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Mandela and Reagan

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 12/12/13

You can’t celebrate both lives

In death, love and adoration for Nelson Mandela seems universal. Even the repugnant Bill O’Reilly broadcast a backhanded compliment on the day Mandela died, calling him “a communist,” but in the same breath going on to say, “But he was a great man. What he did for his people was stunning.” O’Reilly, apparently conflicted, repeated himself. “He was a great man, but he was a communist.” Mandela, of course, wasn’t a communist, and he certainly didn’t rule South Africa as a communist. But I’ve got to say, O’Reilly’s baseless assertion was the best ad I’ve ever heard for communism. More importantly, even the arguably unrepentant racist Bill O’Reilly intuitively recognized Mandela’s greatness and his important place in the history of freedom fighters.

At the time, O’Reilly was interviewing the delusional anti-civil rights activist Rick Santorum. Santorum also felt compelled to praise Mandela for fighting against “a great injustice,” which he went on to compare to his own battle against universal healthcare. Get it? Mandela, now that he’s no longer around to speak for himself, doesn’t want you to have a right to healthcare. Universal healthcare is like apartheid, a system where, based on racial identity, black and “colored” people were denied basic rights to things like, yes, decent healthcare. This makes about as much sense as anything Santorum is prone to say, but in his mind comparing Mandela to himself is the highest compliment he could make. Like O’Reilly, in his own demented way, Santorum was showing the love.

This late show of support among American right-wingers for Mandela and everything he stood for is fine. But it’s important to remember that, when it counted—when Mandela was rotting away in a South African gulag, when 85 percent of the South African population was suffocated and beaten down by a Nazi-like white supremacist regime—there was little support from the American right. We saw the same thing with Martin Luther King, Jr. In death, when he had no voice, he could be celebrated and reinvented as a holiday sale mascot by the same people who derided and fought against his living struggle.

South Africans mourn the late president outside his former home in Johannesburg.

This week, as we watch world leaders from almost every nation on earth travel to South Africa to pay their respects to Mandela, let’s remember another state funeral for a great departed leader: Ronald Reagan. When Reagan died in 2004, dignitaries from 165 nations attended the funeral, including three dozen heads of state. Mandela, the who served from 1994 to 1999 as president of South Africa, then a close US ally, did not attend. Why would he? He spent the entirety of the Reagan presidency in South African jails, finally released two years after Reagan left office.

Reagan didn’t simply refuse to demand the release of Mandela or the immediate end of apartheid. To the contrary, he propped up the white supremacist regime that was imprisoning Mandela. Upon arriving in office, Reagan reversed course on South Africa, replacing Jimmy Carter’s human rights rhetoric and economic sanctions (albeit weak ones) against South Africa, with what his administration called “constructive engagement” with the white minority government. Constructive engagement fostered economic ties and trade, essentially thwarting divestment efforts and boycotts of white-supremacist-owned industries and the apartheid government.

In 1981, Reagan told CBS News that South Africa is “a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals.” Translated simply: Fuck the South Africans, we want diamonds, gold, and other precious metals. During the Reagan presidency, South Africans worked under slave-like conditions in mines, while seeing their struggle for democracy brutally suppressed by a Reagan-supported white supremacist minority government.

In a 1985 interview with WSB radio in Atlanta, while anti-apartheid demonstrations were spanning the globe, Reagan again reiterated his support for the white supremacist government in South Africa, referring to it as “a reformist administration,” despite its imposition, at the time, of a “state of emergency,” declaring martial law and violently suppressing protest. A year later, in 1986, with the state of emergency still in effect, Reagan, in a speech to the World Affairs Council in Washington, DC, described apartheid as “a tribal policy, more than…a racial policy.” During this time, torture, particularly against black children who were protesting, became common. On average seven prisoners a week were executed.

Reagan’s support of the white supremacist South African regime was not an anomaly. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, then in the Congress, voted against imposing economic sanctions on South Africa’s white supremacist government in 1986. He reaffirmed that decision while successfully running for vice president in 2000, despite the fact that the sanctions, which were eventually imposed after Congress overrode a presidential veto by Ronald Reagan, contributed to the end of apartheid three years after Reagan left office.

Ronald Reagan and Nelson Mandela were two figures who changed the world in the 1980s. Reagan ushered in an era of unfettered corporate globalization and wealth redistribution from the global poor to the global rich, all but destroying the American middle class in the process. His foreign policies led to hundreds of thousands of deaths while impoverishing millions and destabilizing entire regions of the globe. We can see Ronald Reagan’s handiwork in a society pockmarked by poverty and social inequality, where a privileged few celebrate an unprecedented level of hedonistic consumerism while the vast majority of Americans toil away for an ever decreasing share of the pie on an ever warming planet.

By comparison, Nelson Mandela gave us hope. Real hope—not simply campaign meme hope. He, like Gandhi and King, showed us the power of persistent nonviolence against overwhelming odds. We live in a better world and all of our lives are richer because of Nelson Mandela. He not only freed his own people, as Bill O’Reilly noted, but in a sense he freed all of us as well. He freed us from being condemned to live in a world that would openly accept racism, as the Reagan administration did. After the victory of the South African people against the apartheid regime, it’s unlikely any similar racist government will ever succeed in setting up a similar system of repression.

Maybe one day the myriad places and institutions named after Ronald Reagan will instead be named after Nelson Mandela. Let’s say goodbye to the Reagan boulevards, parkways, buildings, schools, and transportation hubs, and rename them after Nelson Mandela.

The world is a better place because Nelson Mandela triumphed over Ronald Reagan. We have to continue the struggle so that, in our lifetimes, we will see the ideology of Nelson Mandela triumphing globally over the ideology of Ronald Reagan—a triumph of hope and justice over greed and amorality.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at, archived at, and available globally through syndication.

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