Nelson Mandela: The evolution of a hero

Jaime Weinman recalls a time when many world leaders kept their distance from the South African leader

(AP Photo/ Gillian Allen, File)

When Margaret Thatcher died earlier this year, Nelson Mandela’s friends and colleagues had to search hard for nice things to say about her. The best the African National Congress’s Pallo Jordan could come up with was “Whatever Thatcher did, she didn’t put him in jail, did she?” The U.K. Prime Minister was perhaps the best known of the world leaders who, while critical of apartheid (she called it “utterly repulsive and detestable”), opposed tough sanctions against the country and were suspicious of Mandela.

Apartheid is now often remembered as a moment of moral clarity where the world banded together against a clear injustice, but it wasn’t always so clear at the time: in a press conference at the October 1987 Commonwealth Summit in Vancouver, Thatcher famously called the ANC “a typical terrorist organization.” With the Cold War still raging, Nathan Abrams Director of Graduate Studies at Bangor University, Wales, says that for some conservatives, “Apartheid South Africa was a valuable bulwark against Communism,” and Mandela was seen as someone who could potentially jeopardize that status, and therefore victory in the Cold War.

Advertisement

Thatcher’s U.S. counterpart, Ronald Reagan, accordingly announced that “the South African Government is under no obligation to negotiate the future of the country with any organization that proclaims a goal of creating a Communist state,” and the U.S. State Department placed Mandela on a terrorist watch list, from which he was not officially removed until 2008. When the U.S. Congress finally passed anti-Apartheid legislation, it was over Reagan’s veto. One Congressman, Dick Cheney, later saw his campaign for U.S. Vice President threatened by his old votes against such legislation; he told ABC’s Sam Donaldson that “nobody was for keeping Nelson Mandela in prison,” but he opposed “formal recognition of the ANC.”

Not that there was any lockstep conservative view on the question of South Africa. Though a Thatcher admirer, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was a passionate supporter of sanctions, which he called the only way of “dealing with a regime that is rooted in evil.” But his attempts to persuade other conservative leaders, such as Thatcher and Reagan, were generally unsuccessful. When the Thatcher government released a statement rejecting parts of a Commonwealth resolution against apartheid, Mulroney lost his temper with her, telling reporters: “I think it’s against British fair play.”

If world leaders sometimes kept their distance from Mandela, some lower-ranking conservatives were openly hostile to him, doubting that he could ever become a democratic leader. Abrams, who has written a book on the influential neoconservative journal Commentary, says that the magazine “ridiculed the move toward sanctions,” and had a penchant for “crudely depicting Nelson Mandela as a relentlessly and dangerously radical Communist.” And the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority, proclaimed in 1985 that he would urge “millions of Christians to buy Krugerrands” to show their support of the Botha regime. And British MP Terry Dicks famously accused Thatcher of knuckling under too much to Mandela, saying: “How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?”

Once the collapse of apartheid actually took place, Mandela failed to live up to these predictions of doom. Many of his opponents simply dropped the issue; “remarkably,” wrote neoconservative historian Jacob Heilbrunn, “almost no attention has been devoted to the history of the conservative defense of South Africa.” Even Cheney said that Mandela’s organization had “mellowed and moderated its views in significant ways,” and that Mandela had proven himself to be “a great man. He deserves an enormous amount of credit for the transformation of South Africa.” Mandela’s elevation to heroism was so complete that it was almost possible to forget that he was ever controversial.

Almost. There have occasionally been flashbacks to the old days when Mandela’s greatness was not considered a settled issue. In 2001, when the Canadian House of Commons presented a motion to make the South African leader an honorary citizen, Alberta MP Rob Anders opposed it, telling the CBC that Mandela had become “the politically correct kind of ‘lib’ left poster-boy of today.” When Mandela died twelve years later, Anders unrepentantly referred a reporter to a blog post by conservative columnist David Horowitz, who opened by saying “Mandela began as a terrorist and never turned his back on monsters like Arafat and Castro.” As for Mandela’s ‘80s opponents, Abrams says, “I am not aware whether any of them ever admitted they had been wrong about this.”