Nelson Mandela, Jesse Helms And The Way Things Used To Be

North Carolina's late Senator No tried to stop an anti-apartheid bill
Jesse Helms

It seems odd now, but there was a time when Sen. Jesse Helms represented North Carolina. Helms, who was a talking head in his earlier years, made racially inflammatory campaign ads in his middle years and befriended Bono in his later years, once filibustered an anti-apartheid bill back in the mid-1980s. The bill's purpose was to punish the South African government's policy of separating the races by denying them American loans. It also demanded the release of political prisoners like Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95.

The bill, according to a retrospective out yesterday from PolicyMic, divided the Republican party, with Helms taking the lead on one side:

Conservatives believed the U.S. had no business hectoring the South African government over apartheid. Senator Jesse Helms (R–N.C.), the Senate's leading race-baiter, took the Senate floor to filibuster on behalf of the apartheid government of South Africa. Helms was an old pro at using the filibuster: he had launched a similar one three years earlier against establishing a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. He was joined by like-minded conservatives including noted segregationist Strom Thurmond (R–S.C.) and future presidential hopeful Phil Gramm (R–Texas) in voting against the bill's final passage.

Helms' argument was one we hear still today: that sanctions against a regime won't hurt the regime itself, but rather the people living under it. "All this bill does is exacerbate the situation in South Africa," he told United Press International in August 1985. "Nobody is for apartheid, but who are we to be so pious about the efforts of the South African government to stop the riots, the looting, the shooting and the mayhem that's going on over there?" For years, Helms worried that American sanctions on totalitarian states would lead to the spread of communism. If the white government was overthrown and Mandela's African National Congress came to power, Helms predicted the worst would happen. "South Africa, and consequently, all of Africa," he said in a July 1986 Senate committee hearing, would "fall under the control of the Soviet Union."

Long story short, Helms was wrong. Congress passed the Anti-Apartheid Bill, President Reagan vetoed it, and Republican moderates helped to override the veto. The issue wasn't whether apartheid was a bad thing– Reagan and Congress agreed it was– but whether economic sanctions would make things better or worse. The bill's implementation caused foreign investment to flee South Africa, and was one of the factors that led the country's Afrikaner government to change its ways. In 1989, Mandela was freed from prison after 27 years. Four years later, he became South Africa's president.

Mandela's legacy is one of nearly universal respect. Helms, who died in 2008, left behind a record of racially-charged conservatism so strong that the Jesse Helms Center has an entire page of its website dedicated to "Fictional 'Facts,'" and goes on to plead the case that the Helms was not a racist, nor a homophobe, nor was this 1990 campaign ad, uh, racist. Helms may have been Senator No, but in this case, he couldn't stop a bill that led the United States to take action against apartheid.

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