Four current members of Congress voted in 1986 against the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which demanded freedom for Nelson Mandela and imposed stiff economic sanctions to end minority white rule in South Africa.
The apartheid bill opponents, however, are now praising Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95.
Still-serving members of Congress who voted against a Senate-approved version of the bill on Sept. 12, 1986, include Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, Howard Coble, R-N.C., Ralph Hall, R-Texas (who was a Democrat at the time), and Hal Rogers, R-Ky.
President Ronald Reagan vetoed the legislation, but his veto was overridden by Congress. Barton, Coble and Rogers also voted against overriding Reagan's veto, but Hall did not cast a vote.
Rogers applauded Mandela in a released statement Thursday, but did not address his voting history.
"The world has lost a remarkable leader," Rogers said. "Nelson Mandela embodied peace, justice and unity in a manner that we should strive for as leaders in our communities and in our personal lives. Rising from prisoner to president, his legacy will serve as a constant reminder that we are each empowered to change our circumstances and make a difference in the world."
Barton similarly praised Mandela without addressing his votes.
"The world lost a great leader Thursday," Barton said in a statement. "Nelson Mandela was a powerful voice for equality and a relentless fighter for human dignity. His moral courage was admirable. Our prayers go out to the Mandela family and the people of South Africa."
Coble said in a Friday statement he met Mandela during a September 1990 visit to South Africa. The meeting, he said, was "one of the highlights of my life."
"I join with the rest of the world in mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela, an icon of civil rights," Coble said. "Despite being imprisoned for 27 years, Nelson Mandela never expressed any bitterness or resentment and later became president of a new, free South Africa. ... On behalf of the citizens of the Sixth District of North Carolina, I express my condolences to the family of Nelson Mandela and the people of South Africa on the loss of a true historic legend."
A spokesperson for Hall did not respond to a request for comment.
Although Mandela is now universally credited with calming race relations and ensuring a peaceful democratic transition in South Africa, some Americans worried in the 1980s about what a post-apartheid government would look like. The African National Congress was fighting alongside the South African Communist Party – still part of the ruling post-apartheid coalition – and in an infamous 1986 speech Mandela's then-wife Winnie endorsed the murder of opponents with burning car-tire "necklaces."
Reagan considered the white government – armed with nuclear weapons and sitting atop massive gold and diamond deposits – an important check against Soviet influence in Africa. In 1975 neighboring Angola and Mozambique became independent from Portugal with new communist governments. Cuban troops flooded into Angola as U.S.-backed South Africa, which controlled what is now Namibia, fought a border war against the communists in the 1970s and '80s. Mozambique's communist government provided a base for Mandela's ANC and in 1980 Marxist rebel Robert Mugabe, an ANC ally, became leader of Zimbabwe, scaring off many white settlers.
International pressure prompted South Africa's transition toward multiracial democracy in their early 1990s, culminating in Mandela's election as president in 1994. From 1961 to 1989 Mandela was jailed for his work with the ANC, during which time he became an international celebrity.