PRESIDENT Bush proclaimed: "Ronald Reagan believed that God takes the side of justice and that America has a special calling to oppose tyranny and defend freedom." In the first three days of news reports on the death of the former president, not a single major American newspaper, television station, or politician has dared to exhume this counterpoint to the Reagan's legacy: "Immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian."
These were the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, spoken on Capitol Hill at a House hearing in late 1984. It was just after Reagan's easy reelection. Tutu had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Throughout the United States a rising number of Americans were calling for American companies to stop doing business there.
Reagan ignored them. The president of so-called sunny optimism attempted to blind Americans with his policy of "constructive engagement" with the white minority regime in Pretoria. All constructive engagment did was give the white minority more time to mow down the black majority in the streets and keep dreamers of democracy, such as Nelson Mandela, behind bars.
In the weeks leading up to his appearance on Capitol Hill, Tutu said in speeches that it seemed that the Reagan White House saw "blacks as expendable" in South Africa. The white government forced black people from prized lands and into horrid townships. Migratory labor laws split familes for 11 months at a time. Education was gutted for black children. There was virtually no due process for black defendants. Tutu said it was "reminiscent of Hitler's Aryan madness." Tutu declared that "constructive engagement is an abomination, an unmitigated disaster."
On Capitol Hill, Tutu became a public relations disaster for Reagan. Tutu started off the hearing by saying apartheid itself "is evil, is immoral, is un-Christian, without remainder." I was there, and all breathing stopped, without remainder. Tutu continued:
"In my view, the Reagan administration's support and collaboration with it is equally immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian. . . . You are either for or against apartheid and not by rhetoric. You are either in favor of evil or you are in favor of good. You are either on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressor. You can't be neutral."
Tutu received an unprecedented standing ovation by the committee. Even Reagan's Republican allies told the South African Embassy they would reluctantly support sanctions if Pretoria did not move to end apartheid.
Reagan was not moved. Over the remainder of his presidency, at least 3,000 people would die, mostly at the hands of the South African police and military. Another 20,000, including 6,000 children, according to one estimate by a human rights group, would be arrested under "state of emergency" decrees.
Yet Reagan had the gall to say in 1985 that the "reformist administration" of South Africa had "eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country." In 1986, Reagan gave a speech where he said Mandela should be released but denounced sanctions with crocodile tears, claiming that they would hurt black workers, who were already ridiculously impoverished. Reagan's go-slow speech was denounced by Tutu, who said: "I found it quite nauseating. I think the West, for my part, can go to hell. . . . Your president is the pits as far as blacks are concerned. He sits there like the great, big white chief of old."
Later in 1986, Reagan made his greatest demonstration yet that black bodies were "expendable." Congress had finally had enough of the carnage to vote for limited sanctions. Reagan vetoed them. Congress overrode the veto. Reagan proceded to put no muscle behind the sanctions. Mandela remained in jail and at least 2,000 political prisoners remained detained without trial.
In 1987 Reagan published a report that said additional sanctions "would not be helpful." The gleeful South African foreign minister, Roelof Botha, said that Reagan "and his administration have an understanding of the reality of South Africa."
Reagan's and Botha's "reality" was rendered a fantasy by the force of world opinion and a more enlightened leadership inside South Africa. Only a year after Reagan left office, Mandela was released. One can only wonder how much sooner he would have been released and how many lives would have been saved had Reagan not behaved like the white chief of old.
President Bush said Reagan believed God was on the side of justice. On South Africa, Reagan was on the side of one of the most demonic governments on the face of the earth. He chose to assist tyranny and ignore brutality. Ronald Reagan's death has been followed by relentless descriptions of him as a president of sunny optimism. On South Africa he was no sunshine. He was the cloud who dimmed the skies as apartheid rained death upon black people.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.