the property and aimed the gun at a sparrow perched high in a tree,” Mandela writes in Long Walk to Freedom. A friend said Mandela would never hit the little creature. But he did, and he was about to boast about it when his friend’s five-year-old son, with tears in his eyes, asked Mandela, “Why did you kill that bird? Its mother will be sad.”
“My mood immediately shifted from one of pride to shame,” Mandela recalled. “I felt that this small boy had far more humanity than I did. It was an odd sensation for a man who was the leader of a nascent guerrilla army.”
Of course autobiographies always rely to some extent on recovered memories, some of them recovered myths. But Mandela’s thinking about warfare, revolution and terrorism—tempered by pragmatism and humanity—is almost as instructive as his later actions in support of peace.
If we turn the late South African leader into a nonthreatening moral icon, we’ll forget a key lesson from his life: America isn’t always a force for freedom.
Now that he’s dead, and can cause no more trouble, Nelson Mandela is being mourned across the ideological spectrum as a saint. But not long ago, in Washington’s highest circles, he was considered an enemy of the United States. Unless we remember why, we won’t truly honor his legacy.
Nelson Mandela waves to a capacity crowd at the Oakland Coliseum on June 30, 1990, during his trip to the Bay Area. (Reuters)
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan placed Mandela’s African National Congress on America’s official list of “terrorist” groups. In 1985, then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted against a resolution urging that he be released from jail. In 2004, after Mandela criticized the Iraq War, an article in National Review said his “vicious anti-Americanism and support for Saddam Hussein should come as no surprise, given his longstanding dedication to communism and praise for terrorists.” As late as 2008, the ANC remained on America’s terrorism watch list, thus requiring the 89-year-old Mandela to receive a special waiver from the secretary of State to visit the U.S.
From their perspective, Mandela’s critics were right to distrust him. They called him a “terrorist” because he had waged armed resistance to apartheid. They called him a “communist” because the Soviet Union was the ANC’s chief external benefactor and the South African Communist Party was among its closest domestic allies. More fundamentally, what Mandela’s American detractors understood is that he considered himself an opponent, not an ally, of American power. And that’s exactly what Mandela’s American admirers must remember now.
As the world mourns Mandela’s passing, The Daily Beast remembers six pivotal moments from the extraordinary life of the icon of peace and equality.
Taking his place alongside India's Mahatma Gandhi and Tibet's Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela was one of the 20th century’s most revered activists and a triumphant icon in the struggle for racial equality. The Daily Beast looks back at the defining moments that made the former political prisoner turned South African president a legend.
In 1961, Mandela was a wanted man for his leadership in the African National Congress, which was turning to increasingly violent methods in its fight for equality. “We have made it very clear in our policy that South Africa is a country of many races, there is room for all the races in this country,” he told journalist Brian Widlake, who was granted an interview with the elusive political leader. Just one year later, after 17 months on the run, he’d be captured, sentenced to life imprisonment, and locked up for 27 years on Robben Island.
The former South African president’s struggle to overturn apartheid was an inspiration to many around the world. Here are some of the firebrand’s most memorable words.
Before his death, Nelson Mandela had already become a larger than life figure for his work ending apartheid in South Africa. But the legend often overshadowed the real Madiba; he was simply a guy who saw inequality in his world and worked to make it right. Looking back at over five decades of his speeches and writings, we find a man who struggled to balance his duty to his family with his fight for his country, his moral drive to do what’s right with his personal pride. While alive, he inspired people through his speeches and letters, particularly those he wrote during his 18-year imprisonment on Robben Island. Here’s a selection of his most inspiring quotes:
South African president Nelson Mandela addresses the crowd at the Hector Petersen memorial in Soweto on Youth Day, June 16, 1999. (Darryl Hammond/Getty)
“If I had my time over I would do the same again, so would any man who dares call himself a man.” (After being convicted to five years hard labor, November 1962)
"I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience.” (Statement during trial, 1962)
The world mourns the death of the South African leader, who symbolized an era of great hope, when equality and justice seemed possible.
Nelson Mandela is dead.
We will all grieve; many of us will weep as if we have lost a father, or a savior, or a protector, even if we have never actually laid eyes on him.
Much of this grief is nostalgic; a sadness about the passing of an era of great hope and stirring sentiment, an era when equality and justice seemed possible. Mandela has come to symbolize the Last Good Man, representing the kind of benevolent paternity that we so often hope for from our leaders even if we claim to be democrats and republicans; his life presents a redemptive narrative that embodies goodness in a way not found outside of myth, legend, and theology.
The extraordinary life of the man who liberated South Africa—and then kept the country from falling apart.
Nelson Mandela, who died December 5, refused to be thought of as a saint. “I never was one,” he insisted—“even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying.” He wasn’t just being modest. He had a weakness for fine clothes and good-looking women, and he certainly was no pacifist. But a halo was the last thing Mandela needed. He spent half a century wrestling South Africa’s white-minority rulers to the negotiating table, and when he finally got them there, he had to be a hard bargainer, not a holy man.
Gideon Mende / Corbis
And yet he worked miracles. The sight of the 71-year-old Mandela walking out of Victor Verster Prison to freedom after 27 years, raising his fist in triumph, practically defied belief. Many of his supporters had despaired that the regime would ever let him out. And yet despite spending a quarter-century behind bars for demanding his people’s rights, he wasn’t bitter. He remained optimistic about the human character. “There is a streak of goodness in men that can be buried or hidden and then emerge unexpectedly,” he later wrote.
By insisting on looking forward rather than back, Mandela kept the nation from collapsing into a bloody orgy of revenge. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the fight against apartheid, said it unequivocally to Mandela’s biographer Anthony Sampson: “If this man hadn’t been there, the whole country would have gone up in flames.” No one else—not even Tutu himself—had the moral authority to hold South Africa together.