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:
“Nelson Mandela will live in history as an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe. He stood firm for decades on the principle that until all South Africans enjoyed equal liberties he would not leave prison himself, declaring in his autobiography, ‘Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.’ Because of his epic fight against injustice, an entire nation is now free. We mourn his loss and offer our condolences to his family and the people of South Africa.”
The reaction was swift and contemptuous. “Let’s not forget that Mandela called Castro’s Communist revolution ‘a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people,’” wrote one commenter. “Mandela was a communist trained by the KGB who sings racial hate songs…and now, the South Africa is a worst country for both whites and blacks,” wrote another. One man, who presumably is older than Cruz, chalked up the praise to the senator’s youthful ignorance, “Ted, long before you were born, his reputation was the complete opposite. He was, in fact, a terrorist and a criminal, he persecuted and killed Zulus. All the apartheid BS you hear in today’s media is all lies.”
You hear that? All that nonsense about apartheid was the media deception.
But not every response was so vitriolic. Some supporters were just worried that Cruz was misguided. “Ted, I love ya, but you might want to do some research and delete your post on this one,” said one commenter. Others were disappointed. “Um, yeah, Mandella was a communist and was involved in torture, terror, and murder. Just lost a lot of respect, Senator Cruz. A whole lot,” said one. At least one response was a little whimsical: “I am sure there are some dyed-in-the-wool Marxists that love cute little puppies as well. I’m not gonna celebrate them either.”
By and large, the comments echoed the rhetoric of Buckley and other conservatives who opposed Mandela in the 1970s and ’80s. For Cruz’s followers, Mandela was a “communist,” “socialist, and “murderer” whose life was a net negative for the world.
But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Remember, the same Buckley who trashed Mandela in the 1980s defended American segregation in the 1960s and supported politicians who turned a blind eye to racial inequality. It’s only fitting that the members of the movement he built are still more concerned with the opponents of South Africa’s white supremacist regime than they are with its supporters.