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Nelson Mandela: forgotten history

With the passing of Nelson Mandela today, Barack Obama of course issued the requisite accolades, hailing the departed icon of South African freedom as "one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth... Like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set. And so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him." (USA Today) Obama's words may well be heartfelt, but the notion that the US stood beside Mandela in the long struggle against apartheid is revisionism that must be combatted. 

It seems unthinkable now, yet it is nonetheless true: Mandela was only removed from the US State Department's "terrorist watch list" in 2008—15 years after his Nobel Peace Prize! And this due an act of Congress granting a "waiver" to the anti-apartheid leaders. All leaders of the African National Congress were listed at the behest of the apartheid regime in the 1980s. (See CNN, July 2, 2008) Just two months ago, senior ANC leader Tokyo Sexwale—for years imprisoned along with Mandela on Robben Island—was detained (held "for further screening," the US said) at New York's Kennedy Airport because his name on the watchlist triggered security. The ANC protested the indignity as "an affront to the global anti-apartheid movement." (The Mercury, Durban, Nov. 1; BBC News, Oct. 28)

A Huffington Post piece today recalling Mandela's official watch-listing also notes that the UK's Margaret Thatcher described the ANC as a "typical terrorist organization" in 1987. Thatcher and Reagan alike, of course, refused to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime. In 1986, Wyoming congressman Dick Cheney voted against the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which finally instated sanctions (overriding a Reagan veto), as well as against a resolution calling for the release of Mandela and recognition of the ANC. On The Issues recalls that Cheney in 2000 explained his vote thusly: "The ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization. It was a step that we simply weren't prepared to take.'' He added, of course, that he now views Mandela as a "great man," and that the ANC has "mellowed." Yes, the militancy of the anti-apartheid struggle was apparently a foible of hot-headed youth.

The CIA also evidently played a part in getting Mandela arrested way back in August 1962. In 1990, Cox News Service ran a story quoting an unidentified retired South African intelligence official who said that a CIA officer told him on the day of the arrest: ''We have turned Mandela over to the South African Security branch. We gave them every detail, what he would be wearing, the time of day, just where he would be.'' The Johannesburg Sunday Times named the retired official as Gerard Ludi, by 1990 a dissident from the apartheid regime, and the CIA officer as Millard Shirley, described by Ludi as "the top CIA operative in South Africa for many years." The Afrikaans daily Beeld, in turn, claimed a leak from the US embassy in Pretoria indicated it was a "diplomat" rather than a CIA spy who provided the intelligence to the South African police—which just begs the question, given that the CIA surely provided the diplomat with the inteliigence. The US role, in any case, is not contested.  (See Baltimore Sun, Nov. 12, 1995; LAT, June 18, 1990; NYT, Chicago Tribune, June 10, 1990)

The revisionism will be seen in more ideological ways too. Mandela was inconveniently unsqueamish about the obvious yet verboten analogy between apartheid and Zionism. In a 1997 speech preserved on the ANC website, President Mandela said:

When in 1977, the United Nations passed the resolution inaugurating the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, it was asserting the recognition that injustice and gross human rights violations were being perpetrated in Palestine. In the same period, the UN took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years, an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system.

But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians; without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world.

This is all the more ironic given the unseemly lecturing that the Palestinians aren't entitled to freedom because there is "no Palestinian Mandela."  Those were Bibi Netanyahu's exact words to argue against Palestine's admission to the UN three years ago. (Haaretz, July 9, 2009) The notion that there is no Palestinian Mandela is actually questionable. Some have named Marwan Barghouti, who has now spent 26 years in Israeli prisons. A campaign for his release was just symbolically inaugurated at Robben Island, where Mandela was held for much of his 27 years behind bars. (Al Jazeera, Oct. 27) But Mandela himself did not see this condescending litmus test as prerequisite for Palestinian freedom.

The Israelis are not the only ones to use this propaganda device. Apologists for the Chinese state have similarly lectured the Tibetans. George Bush explained away the carnage he unleashed in Iraq with the glib admonition: "I heard somebody say, 'Now where's Mandela?' Well, Mandela is dead. Because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas." To which the real Mandela deliciously responded that Bush was "a president who can't think properly and wants to plunge the world into holocaust." (BBC News, Jan. 30, 2003)

This entire line of argument (if we may so flatter it) is revisionist to the core. When Obama himself invoked the anti-apartheid struggle to scold the Palestinians to be nonviolent in his 2009 Cairo address, we had to remind readers: Nelson Mandela's 1990 deal to peacefully dismantle apartheid came after 30 years of African National Congress guerilla struggle.

That was the justification for the "terrorist" designation, although the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of Nation, the ANC's armed wing) was scrupulous in targeting military and industrial infrastructure, not civilians. Nonetheless, when Colombian guerilla leader Simón Trinidad was sentenced to prison in 2008, he cited Mandela's past support of armed struggle in his defense.

A rare instance where Mandela wound up on the wrong side of history was Libya, where he remained loyal to Moammar Qaddafi to the end. This has afforded the righties an opportunity to gloat. This from CNS News (we don't know if the C stands for "conservative," but the kicker is: "The Right News, Right Now"):

Apparently driven by a sense of loyalty to those who had supported his African National Congress while it was banned at home and its leaders imprisoned or exiled abroad, he embraced the likes of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi...

As Mandela prepared to pay a visit to Libya in 1997—shrugging off State Department expressions of concern—Libyan exiles published letters in a Johannesburg newspaper deploring the decision and highlighting what they saw as the irony of his stance.

"I simply cannot believe that it is too much to ask of you what you have asked the world to do in the recent past: boycott tyranny and oppression," wrote one.

Another called the visit an insult to "the thousands of Libyans who are still in the jails of this tyrant [Gaddafi], subjected to torture on a daily basis for asking nothing more than what you and the people of South Africa have asked for: to breathe free in our own land."

Of course, they do not mention the context for Mandela's loyalty to the strongman: Qaddafi (if only for his hubristic ambitions to set himself up as an eventual King of Africa) forthrightly supported the anti-apartheid struggle and sanctions against the regime when the US was accommodating white supremacy through the Reagan policy of "constructive engagement."

One unacknowledged way in which Mandela was a rare avatar of human progress: he was the only world leader to ever abandon his own nation's nuclear weapons. Since North Korea joined the "nuclear club" in 2006, the world has had nine nuclear-armed states, including the "secret" nuclear power Israel. But it is not the first time the number has stood at nine; with Israeli help, South Africa developed "secret" nuclear arms in the 1980s—to threaten the "frontline states" of southern Africa that supported the anti-apartheid struggle. Under the revolutionary Mandela, South Africa became the first and only nation on Earth to willingly dismanlte its atomic weapons, without any pressure from the outside world. In doing so, Mandela called on the great powers to pursue nuclear disarmament. (BBC, May 4, 1999)

Do not let Mandela's passing become an opportunity for condescendning preaching of nonviolence to the opressed. Continued struggle against great power accommodation of Zionism and oppressive regimes is the best homage to the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

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