Lawmakers who voted against sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s are not second-guessing their vote now, even as they remember the late Nelson Mandela as a transformational leader and a central force in the struggle against apartheid and racism.
“What would a guy go back and pick old scabs for?” asked former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who voted to uphold President Reagan’s veto of the sanctions bill. “Why? I don’t spend time in regret. If I spent my time doing that after 30 years of voting, I’d be a basket case.”
Sen. Thad CochranThad CochranMcConnell: Senate will pass short-term funding bill to avoid shutdown Lawmakers push one-week stopgap funding bill Picking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups MORE (R-Miss.), who has just announced he will run for a seventh term, said only “good grief” when asked about his 1986 vote. (A spokesman for the senator later added, "Sen. Cochran respected Nelson Mandela for his achievements, just as he had great respect for Ronald Reagan and the singular role that the president plays in setting U.S. foreign policy.")
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) noted that he’s “voted about 20,000 times, and you can’t go back and second-guess how you voted 20, 30 years ago.”
Those comments underscore that, while Mandela has been hailed as one of the heroes of the last century, the push to impose sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid government in 1986 was far from a smooth ride.
With Mandela still in prison at the time, Reagan argued that sanctions would be ineffective and impede his ability to conduct foreign policy.
The Republican Party ended up split on whether to support their president. Democrats overwhelmingly supported the sanctions, which barred U.S. companies from directly investing in South Africa.
Twenty-seven years later, lawmakers who bucked Reagan say those who took the opposite course might just be blustering in their retrospective explanations.
“I don’t think any of them would openly admit it, but I think that when you read between the lines … a number of them that I know believe that, if they had a do-over, they would probably do it differently,” said Sen. John McCainJohn McCainPoliticians absent from Thompson Reuters brunch McCain downplays threat of pre-emptive strike against North Korea McCain plan gains momentum amid North Korea threats MORE (R-Ariz.), who backed the sanctions as a House lawmaker.
Coverage of Mandela’s death focused on his efforts to overturn apartheid in South Africa and heal the divided nation after spending nearly three decades in prison. President Obama said his first political action was to protest against apartheid, calling Mandela an inspiration.
In all, more than three dozen current lawmakers voted on the South Africa sanctions measure in 1986, with the vast majority backing the plan.
More than 300 House members voted to impose the sanctions, and then to override Reagan’s veto. More than 80 senators backed the sanctions when they first hit the floor, with 78 then opposing the veto.
Four current lawmakers — Barton and Reps. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), Howard Coble (R-N.C) and Ralph Hall (R-Texas) — opposed the sanctions from the start. (Hall was a Democrat at the time, switching parties in 2004.)
Several others, under deep pressure from the Reagan administration, switched their vote weeks later to back the president’s veto — including Cochran and Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
Other prominent GOP lawmakers — including then-Sens. Bob Dole (Kan.) and Simpson, the top two Republicans in the chamber at the time — also ended up backing Reagan’s veto.
But current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), broke with Reagan on the issue, with what news reports at the time described as “great reluctance.”
Now, decades after that vote and in the immediate aftermath of Mandela’s death, lawmakers who resisted the sanctions say they have high opinions of Mandela and simply voted for what they thought was right in the moment.
“You’ve got to vote what you think at the time,” said Barton.
Coble told the Greensboro News & Record that he wanted to support his president on the vote, and had questions about some of the anti-apartheid groups.
“Do I regret it? Well, I voted with my president back then, and there was some evidence that some South African groups had been involved with terrorists,” he said.
“Well, that’s a long time ago,” said Rogers during an interview with C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.” “Like the rest of the world, I mourn his passing."
Mandela was ultimately awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Gold Medal.
McCain told The Hill he remembered the concerns over sanctions well. After all, he originally opposed them too.
While still in the House, McCain cited concerns about potential Communist ties to the African National Congress in resisting the pro-sanctions push.
But after a trip to South Africa during which he met with both sides, he changed his mind.
“I met with these apartheid guys, and some of them were just thugs,” he said. “So after that visit, I came back and announced that I supported the sanctions."
“I’m really glad that I took the time to go to South Africa because I might have maintained the same position that I had bought into,” he added.
In one of his last votes as a House lawmaker, McCain joined with 80 Republicans and 232 Democrats to override Reagan’s veto.
Members also recalled the business and economic concerns that came with cutting ties with South Africa.
Former Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who led the push for sanctions, remembered his colleagues facing significant pressure to oppose the effort.
The former head of the Foreign Relations Committee said senators like the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) were receiving targeted warnings from the South African government about how their home state industries would be hurt.
“There was a strong attempt to lobby and even become very specific about agriculture or specific items in someone’s state that would be hurt by this thing,” he said, adding that calls from South Africa were received “even in the Republican cloak hall” just off the Senate floor.
Lawmakers argued that it is easy to second-guess political decisions in retrospect, and that applies to both parties.
In the years since that sanctions fight, lawmakers have united around praising Mandela. Barton called him a “great citizen of the world,” and Simpson said he was “just a prince” and one of the greatest leaders he’d ever met.
“How can you argue with what happened?” said Simpson. “It worked. Move on.”
Both Coble and McCain said the vote was primarily symbolic, a way of putting the United States on record against apartheid. Nonetheless, Lugar recounted Mandela telling lawmakers during a Washington visit that he was profoundly relieved to see action.
“Mercifully, the Congress of the United States really was the force that saved me,” Lugar recalled Mandela saying.