Reagan’s apartheid veto unified Congress

Apartheid was one of the few things that could unite conservatives and liberals in Congress to overturn a president's veto. Photo: Reagan and Mandela / AP

WASHINGTON, December 15, 2013 — In the fall of 1986, Congress voted 313-83 to override President Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Apartheid Act, which imposed strong economic sanctions against the South Africa government over apartheid. One month later, the Senate followed the House’s vote, voting 78-21 to override Reagan’s veto.

This vote unified both houses of Congress and was one of only two votes to overturn a presidential veto of a foreign policy measure in the last century. The other was the vote to override President Nixon’s veto of the War Powers Resolution of 1973.

The Congressional Black Caucus was a prime sponsor of the bill and vocal opponent of South African apartheid. The act banned all new loans and financial investments in South Africa. Trade with South Africa was generally banned, as were direct flights between the U.S. and South Africa. 


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Why did Reagan veto the bill? He apparently intended to impose economic restrictions through executive order, tailoring them to avoid the further violence against blacks in South Africa that he thought would result from blanket economic sanctions. Democrats and 81 Republicans did not think that was enough. The Congressional Black Caucus saw the White House’s moves as a “moral wake up call” to address the discriminatory practices of apartheid, but they felt that stronger, statutory action was required.

Many U.S. allies implemented their own sanctions against South Africa. In 1990, the result was that the white-dominated South African government finally freed Nelson Mandela, who had served an unjust 27-year prison sentence. Shortly after Mandela’s release, apartheid fell and he was elected as the nation’s first “African” President.

Reagan and his top officials came into the White House determined to work with the government in South Africa to expand democracy in the region. Their policy was at first met with little congressional cooperation, but as the violence in South African escalated, so did congressional interest in South Africa policy. Conservative House Republicans began to push the administration to change its positions toward South Africa.

This alliance that formed between liberal Democrats under the leadership of House Speaker Tip O’ Neill and conservative Republicans in the Senate made the override of Reagan’s veto of the sanction bill possible. If he were alive today, Reagan might reconsider that veto — a veto that unified Congress as very little did. We know that Reagan was determined to meet with South African leaders and wanted to end apartheid through diplomacy, but in the face of a human rights monstrosity like apartheid, there was growing consensus that engagement with South Africa’s leaders was not the right policy.


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It took the United States almost three decades to finally remove Nelson Mandela’s name from the terrorist watch list, but once again Democrats and Republicans are widely unified, now in admiration for Mandela. Perhaps they can find that sense of unity some day to work for our nation’s best interest.


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