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Nelson Mandela and the Cheap Caricature of Ronald Reagan

It started in the recent movie The Butler, in which President Reagan is portrayed as opposing sanctions against South Africa because–well, the movie leaves the audience to suppose he simply had a heart of stone–and now, in the coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela, Reagan is being mentioned—at least on NPR, to which I listened this morning—as if he were some kind of racist throwback.

A handful of facts:

1.  Reagan opposed apartheid and said so, often and publicly. From his 1986 speech on South Africa:

The root cause of South Africa’s disorder is apartheid, that rigid system of racial segregation wherein black people have been treated as third-class citizens in a nation they helped to build. America’s view of apartheid has been, and remains, clear: apartheid is morally wrong and politically unacceptable. The United States cannot maintain cordial relations with a government whose power rests upon the denial of rights to a majority of its people, based on race.

If South Africa wishes to belong to the family of Western nations, an end to apartheid is a precondition.

2.  Far from playing cozy with the Afrikaans government, as, for example, Bill Keller of the New York Times seemed to suggest on NPR this morning, Reagan himself imposed sanctions against the South African government, issuing an executive order that curtailed military and official relations between the U.S. and Pretoria. I repeat: Reagan himself imposed sanctions against South Africa.

3.  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.ODhhNzAzOTQ3OCMvZEUxWEEtcjlVTkQtLURUZFp1dy0wNzI5OVVVPS84NDB4NTMwL3NtYXJ0L2ZpbHRlcnM6cXVhbGl0eSg3NSk6c3RyaXBfaWNjKDEpL2h0dHAlM0ElMkYlMkZzMy5hbWF6b25h.jpg

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….

Reasonable people can certainly differ about Reagan’s assertion that economic sanctions would do more harm than good. What is clear—what is a matter of public record so obvious that only the mainstream media could ignore it—is that his motives were high. Reagan had an argument.  A humane one.

  1. Dr Steve

    A few–too few, in my opinion–of the commentators are noting that there was a Cold War, and decisions made by the US (and the UK) can’t be divorced from that fact. Yet, no one that I have heard all day (and we have a snow day at the college, so I can listen and surf to my heart’s content) seems to remember another factor: South Africa was among the nations working on its own Bomb and its own intermediate missile system. Talking them out of that course, Cold War or not, was also a factor in our policy-making in the times. The content of Pres. Reagan’s character matters, but so does the context of his contemplations. 

  2. Songwriter

    Tommy – @ #7 : Your opponents’ response is typical Leftism. Never allow facts to get in the way of their feelings of superiority.

  3. Carsten Koenig

    There is no doubt that Ronald Reagan was freedom-loving both in economic and political terms. As a general notion freedom is the innate core of human society.  

    There are interconnections between trade and an internal liberal constitution. But an external political force can not unilaterally impose a shift toward a liberal constitution. And – it seems to me – Reagan knew this. His approach was more gradualist. To accept these rules does not mean that the ideas are diminished. Economic preasure could have the antipodal effect of deep-freezing all forces in Pretoria. Politics are not a pure mechanical process since there are interacting forces. In 1986 nobody could anticipate the coming collapse of the Soviet Union. Standing clearly on your political ideas, that was possible realpolitik but committed to ideas. 

    That is to say: In order to judge the measure taken by Ronald Reagan one must take into account the global situation at that time. 

  4. flownover

    And never let a crisis …….

    Evidently The Butler is still in some theaters, so NPR and Keller are  selling tickets. 

    I bet Obama will tiptoe around this issue as Reagan is occasionally one of his avatars.

    Maybe we’ll see him as Drake McHugh, screaming “where’s the rest of me !” when a legion of sadistic ,wealthy doctors and insurance companies derail this trainwreck we are watching in slomo.

    Now who was wasting their time on NPR ?

  5. Tommy De Seno
    C
    Songwriter: Tommy – @ #7 : Your opponents’ response is typical Leftism. Never allow facts to get in the way of their feelings of superiority. · 5 minutes ago

    It was a very frustrating moment.  If I weren’t already a conservative thinker it may have made me one.

  6. Hartmann von Aue

    There’s a major typo in the second paragraph of the first Reagan quote (South America).  Correct it please before someone else notices. 

  7. Totus Porcus
    Peter Robinson

    The President always used to tell us speechwriters–and I heard him say this a half dozen times–”Specificity is the soul of persuasion.” · 1 hour ago

    A great line.  And lucky you to have heard it from the Great Communicator himself.

  8. Asquared

    Thanks for posting this Peter.  I was listening to NPR this morning on my way to a meeting (having already listened to all of the week’s Richochet podcasts), and I heard the comment about Reagan vetoing the sanctions bill.  I didn’t think much of it at the time, chalking it up the ANC’s close ties to communism.  But now the blatant bias is clear. 

    What’s ironic is that on they way back from the meeting, NPR was playing BBC World Service, and they were interviewing an American, I didn’t catch who.  The Anchor asked about Mandela being labelled a terrorist, and the response was, Mandela was at one time a terrorist, and as a result, he was appropriately placed on the list. 

    You know something is wrong when you are way to the left of the BBC World Service.

  9. Totus Porcus

    Everyone should remember too that at the time there were thousands of  Cubans in Angola fighting a proxy war extending into what is now Namibia (on SA’s border), and the Russians were busy trying to establish a foothold on the Horn of Africa, and the ANC was quite cozy with the Cubans and the Soviets. 

    Reagan, who could walk and chew gum at the same time, could be against apartheid at the same time he was against South Africa going Communist. 

    Of course those on the Left (many of whom were either sympathetic with or being exploited by the Communist proxy causes) were either incapable of distinguishing between the end (no more apartheid) and the consequences of their preferred means, or actively desired them.  I’ll bet a nickel our current President, who according to his first autobiography was carefully choosing “Marxist professors” as his smoking buddies at the time, was one of them.

  10. Capt. Spaulding
    Reasonable people can certainly differ about Reagan’s assertion that economic sanctions would do more harm than good. What is clear—what is a matter of public record so obvious that only the mainstream media could ignore it—is that his motives were high. Reagan had an argument.  A humane one. · · 2 hours ago

    Bob Beckel on “The Five” this evening just raised it again as a criticism of Reagan vis a vis Mandela, that he vetoed economic sanctions against South Africa. With no context. The lies and half-truths will continue. 

  11. Joseph Eagar

    They’re still bringing up Reagan?  It’s pretty clear the man wasn’t racist.  Politically Reagan was in a similar situation to what Obama faces today, and he handled it much better, I think.  Obama has done some serious damage by pitting poor whites and poor Hispanics against each other.  

    Reagan never did more than utter those infamous “code words” the left is always whining about; Obama has actually pushed for policies that deepen the racial divide, and one way of describing the Democrat’s approach to  immigration reform is that they are pitting poor whites and poor Hispanics against each other in a race war over economic resources.

  12. James Of England
    Neolibertarian

    James Of England

    Neolibertarian

    Heh.

    Bywhatstandardofmeasure? OrmaybeI shouldjust ask: what is the definition of “worked” in this case? · 2 hours ago

     

    The IAEA inspections may have slowed Iranian nuclear enrichment production, but those aren’t taking place because of the sanctions, they’re taking place because of the conditions of the NPT.

    The sanctions, themselves, have hurt the bonyads (their primary target), but bonyads also provide relief to the poor.

    It’s never going to be the upper echelon in the syndicates who get hurt, at any rate, because that’s not how things work in this universe.

    The kinetics never come through because sanctions can never achieve their stated aims–they only achieve their obvious aim: to punish. And they always punish the least deserving of punishment; those with the least power to change anything in your favor. ·

    I think that sanctions are achieving delays independently of inspections. The nuclear program is unbelievably expensive, and Iran is struggling a good deal more to get hard currency than it would otherwise do. Sanctions also make it easier to monitor Iran’s trade.

  13. Neolibertarian
    Peter Robinson

    Did Reagan opposeeconomicsanctions 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 workerswhowould 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.

    Damned straight.

    Sanctions are a bankrupt foreign policy ploy for those who have no foreign policy. Levying them achieves no other goal than to make those who levy them believe “at least we did SOMETHING positive about this bad situation.”

    What sanctions amount to is economic warfare, aimed not at the elite within the bad-actor nation, but against those who are the poorest, and who have the least political power.

    Both Reagan and Thatcher were against levying sanctions against South Africa. There’s little evidence that , of all the pressures which eventually forced de Klerk to transition SA to majoritarian democracy, that the sanctions were primary among them.

  14. Franciscus
    James Of England

    Neolibertarian

    James Of England

    Neolibertarian

    Heh.

    Bywhatstandardofmeasure? OrmaybeI shouldjust ask: what is the definition of “worked” in this case? · 2 hours ago

    The IAEA inspections may have slowed Iranian nuclear enrichment production, but those aren’t taking place because of the sanctions, they’re taking place because of the conditions of the NPT.

    The sanctions, themselves, have hurt the bonyads (their primary target), but bonyads also provide relief to the poor.

    It’s never going to be the upper echelon in the syndicates who get hurt, at any rate, because that’s not how things work in this universe.

    The kinetics never come through because sanctions can never achieve their stated aims–they only achieve their obvious aim: to punish. And they always punish the least deserving of punishment; those with the least power to change anything in your favor. ·

    I think that sanctions are achieving delays independently of inspections. The nuclear program is unbelievably expensive, and Iran is struggling a good deal more to get hard currency than it would otherwise do. Sanctions also make it easier to monitor Iran’s trade. · 1 hour ago

    Didn’t work with India.

  15. Joseph Eagar
    Neolibertarian

    Damned straight.

    Sanctions are a bankrupt foreign policy ploy for those who have no foreign policy. Levying them achieves no other goal than to make those who levy them believe “at least we did SOMETHING positive about this bad situation.”

    What sanctions amount to is economic warfare, aimed not at the elite within the bad-actor nation, but against those who are the poorest, and who have the least political power.

    Just look at North Korea.  Sanctions had no effect at all; the only consequence was that a lot of North Koreans starved.  Really the only way to end human rights abuses in a third-world country is to either occupy and administer it long-term, or target sanctions at those sections of the economy that directly effect the elite’s control over the masses (in high school I read that sanctions on computer equipment had that effect in South Africa, since without computers the government couldn’t maintain apartheid.  Dunno if that’s really true or not).

  16. Black Prince
    Peter Robinson

    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.

    I wonder how Reagan justified the reinstatement of the trade embargo against Cuba back in 1982…it seems like the same argument would apply.

  17. Zafar

    They seem to have worked (so far, and despite their denials) with Iran.

    Neolibertarian

    What sanctions amount to is economic warfare, aimed not at the elite within the bad-actor nation, but against those who are the poorest, and who have the least political power.

    They are a very blunt weapon, however.

  18. Neolibertarian
    Zafar: They seem to have worked (so far, and despite their denials) with Iran.

    Heh.

    By what standard of measure? Or maybe I should just ask: what is the definition of “worked” in this case?

  19. Tommy De Seno
    C
    Black Prince

    Peter Robinson

    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.

    I wonder how Reagan justified the reinstatement of the trade embargo against Cuba back in 1982…it seems like the same argument would apply. · 1 hour ago

    Edited 1 hour ago

    I wondered the same.

  20. Neolibertarian
    Black Prince

    Peter Robinson

    Most of the workers whowould 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.

    I wonder how Reagan justified the reinstatement of the trade embargo against Cuba back in 1982…it seems like the same argument would apply. 

    The trap of levying sanctions is that to lift them before goals are met is to admit defeat, and give a triumph to your enemy.

    The experiments in lifting Cuban sanctions under the Carter Administration ended in the disastrous 1980 Mariel boat lift. Castro’s clear slap in the face to Carter and all his previous efforts.

    Cuba was heavily involved in Angola and El Salvador, et al, at the time, keys in Reagan’s Cold War strategy.

    This made rewarding Castro, or even being seen as rewarding him a clear stumbling block for Reagan’s initiatives.

    “We don’t have any dealings with Cuba.” he told reporters.  ”If they’d ever like to rejoin the civilized world, we’d be happy to help them. But not under the present circumstances.”

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