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Politico Finds the Real Villains in Anti-Mandela America… Black People?

The sad passing of global civil rights icon Nelson Mandela has spurred a reexamination of South Africa’s history, and of Apartheid-era politics in the United States. While some have tried to soft-pedal the Reagan administration’s opposition to sanctions, and others have emphasized it, Politico Magazine has papered over Republican obstruction of anti-Apartheid sanctions, and identified an unlikely set of culprits in the U.S. government’s decades of foot-dragging: black people.

Context matters here, and it is in the context of a battle over the truth of America’s complex involvement in Apartheid politics that Politico has chosen to publish an article that concentrates on the handful of black people who were used by South Africa to provide Republicans political cover to oppose sanctions, and completely ignores the longtime Republican opposition to sanctions that already existed.

The piece’s headline, “The Anti-Mandela Lobby: How South Africa enlisted an unlikely coalition of black Americans to fight sanctions against the apartheid government,” doesn’t really match up with the story, which is actually about an entirely likely (and tiny) coalition of conservative African Americans who did little to move the needle on black public opinion. The article even states that, though you’d never know it from the headline, or from its contextual role as a rejoinder to more complete assessments of the era’s politics.

Although the word “Republican” doesn’t appear once in the article (even the introduction says “Congress debated whether to impose sanctions on the South African government,” as though nobody knew that sanctions were the right thing to do), it does focus on a handful of conservative black activists who were enlisted by the South African government to push against sanctions, including:

His name was Rev. Kenneth Frazier, a former Methodist minister and failed congressional candidate, as well as the leader of the group behind Operation Heartbreak, which called itself the Wake Up America Coalition. Frazier—despite his opposition to a policy meant to weaken South Africa’s white-dominated segregationist government—was also black.

This would have been a great place to reveal that Rev. Frazier was a failed Republican congressional candidate, or that the Cold War view of opposition to sanctions he espoused is one of several spokes in the Republican justification for opposing sanctions.

While that R-word never comes up, the piece does mention the other one, Reagan, but only as an unavoidable part of William Keyes‘ bio, describing him as a former “low-ranking domestic policy adviser in the Reagan administration.” The word “conservative” does appear three times, but a reader relying solely on this piece would be left with the impression that opposition to sanctions was some sort of fringe position among conservatives, which it was not, and that the South African government’s lobbyists and this handful of activists were the sole engine of anti-sanctions politics.

In fact, Democratic support for sanctions was unanimous, but was unable to overcome Republican filibusters in 1985, when Rep. Ron Dellums‘ 1972 anti-Apartheid bill was finally given a vote. Republicans get a lot of credit these days for later joining Democrats to override President Reagan’s veto in 1986, but that was a weaker measure, and was still voted against by 21 Senate Republicans and 81 GOP House members.

The dual rationales for opposing sanctions, that they would hurt black South Africans and that the Apartheid government was a bulwark against communism, were largely seen, at the time, as fig leaves for protecting U.S. economic and business interests, which they were. The revised Republican histories focus on lip-service to ending Apartheid, but the proof is in the pudding.

There’s a decent explanation for some of the missing details in Politico’s article, which is an “adapted excerpt” of Ron Nixon’s e-book “Operation Blackwash: Apartheid South Africa’s 46-year propaganda war on black America,” and so is necessarily more narrow. The publisher’s description of the book is a far cry from the framing of the excerpt that Politico used:

For the first time ever, we get an opportunity to take an in-depth look at the 46-year lobbying and propaganda campaign by the apartheid-era South African government and its allies – corporations with business operations in South Africa, conservative religious organisations and an unlikely coalition of liberal black clergy and anti-communist black conservatives aligned with right-wing Cold War politicians in the US, who opposed sanctions against South Africa.

In adapting the excerpt, and/or introducing it, it would have been a simple matter to properly contextualize this story, on the Monday after Mandela’s death, as an examination of outliers in an alliance of foreign and domestic, largely white and conservative interests; rather than some sort of broad coalition of black Americans, untethered to an existing domestic political movement. It took the publisher one paragraph.

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