In 1986, Nelson Mandela — the former president of South Africa who died Thursday at the age of 95 — was serving the 23rd year of what would ultimately be a 27-year prison sentence. The Western world was finally acknowledging the true horrors of Apartheid, a system of racial segregation that denied basic rights to blacks — including citizenship and the right to vote — and brutally oppressed a generation of South Africans fighting for equality.
In the U.S. Congress, lawmakers were ready to show their opposition to the South African regime with the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, a bill that called for tough sanctions and travel restrictions on the nation and its leaders, and for the repeal of apartheid laws and release of political prisoners like Mandela, then leader of the African National Congress (ANC).
The measure passed with bipartisan support, despite strong and largely Republican opposition. President Ronald Reagan was among those most opposed to the bill, and when he finally vetoed the measure over its support of the ANC, which he maintained was a “terrorist organization,” it took another vote by Congress to override it. Among the Republicans who repeatedly voted against the measure was future Vice President Dick Cheney, then a Republican congressman from Wyoming.
Cheney’s staunch resistance to the Anti-Apartheid Act arose as an issue during his future campaigns on the presidential ticket, but the Wyoming Republican has never said he regretted voting the way he did. In fact, in 2000, he maintained that he’d made the right decision.
“The ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization,” Cheney said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I don’t have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.”
Cheney went on to call Mandela a “great man” who had “mellowed” in the decade after his release from prison.
In 2004, Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards tore into his counterpart’s congressional voting record, calling out Cheney for his vote against freeing Mandela. Shortly after, Cheney historian John Nichols said that he’d spoken to Mandela about Cheney’s record and worldview. Like many, Mandela was concerned:
He’s very blunt about it he says one of the many reasons why he fears Dick Cheney’s power in the United States, and Mandela does say, he understands that Cheney is effectively the President of the United States, he says, one of the many reasons that he fears Dick Cheney’s power is that in the late 1980’s when even prominent Republicans like Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich were acknowledging the crime of Apartheid, Dick Cheney maintained the lie that the ANC was a terrorist organization and a fantasy that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist leader who deserved to be in jail. Frankly it begs very powerful question. If Dick Cheney’s judgment was that bad in the late 1980’s, why would we believe that it’s gotten any better in the early 21st century?
A handful of sitting lawmakers also voted against freeing Mandela. GOP Reps. Joe Barton (Texas), Howard Coble (N.C.) and Hal Rogers (Ky.) opposed the Anti-Apartheid Act throughout the legislative process. Texas Rep. Ralph Hall, then a Democrat, voted against the bill, but did not vote on the veto override.