Reagan's heart of darkness
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Boston Globe June 9, 2004
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
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
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
(c) Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company