But I could hardly fail to take note of the passing of one of the great heroes of equality of our time, Nelson Mandela. It was Mandela who, more than any other single person, was crucial to ending the murderous, decades-long regime of racist oppression and terror known as apartheid.
I'll leave analysis about Mandela's historical importance to South African, and world, history to others who are far more qualified to comment on it. But I did want to make two points.
First, though this history has now conveniently been sucked down the memory hole, throughout the 1980s, many conservatives were wildly enthusiastic supporters of the monstrous apartheid regime. Margaret Thatcher, of course, smeared Mandela as an "ex-terrorist." And as this 2000 Salon piece by Joe Conason reported, the Reagan administration worked tirelessly behind the scenes to strengthen the apartheid regime, lending an ever-helpful hand to South Africa's bloodthirsty security and military intelligence agencies. Reagan and the rest of the conservative movement also staunchly opposed economic sanctions to end apartheid. In addition, Reagan, Dick Cheney, and other powerful conservatives supported the apartheid regime's goal of keeping Mandela in prison for the rest of his natural life and opposed Congressional resolutions to free him. Even in 2000, Cheney expressed no regrets about his vote against a resolution favoring Mandela's release, arguing that Mandela had belonged to what he characterized as a "terrorist" organization, the ANC.
Tom Frank's The Wrecking Crew, has more. As Frank wrote in that book, "You don't have to dig deep very deep in the conservative literature of the eighties before you hit South Africa. . . The apartheid government made an ideal love-match for the far right." There's a fun account in the book of Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, Howard Phillips, and a gaggle of College Republicans having themselves a wingnut Woodstock in Johannesburg in 1985 -- with white South African apartheid supporters footing the bill. Good times! Frank has much, much more more about the close ties between American conservatives and the apartheid regime -- if this subject interests you, give it a read. UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates has more on apartheid's useful idiots (though I wouldn't exactly call them idiotic myself; most of them knew exactly what they were doing).
The other point I wanted to make is more along the lines of a confession. I'm old enough to remember a time when I had never even heard of Nelson Mandela. In fact, the first time I remember hearing his name was in the song "Free Nelson Mandela" by the British ska revival band The Special A.K.A. Below is a video of the band recording an early version of the song in 1983 for a British TV show.
It's a fascinating time capsule. Partly it's interesting because it's not the hit single version that's most familiar to us. But what's most compelling, and unexpectedly touching, is that it clearly was filmed before Nelson Mandela was Nelson Mandela -- that is, before most people knew who he was. There are title cards that begin at about 3:54 that inform the viewer of some basic facts about Mandela's imprisonment and the apartheid regime. They are stark reminders of the suffering he endured and the brutal character of the apartheid system.
It reminds you that yes, there was a time before Mandela became a secular saint, before Morgan Freeman played him in a movie. It helps you see that inside the human rights icon lived a flesh-and-blood human being. Do be sure to watch it to the end, because that scroll at the end with the quote from Mandela about why he's willing to give his life for the ideals for freedom and equality is very moving. It's an eloquent epitaph for one of the world's great warriors for social justice. May his fighting spirit live on.