The praise Nelson Mandela has received since his passing yesterday has been extravagant, well-deserved, and nearly universal. From every corner of the globe, Mandela has been lauded as a world leader without parallel in our era.
Praise for Mandela has been effusive even from many who had little use for him during the apartheid era. Conservative politicians from parties that spurned his struggle for national liberation while it was ongoing have been elbowing each other out of the way to memorialize him now.
This phenomenon has been particularly pronounced — and particularly jarring — at the website of the American conservative magazine National Review. Their outpouring of affection has shocked and dismayed many of the site’s regular readers, who have flooded the posts’ comments sections with expressions of outrage, many of them appallingly ugly, and the naked racism on display there has attracted a lot of attention around the ‘net.
More interesting to me, though, has been the way the writers at NR have dealt with the chasm between their present and past views. The editors’ unsigned editorial chose to avoid the topic entirely, instead tempering their praise for Mandela with criticism of some of his views, while the authors of each of the site’s two signed pieces wrote that their error in judging Mandela had been one of believing he was more of a leftist than he turned out to be. I’m not in a position to judge either of these writers’ sincerity, but the site’s collective representation of its, and the conservative movement’s, history with apartheid is dishonest.
William F. Buckley was the founder of National Review, and America’s leading conservative intellectual for much of the second half of the 20th century. He was also an explicit supporter of white supremacy — throughout the 1950s and 1960s he scoffed at the idea that either black Africans or black Americans were capable of self-governance.
As the years passed Buckley’s public views on the civil rights movement in the United States became more moderated, but his antipathy to popular democracy in Africa remained a constant. Here he is in a 1986 op-ed, writing just four years before Mandela was released from prison — at a time when the South African government had already begun the secret negotiations that would lead to an orderly transition to majority rule in that country:
“Western democratic fundamentalism has made things especially hard in South Africa for one simple reason, and that is that Western opinion has consolidated around the position that unless every black in South Africa over the age of 18 is given the vote, there is still injustice in the land.
“The government will not … grant political equality to everyone in South Africa. Nor should it. It is preposterous at one and the same time to remark the widespread illiteracy in South Africa and to demand the universal franchise.
“Continue our moral pressure, by all means. But … pull back on the one-man, one vote business.”
The open racism on display here is startling, of course. But so is the blatant antipathy to democracy itself. An insistence on the rightness of popular self-determination is, in Buckley’s eyes, a form of “fundamentalism” — if the black majority in South Africa, after generations of white minority suppression, is not prepared to exercise the franchise in the way, and with the results, that Buckley prefers, then it is entirely right and popular for that white minority to deny them the vote indefinitely.
A lot has been said in the last 24 hours about the impulse to water down Mandela’s fierce commitments and challenging beliefs, to canonize a pastel caricature instead of grappling with the man he was and the true fight he fought. But we should be just as wary about revising the history of his antagonists, of pretending that the only racists in power who were fighting to keep him and his people imprisoned were those who ruled his nation.
Not thirty years ago one of America’s most prominent conservatives offered the opinion, unsolicited, that black South Africans would not, could not, and should not govern themselves.
That shouldn’t be forgotten.