America and Nelson Mandela
Understanding American foreign policy towards South Africa at the end of Apartheid requires a little context. We were fighting the Cold War. The Cubans were in both Angola and Mozambique, making them clients of the Soviet Union. Post-colonial Africa was often a bloodbath and hostile to American interests.
South Africa was not only a strategic source of raw materials, it was strategically situated. It was the key to the southern route around Africa. They were also our ally in the Cold War on the African continent.
There was legitimate concern about what type of regime would follow if the South African regime fell. South Korea’s successful transition to democratic rule did not occur until 1987. The end of Pinochet’s rule in Chile came in 1988-1990. Ferdinand Marcos stepped down in 1986. That meant for much of President Ronald Reagan’s time in office, the recent relevant experiences of watching American allies change governments were limited to Iran and Nicaragua.
It didn’t help that the main opposition leader to Apartheid refused to renounce violence and was an announced Marxist. It looked more likely that Nelson Mandela, with the power of the African National Congress behind him, would be the next Robert Mugabe.
It’s also worth noting that until the end of Apartheid, sanctions had proved ineffectual. Not just in South Africa, but anywhere. Cuba did not change its regime despite American economic pressure. Nor has any other country. North Korea and Iran are still defiant despite their relative economic isolation. The last time economic sanctions had an effect was the Oil Embargo of Japan, and we just commemorated the anniversary of the consequences of that policy.
Given the poor record of economic sanctions working, there was (and is) a case to be made against economic sanctions. There was legitimate concern that isolating South Africa would reduce whatever leverage or moral suasion the West had on South Africa. It is not coincidence that South Africa at one time pursued its own nuclear weapons program.
And there was an often forgotten humanitarian side to the debate. Former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson wrote about Reagan’s concern about the effect on the people of South Africa:
Did Reagan oppose economic sanctions against South Africa? He did indeed. Because he had a heart of stone? Nonsense. “The primary victims of an economic boycott of South Africa,” the President explained, “would be the very people we seek to help.” Again, from his 1986 speech on the matter:
Most of the workers who would lose jobs because of sanctions would be black workers. We do not believe the way to help the people of South Africa is to cripple the economy upon which they and their families depend for survival.
Alan Paton, South Africa’s great writer, for years the conscience of his country, has declared himself emphatically: ”I am totally opposed to disinvestment,” he says. ”It is primarily for a moral reason. Those who will pay most grievously for disinvestment will be the black workers of South Africa. I take very seriously the teachings of the Gospels, in particular the parables about giving drink to the thirsty and the food to the hungry. I will not help to cause any such suffering to any black person.” Nor will we.
Looking at a map, southern Africa is a single economic unit tied together by rails and roads. Zaire and its southern mining region depends upon South Africa for three-fourths of her food and petroleum. More than half the electric power that drives the capital of Mozambique comes from South Africa. Over one-third of the exports from Zambia and 65 percent of the exports of Zimbabwe leave the [continent through South Africa. Mines in South Africa employ] 13,000 workers from Swaziland, 19,000 from Botswana, 50,000 from Mozambique and 110,000 from the tiny landlocked country of Lesotho. Shut down these productive mines with sanctions and you have forced black mine workers out of their jobs and forced their families back in their home countries into destitution….
It’s ironic that so many who were in favor of trade with Cuba or in favor of liberalized trade with the Soviet Union were also in favor of sanctions on South Africa, regardless of the consequences. Eventually the Reagan Administration did give in and imposed economic sanctions in 1986.
Was it a mistake for conservatives to oppose sanctions on South Africa? It’s often too easy to retroactively judge what should have happened based on what did happen.
Circumstances behind the Iron Curtain did not allow South Africa to fall into the Soviet bloc. We might wonder if the circumstances were different, if the end of Apartheid had occurred in the 1970s, whether Mandela might have been another Fidel Castro or Daniel Ortega. Instead we can be grateful that friendly relations continued between the two nations.
South Africa did not fall into despotism. Upon becoming president, Mandela did not become a dictator. There was not mass retaliation or a race war against the white inhabitants of South Africa. Eventually there was a peaceful transition to a post-Mandela era in his country, almost unique on the African continent.
As the South African nations mourns the loss of their former president, it’s right that the rest of the world mourns the loss with them. A man who believed in violent resistance to his oppressors eventually learned in prison how to persuade them. Not only his followers, but all of South Africa is better because he lived.
Nelson Mandela, RIP.