When I was in junior high school, a man came to our church to talk about South Africa.
He was considered “colored,” meaning his parents had violated the rules against relationships between blacks and whites. He described to us the indignities of life as a Black South African —confined to squalid ghettos and shanty-towns; the “townships” locked outside the gleaming Emerald Cities like Johannesburg.
Native black Africans, who represented anywhere between 70 percent and 80 percent of the population of South Africa, had been forcibly relocated to “Bantustans,” supposed “independent” states within the country, so that the Afrikaner minority wouldn’t have to consider them their countrymen. As was the case in our own country with the Native Americans and imported African slaves, the Dutch “Boers” and Britons drawn to the African Cape in the 17th century by gold and diamonds wanted black labor, but not black neighbors.
The Afrikaners, as the white minority renamed themselves, enforced, through sheer brutality, a strict form of Jim Crow-like segregation: apartheid. It meant blacks not only couldn’t vote, or own property in “white” areas, they were forced to use segregated facilities and to carry a pass everywhere they went, which any white person, policeman, soldier or civilian, could demand to inspect on sight. Blacks had no rights that white South Africans were bound to respect.
In 1976, South African police opened fire with live ammunition on hundreds of school children who walked out of their Soweto classrooms to protest a law mandating that all classes be taught in Afrikaans, the language of the minority ruling class.
Twelve years before that, Nelson Mandela was thrown into prison on a former leper colony called Robben Island, along with seven fellow members of the African National Congress; a life sentence for treason against the government that didn’t even recognize his citizenship.
It’s hard to imagine, given all of that, that anyone could doubt who were the good guys in that scenario. But doubt certainly existed in America.
Many Republicans, including then Congressman Dick Cheney (who said recently he has no regrets) and then president Ronald Reagan, viewed the South African struggle through the binary lenses of the Cold War and cold capitalism. In that calculation, the ANC members were communist tools of the Soviet Union, and terrorists fighting a government Reagan in 1981 called “essential to the free world.” Reagan certainly said he opposed apartheid, but that he believed “constructive engagement” with the Afrikaner government, and the genius of the free market via private business investment in South Africa was all that was needed to make it fade away.
Not every Republican agreed, of course, including such conservative name brands as Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp and even a young Mitch McConnell. But for the most part, the people on the other side were Democrats; led by the Congressional Black Caucus and its stalwarts like Ron Dellums of Oakland, John Conyers of Michigan, Louis Stokes of Ohio, Maxine Waters of California, and D.C. delegate Walter Fauntroy, along with outside groups like TransAfrica. They pushed for divestment; the international straw that, over Reagan’s veto, ultimately broke the back of apartheid.
For my generation, the anti-apartheid struggle was an unambiguous case of good versus evil. We sang along to Free Nelson Mandela by The Specials and “(Ain’t gonna play) Sun City,” by Steven VanZandt and Artists United Against Apartheid. Artists who dared to perform inside South Africa risked being shunned by young music buyers.
Campus protests demanding divestment had been common across the country, since the late 1970s, even attracting a young Barack Obama in 1981.
In the summer after my junior year, I was one of the tens of thousands who packed into stadiums and along street corners in six cities — in my case, in New York — as a finally free Mandela toured the United States (Miami was less welcoming, of course, thanks to Fidel Castro, who supported, and was supported by, Mandela’s ANC.)
The vicious response from the right to warm Facebook posts by Gingrich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz following Mandela’s passing, and the right-wing apoplexy over President Obama’s handshake with Raúl Castro at a South Africa memorial for Mandela this week (never mind that previous presidents, including Republicans, did the same with everyone from Chairman Mao to Raúl’s big brother, Fidel) are reminders that we are not fully over the strains of the Cold War, or the racial and political resentments and binaries that have defined us as much as they did the old South Africa.
Mandela actively entered those arguments (as in 2003 when he denounced the Iraq war.) He had no illusions of being everybody’s hero. But he was a hero of mine. And of the vast majority of South Africans, black, white and in-between.