Americans For Tax Reform president Grover Norquist. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
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.”