The long shadow of Apartheid

TW: racism, Apartheid

Nelson Mandela died yesterday at the age of 95 years. For many South Africans he occupies an interesting political space – as both something of a founder of their present democracy and the embodiment of its limitations (namely to challenge the economic disparities created under Apartheid rule). From within US and UK politics, however, the present remembrance of Mandela exists in a different awkward context, with almost all figures lionizing Mandela, even those who worked against him and with the Apartheid government for decades. Although Reagan is no longer a living part of that number, there is a largely forgotten history of his and others’ support for that repressive, racist government:

The story doesn’t end there, but rather continues to include Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, and then his selective and incomplete enforcement of it after congress blocked his veto with vote margins unimaginable today. There are many reasons why the perpetual idolization of Reagan by many White, straight, and cisgender Americans is profoundly unsettling for others, but his insistence on negotiation with the settler colonial regime in South Africa should clearly be near the top of that list.

Of course, the story is not merely one of former officials who supported the Apartheid government who are with us only in memory, but familiar faces that remained in power long after casting votes in favor of inaction in that conflict and even the replacement of that state with another that actually allowed the vast majority of its population the right to simply vote.

Many prominent Republicans come to mind, but none more than Dick Cheney, who continued to serve in the Senate for three years after his vote towards the end even advancing to Majority Whip, a leadership position. Following that, he was promoted to Secretary of Defense under President George Bush (the first one). He spent most of the 1990s a well-regarded lobbyist, but returned, with minimal criticism, to politics as Vice President for eight years. He has within conservative circles remained so positively received that his daughter was taken as serious contender in a Senate race for no other reason than her relation to him. While it’s a bit early to tell, her campaign may ostensibly stay afloat purely as a result of his connections and still intact reputation.

Dick Cheney and Ronald Reagan during Reagan's presidency
(Guess that was another thing these two have had in common?)

In short, he has never been held accountable for his role in working against resistance to Apartheid rule. Unshockingly, that lack of accountability has led to him feeling that he was not in fact in the wrong on that, but all along was right in his course of action. Even now, Cheney stands by his record that Mandela and the ANC were “terrorists” and that any restriction on the government most directly opposed to them was to be delayed, hindered, or stopped.

Reagan famously explained his position on the sanctions against the Apartheid government as being motivated by an interest in opposing the government responsibly and not too rashly. If that’s the case, then why is this part of his and Cheney’s history so rarely discussed? Why was Mandela still listed as a terrorist by the US government until 2008? Why are defenses of Apartheid specifically and (neo-)colonialism in Africa more broadly still so prevalent among conservatives in the United States?

The United States (among other countries) has never examined its role in maintaining and supporting Apartheid rule. This is the fallout of that – that wide swathes of our country’s politicians and even many citizens still support that system built on the idea of White supremacy and Black servitude. So far, that reality has been inadequately challenged. Let’s change that.

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