The sticking point was, in Mandela’s case, ideological. In the mid-'80s, as activists in South Africa and around the world began to agitate in earnest for Mandela’s release, the Reagan administration still saw communism as one of its primary enemies -- and defeating communism as one of its foremost foreign policy goals. That complicated the administration’s take on South Africa.
The apartheid regime, it turns out, had supported the U.S. during the Cold War and had worked closely with both the Reagan and Nixon administrations to limit Soviet influence in the region, as Sam Kleiner chronicled in Foreign Policy last July.
Meanwhile, the African National Congress, which Mandela chaired, was peppered with members of the South African Communist Party. Even worse in the eyes of the Reagan Administration was the ANC’s apparent friendliness toward Moscow: The ANC’s secretary general, Alfred Nzo, bore greetings to the Soviet communist party congress in 1986. That was enough to inspire Reagan to accuse the ANC of encouraging communism in a 1986 policy speech, and to rule that South Africa had no obligation to negotiate with a group bent on “creating a communist state.”
The Reagan administration wasn’t alone in this fear, either -- Margaret Thatcher’s conservative regime in Britain shared Reagan’s “constructive engagement,” anti-sanctions views regarding South Africa. (It probably helped that the U.K., like the U.S., was a major South African trade partner.) Years later, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney would write a memoir that detailed his attempts to persuade Thatcher and Reagan to take action in South Africa. All attempts, sometimes famously, failed:
When we spoke on the telephone the night before I left for London, however, it became clear that Ronald Reagan saw the whole South African issue strictly in East-West Cold War terms. Over the years, he and Margaret continually raised with me their fears that Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders were communists. My answer was always the same. 'How can you or anyone else know that?' I'd ask again and again. 'He's been in prison for 20 years and nobody knows that, for the simple reason no one has talked to him -- including you.'
Tragically for South Africa, the cloud of communism prevented the U.S. from acting for several years. While the Reagan administration’s official goal was to end apartheid, and while it consistently called for South Africa to free Mandela, the U.S. dragged its feet on the crucial issue of economic sanctions. When a United Nations resolution came up that criticized apartheid, both the U.S. and Britain pushed through amendments to weaken it.
The Reagan administration also followed South Africa’s lead on characterizing the ANC, naming it a terrorist group in the 1970s and forcing Mandela to get special State Department clearance to enter the U.S. in 2008. (“It's frankly a rather embarrassing matter,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at the time.)
Eventually, of course, the U.S. did pass economic sanctions, which are widely credited for helping topple -- at least in part -- the apartheid regime. Mandela went on to praise Reagan (as well as President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev) for his role in ending apartheid.
But it was Mandela’s outspoken wife, Winnie, who probably best expressed the frayed relationship between the two world leaders -- and, for a time in the ‘80s, between the anti-apartheid movement and the United States. In 1986, after Winnie’s home was firebombed and burned down, the Reagan administration offered her $10,000 to rebuild it. She refused.
"This why our people are angry at the Reagan and Thatcher administrations in particular,” Winnie Mandela said. “[They] continue to condone the activities of the South African government. If they had any feeling for the downtrodden and oppressed majority of our country they would end their policy of gentle persuasion. It appears their interests in this country far outweighs their so-called abhorrence of apartheid."