In his recent visit to South Africa, President Obama credited Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement for inspiring him to get involved in politics. As Obama recounted in Dreams From My Father, he made his first political speech at Occidental College as part of the divestment campaign. When two white students in paramilitary gear pulled him off stage—in an act of political theater designed to reflect the oppression of blacks under apartheid—Obama said that “a part of me wasn’t acting, I really wanted to stay up there…I had so much left to say.” One of his friends recalled that he “showed no sign of being the orator who would become president nearly twenty-eight years later,” but that he had begun his journey.
While the anti-apartheid movement played a crucial role in Obama’s political maturation, its opponent, the anti-divestment movement, played a crucial role in developing some of America’s top conservative leaders. Republican power brokers such as Grover Norquist, Jeff Flake and Jack Abramoff all launched their careers in the anti-divestment campaign, seeking to keep trade open with apartheid South Africa.
During the Reagan administration, the US government took a position of constructive engagement towards South Africa. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker pushed for expanded trade with Johannesburg under the belief that it was a strong ally in the Cold War. While divestment activists urged the United States to isolate the South African regime, the Reagan administration was pushing for more trade and engagement.
As part of their attempt to win over American public support and stop the sanctions that were crippling the regime, the South African government and large South African companies hired a slew of young, conservative political operatives. Republicans embraced the cause fervently. As journalist Thomas Frank noted, “In those days, South Africa’s agonizing racial problems, its prosperous but beleaguered business community, and its stout defiance of all things communist made it a potent symbol for American conservatives,” who saw anti-Communism as their highest calling. College Republicans made no mention in their 1984 platform of apartheid but they did say that “socio-economic and political developments in South Africa are resulting in the betterment of the lives of all the peoples of South Africa.”
Jack Abramoff, now a disgraced former lobbyist convicted of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion, got much of his start from his work with South Africa. Abramoff visited the country following his term as National Chair of the College Republicans in 1983 and met with pro-apartheid student groups linked to the South Africa’s Bureau of Security Services. In 1986, he opened the International Freedom Foundation. Ostensibly a think tank, it was later revealed as a front group for the South African Army as part of “Operation Babushka” meant to undermine Nelson Mandela’s international approval. The group had over “30 young ideologues in offices on G Street in Washington, Johannesburg, London and Brussels” working on propaganda in support of the South African government.
Rather than stay in Washington, Abramoff moved to Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia) to shoot a propaganda film, Red Scorpion, that valorized the fight of anti-Communist fighters in Angola led by Jonas Savimbi, who was allied with South Africa. The movie was mocked by The New York Times for its bad acting and boycotted by anti-apartheid activists led by tennis star Arthur Ashe for the movie’s cooperation with the South African army. Abramoff’s movie career tanked, but he used the experience to launch his career as one of the most well-connected Republican lobbyists on K Street.
Like Abramoff, GOP tax guru Grover Norquist became enamored with the conflict in South Africa and went there to extend his support. Norquist ran College Republicans from 1981 to 1983 and went to South Africa in 1985 for a “Youth for Freedom Conference” sponsored by South African businesses. While other college students, such as Barack Obama, had been active in anti-apartheid work, this conference was seeking to bring American and South African conservatives together to end that movement. In his speech there, Norquist said, “The left has no other issue [but apartheid] on campus. Economic issues are losers for them. There are no sexy Soviet colonies anymore.” A few months after the conference, Norquist went to Angola to work with Jonas Savimbi, the rebel leader that Abramoff valorized in his film. Norquist became a ghost-writer for Savimbi’s essay in Policy Review. When he returned to Washington, he was greeted in conservative circles as a “freedom fighter,” and he proudly placed an “I’d rather be killing commies” bumper sticker on his brief case.
A few years later and much further along in the anti-apartheid movement, a young Jeff Flake (now a senator from Arizona) became active in lobbying for South African mining interests in the late 1980s and early ’90s, after returning from his Mormon mission to South Africa. As a graduate student at Brigham Young University, he testified against an anti-apartheid resolution in the Utah State Senate and then became a lobbyist in Washington for Smoak, Shipley and Henry, a lobbying firm specializing in representing the South African mining industry. Flake went on to personally represent the Rossing Uranium plant in Namibia, which had been a major target of anti-apartheid activists for its discriminatory and unsafe practices.
Decades later, these Republican leaders would prefer not to have their adventures in South Africa mentioned. While Abramoff went down in a corruption scandal, Norquist went on to remake himself into a libertarian anti-tax activist, and Flake moved back to Arizona. The anti-communism that motivated the Republican allegiance to South Africa fizzled with the end of the Cold War, but the history of the Republican entanglement with South Africa remains one of the party’s darker episodes.
President Obama can proudly talk about how his first political act was in response to apartheid. While a few Republicans stood against apartheid, much of the Republican Party has nothing to offer about its position at the time but silence. I wouldn’t expect any reflections on apartheid from Abramoff, Flake or Norquist anytime soon.