Apologists Without Remorse

illustartion by Taylor Jones--click to go to his websiteThe end of the Cold War has ushered in a period of contrition on the American left. While most liberals, like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., never had any illusions about the Soviet regime, the sixties New Left included revolutionary romantics who were outright apologists for communism. Lately, however, many of those leftists have belatedly conceded that the Soviet Union was an evil empire after all.

If the collapse of the Soviet Union has prompted such reflections on the left, there are no comparable signs of remorse on the right about another political failure of similar moral significance: apartheid. South Africa collapsed at the same time as the Soviet Union. Like the USSR, it was the product of an ideology that claimed exemption from ordinary moral strictures. And though South Africa did not threaten a universalist geopolitical crusade, it did espouse a universalist ideology—of racial superiority—claiming to be the last outpost of Western civilization on the dark continent.

What does the record of American conservatives look like in retrospect when it comes to South Africa? An examination of conservative periodicals, including the National Review, Commentary, and the Wall Street Journal, and columns by pundits such as George F. Will and William Safire, suggests that many American conservatives reproduced the official South African political line. Far from subjecting South Africa to critical scrutiny, they became apologists for, if not champions of, apartheid.

These apologies came in several stages. Throughout, conservatives defended apartheid, but the tactical emphases shifted over the decades. During the first stage, in the 1960s, conservatives depicted blacks as racially inferior to whites and praised the homelands policy of South Africa. In the second stage, in the 1970s, conservatives painted apartheid as a necessary evil; the Soviet threat required the United States to support South Africa. In the final stage, in the 1980s, the right decried the move toward divestment and sanctions, argued that capitalism would save the country, and portrayed Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress as pawns of the Kremlin. Ultimately, the profound moral failure that took place among many leftists in facing up to the true character of Soviet totalitarianism was uncannily mirrored by the right-wing intellectual defense of apartheid.


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The system of apartheid was instituted by the National Party after it won parliamentary elections in 1948. National Party members, who had been open admirers of Hitler, were determined to combat what they saw as the dangerous erosion of traditional barriers between the races in South Africa. During World War II, men and women of a variety of races had worked side by side in factories, and new cities of mixed races had emerged from the housing shortage. The Nationalists, like the Nazis, introduced legislation that progressively stripped a vulnerable minority of its legal rights. The assault was spearheaded by interior minister Hendrik Verwoerd, a former social scientist at the University of Stellenbosch, who viewed apartheid as a means of implementing his theories about race, beginning with the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and building to the Group Areas Act in June 1950 that designated where people of different races could live. The Group Areas Act produced the homelands policy, in which blacks were presumed to flourish when confined to cordoned-off tracts of land.

Until the late 1960s conservatives took two tacks. One was to repudiate comparisons of the United States with South Africa. "Racial conditions in the U.S.," huffed the Wall Street Journal in a September 29, 1967, editorial, "have about as much to do with apartheid as they do with the craters of the moon." The other, and more frequent, position was to depict blacks as innately inferior to whites and to laud South Africa's efforts on behalf of the black population.

One of the first mentions of South Africa in National Review came in an editorial comment on April 23, 1960, that inquired, "Deadend in South Africa?" Initially, the editors defended apartheid by depicting the problem of race relations as insoluble and therefore hopeless. "It is not a solution to assert that South Africa belongs to the blacks (who, as it happens, moved into the region after the whites)," the editors said, "any more than it is proper to say that the American South 'belongs' to the white man." Moving along from the question of whom South Africa belonged to, the editors contended, "the whites are entitled, we believe, to pre-eminence in South Africa."

As National Review developed its line on South Africa, however, it sometimes soft-pedaled such uninhibited language in favor of simply posing questions about South Africa's ruler. In a lengthy essay appearing on January 15, 1963, William F. Buckley, Jr., projected an air of suave reasonableness. After traveling through South Africa for several weeks, he wrote that "there has never been any reason to doubt Verwoerd's own sincerity. He means to help the blacks." Buckley went on to depict the homelands policy as a possible remedy to the ills of South Africa: "it is an unorthodox idea, but not intrinsically preposterous, to suppose that nationhood could draw together in a meaningful political entity all the black splotches on a piebald area." Buckley pleaded for sympathy for the South African dilemma, observing that "we should try at least to understand what it is they are trying to do, and deny ourselves that unearned smugness that the bigot shows." Similarly, National Review editorialized on December 31, 1963, that "quite apart from whether" the homelands "policy is ultimately feasible, a great deal depends . . . on whether there is a sincerity of purpose there." And on January 10, 1967, Priscilla L. Buckley wrote that "one has to concede the sincerity of thousands of South African men and women who are working for apartheid."

O f course, the sincerity of the South African regime was not the issue. Criminal regimes such as the Bolsheviks can be perfectly sincere about remaking humanity, but this does not make them any less murderous. In pressing the theme of sincerity, conservatives were avoiding the issue at hand. Worse, William F. Buckley, Jr., in pleading for understanding of the South African experiment, was plunging into the bog of relativism that conservatives have always decried leftists for entering in discussing Third World despotisms.

But National Review never deviated from its support for the regime. On June 11, 1964, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Lionel Bernstein, and other members of the African National Congress (ANC) were sentenced to life in prison for terroristic activities and for being communists. At his trial, Mandela pointed out that the allegation that he was a communist had been rejected at the Treason Trials several years earlier and that while "there has often been close cooperation between the ANC and the Communist Party . . . cooperation is merely proof of a common goal—in this case the removal of white supremacy—and is not proof of a complete community of interests." What Mandela might also have pointed out is that he had been initially hostile to the Communist Party; it was the refusal of the South African government to negotiate with the ANC that had led it to establish relations with the communists. For the June 30 National Review, however, the trial was an occasion for mockery. "The South African courts have sentenced a batch of admitted terrorists to life in the penitentiary, and you would think the court had just finished barbecuing St. Joan, to hear the howls from the Liberal press."

The notion of one-man/one-vote was just as absurd to National Review. Perhaps the most sustained exposition of right-wing thought on South Africa came in a March 9, 1965, column by conservative founding father Russell Kirk. Kirk began by making a direct link between the United States and South Africa. In the United States, he wrote, the Warren Court's notion of one-man/one-vote "will work mischief—much injuring, rather than fulfilling, the responsible democracy for which Tocqueville hoped." But America, Kirk believed, was vigorous enough to survive such folly. South Africa was not: "this degradation of the democratic dogma, if applied, would bring anarchy and the collapse of civilization." Repeating South African propaganda, Kirk maintained that blacks were not fit to govern themselves. Only a minority of the various races in South Africa, Kirk wrote, was "civilized." The European "element" had rescued South Africa, and "Bantu political domination would be domination by witch doctors (still numerous and powerful) and reckless demagogues."

As the 1960s drew to a close and civil rights legislation was passed in the United States, conservatives began to devote more of their energies to fighting sanctions against South Africa. Governor George Wallace of Alabama defended apartheid in toto, declaring that if elected President he would end all sanctions against South Africa. And Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi stated in Johannesburg that he supported apartheid "or whatever you call it." National Review never gave up trying to defend the homelands policy. On April 13, 1979, for instance, F. R. Buckley wrote of the "alleged callousness" of the Boers toward "poor blacks" and declared that "Soweto cannot be held up as representing any policy of material mistreatment of blacks, nor any racially motivated indifference to their well-being." Like apologists for Soviet expansionism who argued that Russia had been traumatized by a history of invasions, Buckley wrote that the history of the Boers meant they had reason to be paranoid and that "their fears are understandable." On October 23, 1974, the Wall Street Journal, flatly contradicting its usual anti-Soviet stance, stated that to pressure South Africa economically "is a repudiation of the view that political and ideological differences should not be allowed to stand in the way of improving relations with such unadmirable governments as Russia, China and Cuba."



Beginning in the late 1960s, however, conservatives shifted focus away from the homelands policy and began to concentrate instead on the Soviet threat. In January 1967, Priscilla L. Buckley stated: "if we help bring about chaos in South Africa we will deny ourselves a vital military trump in the Indian Ocean. For South Africa to be denied to the West would be a strategic and possibly . . . a fatal disaster." Elspeth Huxley, writing in the August 27, 1968, issue of National Review, declared that isolating the South African regime could only backfire. Detente with the Soviet Union may have been scorned by conservatives, but suddenly it was entirely appropriate in dealing with South Africa. "If the outside world really wants to shake apartheid," wrote Huxley, "the only practical way is to sup with the devil: step up trade, increase all forms of contact . . . send out lecturers who will refrain from lecturing South Africans on how to run their own affairs."

This is precisely the approach that the Reagan administration devised in order to forestall the growing sanctions movement against South Africa: constructive engagement. Beginning in the late 1960s, student demonstrators and social activists started targeting universities and corporations that held investments in South Africa. Organizations such as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, the Council on Economic Priorities, and the Investor Responsibility Research Center were created primarily to pressure for divestment. By 1975, the Congressional Black Caucus, led by Charles Diggs, had begun to push harder for sanctions. Perhaps the most important step was taken by the Reverend Leon Sullivan, a prominent civil rights leader, who announced his Sullivan principles in March 1977, demanding that corporations adhere to a set of conditions before investing in South Africa. Twelve multinational companies signed on right away, agreeing, among other things, to integrate their facilities, to pay blacks wages equal to whites in comparable jobs, and to move more blacks into supervisory positions. By 1985, 173 American firms had committed to the Sullivan principles. But in the late 1980s, when Sullivan declared that his own principles were not working fast enough to expedite apartheid's downfall, it became evident to most that sanctions were the inevitable next step.

T hese moves were anathema to conservatives. Chester Crocker, the point man for the Reagan administration, espoused constructive engagement. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1979, he stated that "the option of U.S. disengagement hardly exists in practice. . . . By its nature and history South Africa is a part of the Western experience and an integral part of the Western economic system. In addition, the exigencies of U.S. domestic politics rule out disengagement." In truth, the domestic pressure that was mounting in the United States was actually for disengagement. It was conservatives who continued to support the apartheid regime in the face of growing public revulsion against it. As Crocker told a South African reporter in October 1980, "all Reagan knows about southern Africa is that he's on the side of the whites." "To what extent," asked the March 14, 1986, National Review, "is the vast majority of South African blacks intellectually and practically prepared to assume the social, economic, and political leadership in a highly industrialized country?"



By the 1980s, conservatives had apparently become Marxists. Economics was destiny. Capitalism would transform South Africa. Moral and humanitarian considerations could be dispensed with. Politics was irrelevant. Only economics counted.

And so, in a curious echo of the arguments of old leftist Soviet sympathizers, conservatives maintained that while blacks might not enjoy political rights, they were prospering economically under an authoritarian regime. "Capitalism," National Review editorialized on June 6, 1986, "has been the principal lever of amelioration in the lives of black South Africans. Bishop Tutu and the shanty-of-the-week set have their program for South Africa's future, but there can be others." On August 1, 1986, William F. Buckley, Jr., advised the United States to forget about the "one-man/one-vote business." George F. Will claimed that "South Africa needs more of what sanctions would diminish. It needs foreign capital operating under the rules of foreign justice." Fleur de Villiers, in the Winter 1986/87 National Interest, dismissed sanctions as "folly" that would harm "the black South Africans and their families who will lose their livelihood, and possibly their lives." Karen Elliott House argued that sanctions would have precisely the opposite effect on the ruling regime: "America's political strictures and economic sanctions have simply served to harden the attitudes of those who hold power . . . and to damage the economic fortunes and futures of the great majority of South Africans caught in between." It was the whites, she indicated, who might be in the greatest jeopardy. "The U.S.," she concluded, "shouldn't participate in schemes that simply transfer power from one racial group to another, while still guaranteeing no protection for the individual—regardless of color." But once again, conservatives were engaging in a sleight of hand. No one had ever argued that sanctions would have no effect on blacks. The point was that pressure had to be exerted on the regime, or no progress at all would occur in the country.

Conservatives also em ployed other arguments to ridicule the move toward sanctions. Liberals, conservatives said, were hypocrites. They were simply posturing, claiming a moral superiority that they didn't deserve. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, complained on March 10, 1978, that to "reap domestic political benefit from the African issue, you have to be against the white racists. . . . You have to start supporting the black radicals. At the end of the day, in order to demonstrate your opposition to the racists you end up supporting the Russians." The Journal concluded that "those who insist on viewing American policy in terms of the U.S. civil right struggle" were "throwing their support to the Black Panthers and Blackstone Rangers." On December 10, 1986, the Journal again drew an explicit link between the civil rights struggle in America and South Africa. The sanctions advocates, the Journal said, were not interested in reform, but, rather, revolution: "they know the U.S. civil-rights techniques of 20 years ago, in which you pressed a little harder and got a little more. The effect in South Africa scarcely matters: the point is to enact the ritual." Peter L. Berger and Bobby Godsell, in a July 1987 Commentary article entitled "Fantasies About South Africa," declared that "people in the West too have used South Africa as a ventilation valve for their own moral and political frustrations, finding in it a convenient surrogate or an easy analogy for issues at home whose complexity has rendered them intractable."

Y et another part of conservative dogma was that a liberal double standard was being practiced against South Africa. "Gorbachev can kill as many Afghans as he likes," complained National Review on July 18, 1986, "by a factor of perhaps 500 to 1 over deaths in South Africa, and no House vote imposes 'sanctions' on him. Let's kick the midget." The August 2, 1985, Wall Street Journal opined that "the nuclear-freeze movement having vanished from the headlines, bashing the Boers has suddenly become the approved outlet for demonstrating your own morality." Dinesh D'Souza, writing in the August 20, 1985, New York Times, stated that liberals were "preoccupied more with ideology than with people" in their call for sanctions. He claimed that if liberals were consistent, they would apply the same arguments to South Africa that they applied to the Soviet Union: "the South African people are not monsters, as they are often portrayed, but 'people just like us.' " Of course, D'Souza failed to realize that this is exactly what conservatives were saying about South Africa.

The most sustained charge of hypocrisy was developed by Adam Wolfson in the organ of the Heritage Foundation, Policy Review, in the fall of 1985. Wolfson began by making the rather obvious point that South Africa was scarcely the only country in Africa systematically to violate human rights. Ethiopia, Burundi, Angola, and Zaire were also grievous offenders. "Americans," wrote Wolfson, "who call for freedom and democratization in South Africa [should] think about the best ways of achieving these goals in the rest of the continent as well." Wolfson granted that the "suppression of blacks in South Africa is in some ways more systematic than in most other African countries" but also contended that "in other respects, South Africa is freer than most African countries." In essence, the charge of hypocrisy was a recipe for inaction. The fact that other countries were violating human rights was something many liberal activists may have preferred to ignore, but conservatives were never particularly exercised about those human rights violations except in the context of defending South Africa.

In the mid-1980s, conservatives became increasingly truculent in their attacks against liberals agitating for changes in American policy. And so, as sanctions were on the verge of being passed by Congress on October 2, 1986, conservative rhetoric only got hotter. Jesse Helms and Patrick Buchanan, then communications director for Reagan, vilified Bishop Desmond Tutu. William F. Buckley, Jr., groused in an op-ed on July 25, 1986, that the "militants in South Africa will settle at this point for nothing less than The Federalist Papers, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, Brown vs. Board of Education, the civil-rights acts of 1964 and 1965, and the latest affirmative-action decision of the Supreme Court." William Safire declared on August 8 in the New York Times that "the Big Lie being sold and swallowed in the debate on South Africa is this: If you are against sanctions, you are for apartheid." In August, Jerry Falwell announced his support for P. W. Botha: South Africa was "a country that is making progress and is a friend of the West," he said in Pretoria. He denounced sanctions and urged "millions of Christians to buy Krugerrands" and "to go into a million homes . . . to present our cause."

B ut the cause was a losing one. By 1986, 119 colleges and universities as well as dozens of states and cities had approved some form of divestment and the California senate approved divestment from the state's major pension funds. When Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act on October 2, conservatives went into conniptions. William F. Buckley, Jr., complained on October 8, "We have almost guaranteed that the anti-apartheid movement within South Africa will now slow down. . . . It was always the point of Ronald Reagan, and a few others, that the anti-apartheid cause is set back, rather than advanced, by aggressive sanctions against the government of South Africa."

While conservatives had lost the battle on sanctions, the war was not over for them. They simply moved the fight to another arena, stepping up their attempts to demonize the ANC, and relentlessly depicting Mandela as a dangerously radical communist. In the July 1988 Commentary, David Roberts, Jr., concluded that "those American pundits and politicians who currently extol the intelligence and erudition of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo should be reminded of how George McGovern once touted the Khmer Rouge as 'some of the best educated, most able intellectuals in Cambodia.' " The Wall Street Journal agreed. Condemning the ANC, the Journal stated on November 12, 1983, that "as the ANC plays out its script to polarize South Africa, it will want P. W. Botha's government to make the classical error of ignoring political moderates."


Conservatives were in a tight spot after Mandela was released to a hero's welcome. They found themselves on the losing side of history. Their tone became somewhat more equivocal, but the sniping never ended. After Mandela was released from prison, the Wall Street Journal continued to regard him with suspicion, noting on February 13, 1990, that his first speech in Cape Town "failed to reassure non-ANC members that he wants reconciliation with all South Africans." Simon Barber, in the July 23 National Review, asked "whether Mandela is a genuine democrat or, like so many leaders of liberation movements who have come before him, the beguiling salesman of one-party tyranny." In the October 1990 issue of Commentary, Joshua Muravchik wrote that Mandela's radical beliefs would lead his people to ruin and noted that such organizers of Mandela's tour through the United States as Roger Wilkins "tilt sharply to the Left." Now that Mandela has proven to be a magnanimous leader, however, the conservative press has had almost no discussion of his role. Where are the articles in Commentary discussing Mandela's statesmanship? An embarrassed silence seems to prevail.

T he truth is that not a single conservative prediction of doom has been borne out. Mandela, after spending several decades in prison, might well have emerged as an embittered, authoritarian leader intent on settling scores with the minority white populations. Conservative fears of a Marxist ANC were not entirely irrational, but it was wrong to assume that Mandela would automatically become a tyrant. This was a cozy assumption that dispensed with the need to grapple with South African realities. Conservatives were merely applying a formula to South Africa. Defying that formula, Mandela and F. W. de Klerk presided over a peaceful transition of power to the black majority. South Africa has become a true parliamentary democracy no longer based on the racist regime of apartheid.

It is true that South Africa remains riven by ethnic tensions and that it could still take a sharp downward economic turn. But this is not an argument against handing over power to the black population; on the contrary, it suggests that it should have taken place even sooner. No conservative maintains, for instance, that the current debility of Russia means that communist power should have been kept in the Kremlin. As with South Africa, a good case can be made that the fewer years the communists ruled Russia, the better condition it would be in today.

Illustration by Taylor Jones--click to go to his websiteIndeed, every argument made by conservatives concerning apartheid has been proven wrong. Seldom has there been a more decisive repudiation of conservative dogma than in the case of South Africa. Far from being a failure, sanctions worked. The withdrawal of mressured the government itself for action. Sanctions also sapped the National Party of its confidence. After the United States and the British Commonwealth imposed sanctions, professors at the University of Stellenbosch, where apartheid had been concajor corporations and the refusal of international banks to roll over loans exerted considerable pressure on the business community inside South Africa, which then pocted, resigned from the party. The Dutch Reform Church altered its stance and decried apartheid. F. W. de Klerk has stated that "once the taps of international capital investment and loans had been turned off, apartheid began to stare the spectre of bankruptcy in the face." The conservative case about apartheid was not just morally reprehensible—it was also false.

Conservatives who argued that blacks were incapable of governing themselves were reminiscent of American apologists in the 1930s, who argued the same thing about the Soviet masses. Even if one had conceded that blacks were incapable of ruling themselves, it is hard to see how continued subjugation under apartheid would have much improved their situation. Nor were conservative assessments of the ANC and Nelson Mandela on the mark. The ANC has not attempted to expropriate South African businesses and Mandela has preached reconciliation rather than hatred.

Exposing the conservative crusade for South Africa is not a matter of engaging in retrospective moral condemnation. Conservatives were arguing against liberals who stated that it was imperative to isolate and condemn South Africa. Liberals correctly understood that ostracizing a white ruling class that posed as an avatar of Western civilization might sap its confidence and cause it to lose its putative moral edge. Perhaps most important, liberals grasped a fundamental moral truth: The struggle for liberty and justice in South Africa, as Robert Kinloch Massie shows in his magisterial new Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years, was a direct continuation of the American struggle for civil rights. Just as conservatives were on the side of repression in the American civil rights battle, so they joined ranks with the tyrants in South Africa.

Indeed, like the leftists who praised the Soviet Union, conservatives did not just defend South Africa, they often sympathized with it. In their admiration of the Soviet Union, leftists who were entranced by notions of equality refused to recognize the horrors of the Gulag. That was bad enough. And yet, the South African regime was even more morally odious, more akin in spirit to the Nazi dictatorship than the Bolshevik one. Apartheid was the first cousin of Nazism. In both the South African and Nazi regimes, an entire class of people was singled out for persecution and degradation solely on the basis of arbitrary racial categories. Remarkably, almost no attention has been devoted to the history of the conservative defense of South Africa. The silence must end. Now that apartheid has crumbled, American conservatives have an obligation to confront their shameful complicity with white-ruled South Africa.

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