Following Nelson Mandela’s passing Thursday, U.S. politicians from both parties heaped praise on the human rights icon who fought against South Africa’s apartheid regime. But Mandela's cause was not always universally accepted in the U.S.
There’s no better example of that than the contentious debate in the 1980s over whether to impose sanctions on South Africa’s white-minority apartheid government. That seems like a no-brainer today. But back then, it wasn’t so clear-cut for President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan and some of his Republican allies in Congress opposed strict sanctions and the president vetoed a sanctions bill passed by Congress in September 1986, Mandela’s 24th year in prison. The bill, known as the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, became law when Congress overrode Reagan’s veto.
So, why did Reagan do it? It’s not because he supported apartheid. Reagan called the white supremacist system “morally wrong and politically unacceptable” during a speech to the World Affairs Council in Washington in 1986.
But during that same speech, he derided the African National Congress, in which Mandela was a key figure. He criticized the ANC's "Soviet-armed guerillas" for using “terrorist tactics." The president instead backed “constructive engagement” with the South African government. The idea was to gently push South Africa to give up its policies of racial discrimination and to nudge the government to legalize black political participation, rather than take sweeping action.
If southern Africa became destabilized, Reagan said, "the Soviet Union will be the main beneficiary."
Simply put, the South African government was one of many undesirable regimes propped up by the U.S. in order to prevent the spread of Communism. That outweighed concerns about apartheid.
“Can we abandon a country that has stood beside us in every war we've ever fought, a country that strategically is essential to the free world in its production of minerals we all must have and so forth?” he said during an interview with CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite in 1981.
Pressure Builds for Sanctions
But pressure on Western nations to actively oppose the apartheid government quickly grew to a fever pitch. During the 80s, South Africa was wracked by protests and riots that threatened to destabilize the country. Black activists called on Western governments to impose sanctions following a speech in 1985 by South African President P.W. Botha reaffirming the policies of apartheid.
After visiting South Africa, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced a sanctions bill in 1985. The proposal banned imports, exports and loans to the South African government by the U.S. government and corporations.
But Republican leaders filibustered the deal in the Senate. Majority Leader Bob Dole (Kansas), who went on to become the GOP’s presidential nomination in 1996, sided with the Reagan administration and backed the filibuster.
Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.), a chief opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, led the filibuster for Senate Republicans. Administration officials and GOP lawmakers argued that economic sanctions would be ineffective in ending apartheid and could take jobs away from black South Africans.
But Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) accused Republican opponents of the bill of being motivated by a “dirty undercurrent of racism,” according to the AP. Three years earlier, Helms led a 16-day filibuster of a bill that would have established a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.
In an effort to save face, the Reagan administration on its own imposed a set of weaker sanctions.
Lawmakers tried again in 1986, introducing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. That bill prevented new investments in and loans to South Africa and drastically curtailed imports of South African agricultural and mining products. The proposal passed both the House and Senate with overwhelming support.
But Reagan vetoed the measure on September 26.
By that point, however, many GOP lawmakers had soured on the administration's policy of engaging with the apartheid regime. Both the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate overrode Reagan’s veto with two-thirds majorities.
"The Senate's action today expressed the best ideals of the American people," Kennedy said, according to The New York Times. "The message to countries all over the world is, the United States will lead, and we're proud to lead."
Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) today is the top Republican in the Senate. But in 1986, he was a first-term senator who was among the 31 Republicans to override Reagan’s veto.
"I think he is ill-advised. I think he is wrong," he said of the president. "We have waited long enough for him to come on board."
In a statement, Reagan expressed regret over the vote, which represented a major defeat for his administration. It was the first time since the War Powers Resolution of 1973 that Congress had overridden a presidential foreign policy veto.
“Punitive sanctions, I believe, are not the best course of action; they hurt the very people they are intended to help,” he said. “My hope is that these punitive sanctions do not lead to more violence and more repression.”
But that wasn’t how the story ended.
The sanctions helped cripple South Africa economically and the value of the nation’s currency fell as more countries and corporations divested. But the sanctions isolated South Africa from the Western world and helped spark the dismantling of the apartheid regime.
Less than four years after the sanctions passed, the government freed Nelson Mandela after serving over 27 years in prison.
Mandela praised the “indispensable” work of U.S. universities, civil rights groups and religious organizations, which pressured Congress to enact sanctions in the 2007 book “No Easy Victories.”
“International sanctions were a key factor in the eventual victory of the African National Congress over South Africa’s white minority regime,” he wrote.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.