The US, Mandela and a Not-So-Smooth History

For years, the American government did not look too kindly on Nelson Mandela or the anti-apartheid movement that had swept the United States.

Posted: 12/11/2013 03:28 PM EST

With the attendance of President Obama and three former American presidents at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa Tuesday, it might be easy to forget that the late South African president and Nobel Peace Prize awardee and his cause were not always warmly embraced by the United States government.

For years, the American government supported the leadership of South Africa and its policies of strict racial separation, known as apartheid. And Mandela was long considered a terrorist and his cause was considered something the United States could not whole-heartedly support.

The issue reached a heated point of public discourse during the 1980s in the administration of President Ronald Reagan. During that time, there was a widespread call from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others for the United States to stop lending economic support to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Students on campuses across the country were demonstrating against apartheid.

“The Reagan administration said publicly that they wanted to see change, but they opposed all substantial policy options in that regard,” said Michael K. Fauntroy, a professor of public policy at Howard University, in an interview with BET.com.

“Instead, they ramped up this policy called constructive engagement, which they said would transition South Africa into a peaceful period.”

In fact, Mandela was for a long time on the American government’s list of terrorists, largely because of the relationship between the African National Congress, the political group to which he belonged, and nations that were considered political enemies of the United States, principally the Soviet Union and Cuba.

“The issue is that the African National Congress was looking for help wherever they could get it,” Fauntroy said. “And the Soviet Union and Cuba stepped up when the United States did little to nothing about the racist policies in South Africa.”

During those years, prominent Black Americans Randall Robinson of TransAfrica and former Oakland mayor and Congressman Ron Dellums urged the Reagan administration to take forceful steps to end the racist policies of the South African government.

South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, on a trip to the United States, was highly critical of the Reagan administration’s policy, calling it “immoral, evil and totally un-Christian.”

The Reagan approach was significantly different from that of his predecessor. In fact, President Jimmy Carter has imposed sanctions and other economic restrictions on the white ruling government of South Africa and offered sharp public criticism of that regime on several occasions. But when Reagan became president in 1981, “constructive engagement” became the policy of the American government as well as that of Great Britain and its prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

That prompted a strong response at the time from Mandela’s then-wife, Winnie Mandela.

“This why our people are angry at the Reagan and Thatcher administrations in particular,” she said.

“They continue to condone the activities of the South African government. If they had any feeling for the downtrodden and oppressed majority of our country they would end their policy of gentle persuasion. It appears their interests in this country far outweighs their so-called abhorrence of apartheid.”

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(Photo: TREVOR SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)

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