If there was any doubt that the politics of the right are based in fear and resentment, the right-wing reaction to the death of Nelson Mandela laid it to rest, a moment that also laid bare the relationship between racism and opposition to the free agency of women.
As much of the world took a collective pause to express appreciation for the man who came to personify the struggle for human rights and racial justice in South Africa—a country long ruled by white people who denied full citizenship to people of color—the right-wing base that now fuels the Republican Party erupted in consternation and condemnation.
When several Republican leaders issued statements lauding Mandela for having led his nation out of apartheid, the brutal system of racial segregation long enforced by the white rules of South Africa, the comments sections of their Facebook pages ignited with invective. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is not above playing the race card when it suits him, expressed shock at the vitriol of his Facebook followers when he posted a note of appreciation, calling Mandela “one of the greatest leaders of our lifetime.”
As reported by the Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel:
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Gingrich’s statement, however, was met with backlash from many of his followers.
“Newt, I was rooting for you to win the primaries and become the next president; please tell me your joking!! Mandela was a commie murderer!!” read one comment that was popular with other users.
“You’re forgetting Mandela’s extreme racism! There are YouTubes of Mandela singing songs about murdering the white man. I spit on his grave….,” read another.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) met a similar fate in answer to his Facebook note of praise on Mandela. “[A]fter he got out of prison and won the election he ran all the productive people out of the country and now look at South Africa, it is like the rest of Africa,” wrote Wendall Craven in the comments section on Cantor’s post. Another commenter asked: “Mr. Cantor, are you falling in line with Obama’s minions??” (Without irony, in the post immediately preceding his paean to Mandela, Cantor has published a picture of himself sitting with an African-American child and the line: “We have got to broaden our appeal.”) Yet another person in that comment thread labeled Mandela as having committed “white genocide.”
Amid all the rants from the base about Mandela’s links to the Communist Party (guess South African-style apartheid-capitalism wasn’t working too well for him) and his leadership of the armed wing of the African National Congress, another theme emerged: Mandela’s legacy on women’s rights and reproductive freedom. On his watch as South Africa’s first democratically-elected leader, as NARAL President Ilyse Hogue writes at The Nation, the writers of new South African constitution included equality of the sexes. Hogue explains:
In its new Bill of Rights it listed not only race as impermissible grounds for discrimination, but “gender,” and then “sex” and then, uniquely, it also added “pregnancy.” And in case the meaning of that was not clear, the Bill of Rights went on (emphasis added):
Everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right
a. to make decisions concerning reproduction
b. to security in and control over their body; and
c. not to be subjected to medical or scientific experiments without their informed consent.
Before the Constitution was passed, Mandela also oversaw the passage of a law that legalized abortion, which had been banned by the white, apartheid regime.
And that’s why the opponents of reproductive justice and freedom went off as the plaudits for Mandela’s life rolled in.
Anti-choice activist Jill Stanek asked, “Can one have an otherwise great legacy if pro-abortion?”
Noting the Guttmacher Institute’s description of the law as “one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world,” Stanek continued:
I cannot get past this and cannot view Mandela as any other than a leader who engaged in mass genocide of his own innocent people.
Others are noting additional blemishes on Mandela’s record, but even if he were an otherwise all-around hero, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to say a positive word to say about him other than, “I pray he repented.”
Similar views were expressed by Leah Barkoukis at Townhall, and by John-Henry Westen, writing at LifeSiteNews, who took shots at Pope Francis and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York, for saying nice things about the late South African leader.
Taken together, the comments of those who oppose racial justice and those who oppose reproductive justice expose their unity in one overarching fear: that of the overturning of an established order—an order in which they feel comfortable and to which they feel entitled. The end of apartheid put South Africa in the hands of leaders of its Black majority; the realization of reproductive justice would go a long way toward distributing power more evenly between women and men.
Amid the right-wing hysteria over Mandela, most plainly expressing that fear is Janet Rios of the anti-LGBT, anti-choice American Family Association (a right-wing Christian organization whose endorsement is eagerly sought by Republican presidential candidates), who said, as reported by Right Wing Watch, “certainly to be a white person in South Africa is not a very fun thing right now. I think that they have now obtained suppressing the white population with the black population holding the superior vantage point.”
In the right-wing playbook, there is no room for net gains made for the greater good. There are only winners and losers: If Blacks are empowered, then whites are most certainly the losers. If women win rights, men are oppressed.
Heaven forefend that women, especially the Black women of South Africa, should attain the “superior vantage point” of self-determination. In the creed of the right, that would be a sin most unforgivable.