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Austin Cline

Republicans, Racism, and Apartheid

By October 17, 2004

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During their debate, John Edwards brought forward the fact that while in Congress Dick Cheney voted in support of the apartheid regime of South Africa. Considering past conservative support for segregation in America, this should have been taken as an opportunity to apologize - but it wasn't. Why?

Joe Conason writes for Salon:

Cheney bristled in response to questions about his voting record, revealing a mindset that never understood what was at stake in South Africa -- or perhaps understood all too well. Challenged last Sunday to defend his 1985 vote against a House resolution urging the release of Nelson Mandela from 23 years of imprisonment, he first denounced such inquiries as "trivia." Does he really think that the oppression inflicted on millions of black citizens during more than five decades was a trivial matter?
He quickly tried to correct that gaffe, praising Mandela as "a great man." (He also remarked, with baffling condescension, that the African leader has "mellowed," whatever that means.) He had opposed the resolution to free Mandela, according to Cheney, because it was attached to recognition of the African National Congress. "The ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization," he said. "Nobody was for keeping Nelson Mandela in prison. Nobody was for supporting apartheid."

Interesting to see Cheney label the ANC was a "terrorist" organization. He's right, of course. They were labeled a terrorist organization. They did commit acts of terrorism against the South African government. Shouldn't this suggest that sometimes groups are given the "terrorist" label when they are justifiably fighting oppression?

For Cheney, anticommunism excused a multitude of sins, including his own. Whenever they protected Pretoria from democratic change, conservatives like him would invoke Soviet backing for the ANC and the presence of communists in the ANC leadership. Yet it has long been obvious that the Republican tilt in favor of white supremacy was influenced as much by unsavory stateside domestic politics as by geopolitical concerns.
That sad fact was discovered by Henry Kissinger as early as 1976, when he delivered a stirring speech in Zambia calling for racial justice on the African continent as "an imperative of our own moral heritage." It was an unusually decent initiative on the part of the old reprobate, who could with some understatement be described as no friend of human rights.
Kissinger was immediately denounced by House Republican leader Robert Michel, later Cheney's mentor, because of his speech's "devastating effect" on Ford's reelection campaign in Southern primaries. According to Walter Isaacson's biography of Kissinger, Michel demanded that Ford "muzzle" his secretary of state. Apparently the "Southern strategy" adopted by the party of Lincoln meant appeasing racism, both at home and abroad.

As Conason notes, Cheney could have used this (either during the debate or later) as an opportunity to acknowledge that he let things like anticommunism blind him to other forms of injustice, apologize for any suffering that was extended because of his support of apartheid, and look for ways to move on. He didn't. Why not?

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