Reason Spuriously Accused by Conspiracy Theorist of Institutionally Supporting Apartheid in the 1970s and '80s


Mark Ames, the anti-libertarian conspiracy theorist with a history of generating apology notes and speedy take-downs among those journalistic outlets still reckless enough to publish him, ran a piece in Pando Daily yesterday alleging, among a variety of dot-connecting claims involving other libertarian-leaning people and institutions, that "Throughout its first two decades, in the 1970s and 1980s, Reason supported apartheid South Africa, and attacked anti-apartheid protesters and sanctions right up to Nelson Mandela's release, when they finally dropped it." The allegation, not surprisingly, is false.

How thin is Ames's case? Among his handful of supposedly damning citations, mined from a searchable archive that has dozens of other pieces about South Africa, is this glowing December 1980 profile of Leon Luow, who was an anti-apartheid activist. Here's the opening of that article, which Ames quotes as a gotcha:

It is possible that in the past decade no country has moved further toward a libertarian society than South Africa has. Yes—South Africa.

Provocative? Definitely. True? While I seriously doubt it, I have no earthly idea. You can quickly move long distances from miserable starting points; the government had recently issued a series of economic and racial decontrols (about which see more below), and author Patrick Cox did issue the qualifer "it is possible." More germane to the argument, was this evidence of pro-apartheid sentiment? It was the opposite, actually. Here's a longer excerpt from Cox's piece:

Many South Africans are aware of Louw only as a crusader for civil and economic liberties for blacks, who make up 70 percent of South Africa's population. Conditions for blacks have been improving dramatically but "not fast enough," says Louw. "I'm an abolitionist. What's wrong is wrong. Freedom is the first principle. You cannot justify restrictions by saying there will be uncomfortable effects during the process of change."

Black economist Walter Williams, who has visited South Africa extensively, says of Louw and the South African move toward a nonstatist society, "If you had to pick somebody on the continent that played a significant role, surely it would be Leon and the Free Market Foundation." The Foundation, says Williams, "is forcing people to view the problems of apartheid." […]

The most powerful labor union leader in South Africa has started working with Louw and the Foundation and has come out against racially segregated unions and closed shop laws (a barrier to black employment). […]

Louw says his biggest enemies are not Marxists, who are relatively easy to deal with once the issue of coercion is put on the table. The real enemies are those who say, "I am a capitalist, and in a capitalist society, you have to control morals. These are the most poisonous enemies," says Louw, because they say they're for free enterprise or freedom or libertarianism, but they're not.

Emphases mine. Read that final paragraph again, slowly, then look at this ludicrous Ames claim:

Majority rule and socialism were one and the same; for Reason, apartheid was the only thing safeguarding "liberty." The logic was insane; but it was accepted as a matter of faith in the pages of Reason.

If defending apartheid was a "matter of faith" in Reason during the '70s and '80s, you would expect editors and staffers and contributors to routinely make that case when the subject of apartheid came up. Instead, from the editor in chief to the writer of Brickbats to book reviewers to the anti-apartheid activists themselves, the South African policy of forcible racial discrimination was described as "bigoted," "repressive," "thoroughly racist," an "absurd anachronism," "an anathema," "bad for business," and worse. Essayists wrote treatises on "how to dismantle apartheid"; feature writers celebrated developments they hoped "ultimately destroys…apartheid," Editor Robert Poole asked Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi questions like "What's the best thing the United States government could do to help end apartheid?", and on and on.

Fuller excerpts and links are provided after the jump. I invite readers of all persuasions to mine the archive and assess for themselves.

The meat of Ames's case comes from three pieces by a single author, the South African Marc Swanepoel, in 1973, 1976, and 1977 (Swanepoel also wrote a relevant article in 1975). That two decades of an institution's journalism–let alone the content and motivation behind a political conference in 2014, which is the proximate target of Ames's fire–can be characterized, let alone discredited, by the work of a single foreign correspondent speaks volumes about the thin evidentiary reed we're on here. Still, there is plenty in those four pieces that stings our modern eyes.

For instance, this bit near the close of Swanepoel's 1973 essay: 

Throughout this article I have remained uncritical of the apartheid situation and this may leave me open to some severe criticism from other libertarians. I consider myself to be in the position of someone who has to choose between a more severe or a less severe dictatorship. The dictatorship in this instance is unlimited majority rule. The less severe dictator is a group of 4 million mostly educated people. The more severe dictator is a group of 16 million, mostly ignorant people. The fact that the average person of the one group is distinguishable the average person of the other group is an accident of nature. The object of criticism should be the dictatorship, and not the colour of the dictator. Abolish the source of all the evil: omnipotent government, whether in black or in white hands! 

I (and I think history) disagree with Swanepoel's "less severe dictator" prediction, and I wince at the description of "mostly ignorant people." But let's remember the central Ames accusation here–that "Reason supported apartheid South Africa," and that the apartheid=safeguarding liberty formulation "was accepted as a matter of faith." The lone relevant witness Ames calls to this prosecution considered the apartheid regime a "dictatorship," and called for the abolition of "omnipotent government, whether in black or in white hands." With "supporters" like these, no wonder the system was dead within two decades. And note, too, that Swanepoel (quite unlike Ames) knew enough about his audience to anticipate "severe criticism from other libertarians," which he indeed received in the form of dissenting letters to the editor.

More on South Africa from the Reason archive after the jump.

Here are links to and excerpts from 20 Reason pieces about South Africa from the 1970s and '80s. If there's a throughline in them, it's that apartheid was repressive and morally unjustifiable, that economic sanctions against the country were counter-productive, that the best policies going forward were broad decentralization and economic liberalization, that the situation was more complicated on the ground than portrayed in the American media, that Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners should be freed, that conditions in neighboring countries were frequently worse (and always less-publicized), and that blacks deserved full equality under the law. No fair reading of these articles can lead to the conclusion that Reason institutionally supported apartheid.

1) The first long Reason article about apartheid was published in August 1971, by a South African-born U.S. resident named Terence Honikman. It was titled "Boycott South Africa?"; it denounced the "absurdity" and "bigoted arguments for" apartheid, and it ended like this:

Boycotts set people against each other. Free trade and communication bring  people together for mutual benefit. Since there is no one to benefit mutually  with the South African government in the maintenance of apartheid, contacts with that body for trading will accomplish what boycotts never have–the demonstration of apartheid's futility and stupidity.

(Interestingly, Honikman later repudiated this paragraph as being too emotional in a follow-up letter to the editor, which suggests that the magazine's underlying "matter of faith" regarding apartheid was rather negative.)

2) Brickbats, a collection of items usually involving governments behaving badly, has been a beloved Reason staple from way back. In the April 1978 issue, Brickbatter Bill Birmingham included this dart:

In an interview with New York Times correspondent John Burns South African Minister of Justice James T. "Jimmy" Kruger claimed: "I'm very, very sinerely for press freedom, and so is my Prime Minister. We are adherents of press freedom in its full sense." This appeared October 23, 1977, four days after Pretoria shut down The World, South Africa's largest black newspaper. "From outside South Africa such formulations read suspiciously like Orwellian doublespeak. Yet to those familiar with this confused and troubled land, there is little doubt that the Afrikaaners of the Nationalist Party who hold a monopoly of political power believe what they say. The problem is that their concept of freedom, whether in press matters or anything else, is subordinate to their reverence for the State." Their concept of freedom is subordinate to their reverence for the State. Exactly!

3) That same issue of the magazine also had a four-paragraph item titled "Apartheid: Bad for Business," that ended thusly:

Gradually, the inexorable force of (dare we say it?) self-interest is chipping away at the absurd anachronism of apartheid.

4) Economist Walter Williams in August 1978 was definitely not enthusiastic about the "white racist unions in South Africa":

The notion that it is sometimes necessary for some individuals to lower their price in order for some kinds of transactions to occur is offensive to the sensibilities of many people. These people support the minimum wage law as a matter of moral conviction, out of concern for equity in thedistribution of wealth. These people should know, however, that white racist unions in South Africa have also been supporters of minimum wage laws and equal-pay-for-equal-work laws for blacks. In South Africa, black skilled workers in the building trades have been willing to accept wages less than 25 percent of those wages paid to white skilled workers. Such a differential made racial discrimination in hiring a costly proposition. That is, firms who chose to hire whites instead of blacks paid dearly-$1.91 per hour versus 39 cents per hour. White racist unionists well recognize that equal-pay-for-equal-work laws would lower the cost of racial discrimination and thus improve their competitive position in the labor market.

5) An August 1979 item, co-written by Editor Robert Poole, lauds a series of recent, mostly little-known reforms in South Africa, some of which surely informed the December 1980 enthusiasm about the country moving in a more libertarian direction. Among the positive developments that Poole cited:

Two recent commissions have made strong recommendations for repeal of racially restrictive laws. The 14-member Wiehahn Commission urged that laws reserving certain job categories for whites be abolished, that laws requiring workplace segregation be repealed, that trade unions be open to all races, that the closed shop be outlawed, and that black unions be given legal standing (the same as white unions). The government's labor minister accepted the recommendations "in principle" and scheduled early parliamentary action. A week later the Riekert report proposed a number of changes aimed at reducing apartheid restrictions, including an easing of strict controls on entry of nonwhites into urban areas (the hated "pass laws"), ending the ban against wives without passes living with husbands who have passes in cities, and allowing more businesses in black urban residential areas. The report was declared "acceptable to the government" by its economic affairs minister.

6) In a June 1981 review of James Michener's South Africa-based The Covenant, Frances Louw identifies the original (white) sin of her country:

Michener does not mention here that most of the Voortrekker Republics had limited-government constitutions. What he does point out correctly is that they sadly never recognized that other people too might desire the freedom they pursued so ardently. Their bible told them that they were to be the masters of the promised land, and they were determined to impose this belief on the colored (people of mixed blood), Hottentot, and black peoples who surrounded them. Thus the seeds were sown for the conflicts of today.

7) In an August 1981 editorial bemoaning the "Freedom to Suppress," Poole noted this troubling development:

In January, the government of South Africa "banned" two leading black journalists and permanently shut down two black-owned newspapers.

8) In December 1984 Robert Blumen celebrated the writing of South African exile Tom Sharpe, author of (among other things) "an acidic criticism of the excesses of racist South African police," and a satire about "government surveillance in the name of anticommunism."

9) John Blundell, in a long April 1985 feature on the semi-autonomous South African region of Ciskei, enthused that such then-controversial homelands "may just turn out to be a Trojan horse that ultimately destroys…apartheid."

10) In a May 1985 editorial, Poole suggested that "peaceful political change is more likely to come as a result of an increasingly prosperous black population asserting its rights than through an attempt by well-intentioned American politicians to force South Africa into economic isolation."

11) In a January 1986 editorial arguing against economic sanctions, Poole advocated a different method for changing the policies of the "repressive" South African government: 

Dare we imagine the impact of thousands of American investors and millions of American tourists in Cuba and South Africa, bringing: American political and cultural values with them? It is widely acknowledged that US firms have been a major force against economic and social discrimination in South Africa. How much more could be accomplished by large-scale interaction with ordinary Americans? Wherever we go, we bring our culture along with us–our abiding individualism (disregarding race and class), the work ethic, diversity and choice, and tolerance of others' views and lifestyles. American music, movies, TV shows, and consumer products are powerful implicit expressions of these values…which add up to one thing–freedom.

12) In a March 1986 Q&A with South African Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi, Poole asks questions like "What's the best thing the United States government could do to help end apartheid?", and "Is it possible for blacks and Afrikaners eventually to live together peaceably in South Africa, or is the legacy of apartheid too great?"

13) In a January 1987 essay, South African activist Frances Kendall (formerly Louw) proposes a roadmap for "how to dismantle apartheid without pitting race against race, tearing apart the nation, and destroying the economy." Among Kendall's recommendations are freeing Nelson Mandela, drafting a new constitution that outlaws discrimination, and including a "bill of rights protecting such basic rights as freedom of movement, speech, association, religion, and–unlike most countries' constituions–property ownership."

14) In July 1987, Virginia Postrel celebrated the success of the Frances Kendall/Leon Louw book South Africa: The Solution, from which that January 1987 essay was derived:

The Solution has received wide support from black leaders and from business. Winnie Mandela, wife of imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, has not only endorsed the book but also written a forward to the Swedish edition. KwaZulu chief minister Gatsha Buthelezi, reports Time, has said, "Amid a sea of anger and tension, The Solution may prove to be a rational, workable answer to South Africa's unique problems." And Sam Motsuenyane, head of the country's leading black business association, sits on the board of trustees of Groundswell, a foundation established by Kendall and Louw to promote their ideas.

15) In an August 1987 investment piece, Mark Tier was withering in his criticism of apartheid:

Unfortunately, the South African state is very well entrenched, very powerful within the country, and very effectively pursuing a policy of divide and rule amongst the white and nonwhite communities. […]

It's important to consider the moral questions before making any investment there. The system of apartheid is an anathema, and I have no desire to support it in any way, shape, or form. […]

[T]here is one form of investment…that combines the desire to make a profit with the desire to help effect peaceful, libertarian change in South Africa. Then you can have the best of both worlds: make money by promoting freedom.

16) In July 1988, Walter Williams interviewed Louw and Kendall about their book After Apartheid. Among his questions:

Americans are by and large decent people, and they find that apartheid and legalized discrimination is offensive. What can Americans do to help in the situation?

17) In March 1989, Robert Poole traveled to South Africa for an eyewitness report. Among his observations:

The big question is how and when [black South Africans] will achieve full equality before the law. […]

[T]he South African government goes out of its way to obstruct the free flow of information. Under a three-year-old state of emergency, it has banned TV coverage of disorders in the townships, for example. And when I truthfully answered a question on my visa application indicating that I had had articles published, I was required to provide samples and to submit a notarized statement that I was going to South Africa only as a tourist.

The government repeatedly squelches legitimate efforts to build the kinds of social and political structures necessary for democracy. Last fall, the fledgling (mostly white) End Conscription Campaign was banned. And the government has leveled charges of high treason against leaders of the Alexandra Action Committee, a black self-help organization in one of Johannesburg's townships. […]

I left South Africa with a mixture of hope and anger. Hope that the dramatic and rapid changes of the past few years will continue, bringing urban blacks into the mainstream of economic life, giving them a stake in the system as a precondition of new political arrangements.

18) In June 1989, Walter Williams reviewed the posthumous memoir of anti-apartheid activist Alan Paton. Excerpt:

In Journey Continued, Paton grapples with the question of how Afrikaners, who are devout Christians, could promote the thoroughly racist policies of apartheid. […]

His troubled country…is really only a special case of a much larger phenomenon in which powerful elites determine social goals. If individual liberty, property rights, and the rule of law interfere with the achievement of these social goals, then individual liberty, property rights, and the rule of law are ruthlessly suppressed.

19) In July 1989, Reason ran a cover story by Andrew Clark titled "Quiet Revolution: South Africa's Blacks are Realizing Their Economic Power. Can Apartheid Survive?" Needless to say to anyone except Mark Ames, Clark was not rooting for apartheid's survival. Excerpt:

South Africans from across the country's numerous divides are struggling to build an economy unhindered by the state's all-pervasive restrictions. […]

[R]ecent cracks in the edifice of apartheid have unleased an entrepreneurial energy that is forcing the 40-year-old National Party government to successively abandon its racial policies and rethink its options regarding the future. It is against this background that "black economic empowerment," a phrase on the tips of so man South African tongues these days, can be seen for what it is: a truly revolutionary force that could finally push South Africa into the developed and civilized world, eroding the laws that deprive its people, black and white, of prosperity and freedom.

20) And in an August 1989 editorial, Poole again made the case against economic sanctions as the tool for dismantling apartheid (along with its totalitarian counterparts in the communist world):

Peaceful change is far more likely to come to South Africa by the continued progress of black economic empowerment, as reported in these pages last month. (See "Quiet Revolution," July.) Millions of upwardly mobile black entrepreneurs, skilled workers, and managers–who are also a huge consumer market–are the key to bringing about legal and political equality. […]

Instead of sanctions and disinvestment, we should encourage American investment, travel, and tourism in repressive societies. With our fax machines and PCs and MTV, we will liberate South Africa–and eventually, China and Russia too. 

These 20 pieces are not the only non-Marc Swanepoel references to South Africa in the 1970s-'80s Reason; the biggest category I left out were the Reaganite proxy-war correspondetry of Jack Wheeler, which had much less to do with South Africa's domestic policies, and more with its role in the Cold War (which, as I argued in my Nelson Mandela obituary this year, had the effect of warping America's policy and values toward apartheid). Most of the rest were passing comments about either investment climate or American political rhetoric. As stated before, please mine the archive for yourselves.