The death of Nelson Mandela and the subsequent days-long memorial/celebration in South Africa brought national leaders to it from around the world. There has been much current writing on the history of the struggle against apartheid of which Mandela came to be the principal leader , of his life, of certain compromises he had to make in order to bring about a peaceful transition to democratic, non-racial rule in South Africa and so on and so forth. There has not been too much mention of how Mandela and the movement he led for so many years, and for so many of them from behind bars as a symbol, was, and still is, treated by the US Right.
Paying respects at the Mandela statue in Washington, DC. Yes, indeed. And there is hope for us, too!
(image by futureatlas.com)
How better to transition to that subject than by considering how one of the US Right's most favorite foreign leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, dealt with the death and memorial and celebration. He was one of a certain few world leaders (none of whom to my knowledge, nearly as visible as he) who found themselves "too busy" to attend . Netanyahu apparently took great offense at the great man's famous letter to the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in which he compared the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians as akin to apartheid. And then, Israel was a major supporter of the apartheid regime that, with Mandela in the leadership, was deposed, a regime that had supported the making of "Israel's bomb." (Remember the "unexplained flash" that took place over the South Atlantic off South Africa during the Carter Presidency, a flash with which President Carter was greatly concerned?) And now the former South Africa is more than ever the model for the state that Netanyahu and his people are in the process of establishing in the original Palestine. Why should he go to the funeral of a man who stood and fought for everything that he is against? Which leads us indeed to the US Right.
Bill O'Reilly went out his way to state that Mandela was a Communist (as if that were the worst possible thing one could be). Of course "Communist" has been a curse word for the US Right going back to the days of the Palmer Raids following World War I and McCarthyism following World War II. (It was on that same program that former Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania compared the Affordable Care Act to apartheid, showing just how little he knows about either.) It happens that Mandela may very well have been a member of the South African Communist Party during the early days of his struggle. He certainly sought, and received, aid and support for the struggle from the Soviet Union and certain Eastern European countries during their own communist days.
Equally, or perhaps more, important was the fact that throughout the struggle against apartheid the Communist Party of South Africa, headed by Joe Slovo, Ruth First, and Ronnie Kasrils, was part of the tri-partite coalition that pursued that struggle. Quoting here , " South African President F.W. Dekker -- who worked with Mandela to end apartheid -- told Schechter that Communist Party leader Joe Slovo "played a pragmatic and crucial role in engineering the compromises that led to a political settlement. " All this "commie" talk obscures more than it reveals.' " But it is just such "commie talk" that dominates the talk of certain sectors of the US Right in commenting on Mandela and his passing. (It must be noted here that after giving Mandela the "communist" label, O'Reilly did pay tribute to the man as well.)
It happens that the US, under Republican leadership at the time, stood by apartheid until the end. Late in his term, and not too long before the first secret negotiations between the then South African regime and the anti-apartheid movement began, President Reagan, following the lead of his fellow arch-reactionary Margaret Thatcher, vetoed a Congressionally-passed act that would have imposed sanctions on South Africa. You see, when there are fighters against a government in place that the US supports, for whatever reason, they are "terrorists." Of course when there are fighters going against a government that the US is against, they are "freedom fighters." And Reaganite policy in the 1980s gives the perfect example of this.
Reagan stood against the "terrorists" of the African National Congress, who were fighting against a regime that would make them non-citizens forever, exploitable of course for their labor power, forever. But when it came to the "Contras" in Nicaragua, fighting against a left-wing government that wanted, among other things, to bring the United Fruit Company under some kind of control, the anti-government rebels, "our guys," became "freedom fighters." And they were "freedom fighters" for which the Reagan Administration broke a number of laws. Among them was the Boland Amendment , which specifically forbade aid to any anti-government military in Nicaragua, in order to provide support for them.
Further, on a broader scale, as Lawrence Freedman has illustrated in great depth at Salon, it was Reagan's basic racism (perhaps not even conscious), certainly reflected in his policy toward South Africa, Mandela, and apartheid, that underlay his expansion of Nixon's "Southern Strategy." It is the latter, of course, that has led directly to the modern Republican Party (with its Tea Party fellow-travelers) and everything the Party stands for, firmly based electorally in the 11 states of the old Confederacy,
And so, returning to Mandela, for much of the US Right he always was and always will be a "commie" and a "terrorist." Of course, that he was black, became a President, and was actually born in Africa makes him that much more useful in the never-ending racist smear campaign of the Right against President Obama. Yes indeed, it is and has been always so much easier for the Right to get into slogans and labels than it is to fight on substance and policy.