Nelson Mandela, The Cold War, And The Uses Of History In American Politics

Nelson Mandela, the Cold War, and the uses of history in American politics

 Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 2008. Attribution: South Africa The Good News / | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Source:
Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 2008. Attribution: South Africa The Good News / | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Source:

After former South African President Nelson Mandela‘s death on December 5, 2013, political leaders and dignitaries from all over the world flew to South Africa to pay tribute to Mandela’s legacy as a fighter against Apartheid. Among them was Barack Obama, who praised Mandela as a great inspiration.

In 1962, the CIA betrayed Nelson Mandela to the South African Apartheid regime

But here is an interesting footnote about U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century: When  Mandela was arrested by the Apartheid regime and thrown in jail in 1962, where he spent the next twenty-seven years of his life, that was enabled by the location of Mandela being passed on to the South African secret police by none other than the CIA.

On Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman interviewed former anti-Apartheid activist and later South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils on Mandela’s activism in the 1950s and early 1960s.

“The Anti-Apartheid Underground: Ronnie Kasrils on Meeting Mandela in an ANC Safehouse in 1962 (2/2)”

And here is an interview on Democracy Now! wherein Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez interview Andrew Cockburn of Harper’s magazine on the CIA and Mandela:

“One of Our Greatest Coups”: The CIA & the Capture of Nelson Mandela”

One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist

Since the 1950s, Mandela had been embracing Marxist thought and been involved with the African Communist Party. With the latter, he co-founded the African National Congress’s militant wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which was active in sabotage campaigns against the Apartheid regime.

In the 1980s, when an international movement for the release of Mandela took shape, political figures like American President Ronald Reagan, future Vice President DIck Cheney, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher supported the Apartheid regime against the imprisoned Mandela, whom they considered to be a communist terrorist.

In hindsight, the support of the racist white supremacist government of South Africa at the time by the U.S. and other governments was obviously morally repulsive. Those supporting it were clearly on the wrong side of history. But during the Cold War, the communist leanings of Mandela probably drew more negative attention than his involvement in the righteous struggle against Apartheid.

[Update, 2014/07/10] As the Guardian now reports, previously classified documents show that the FBI continued to spy on Mandela and the ANC after his release from prison in 1990. They were interested in Mandela’s links to U.S.-based left-wing groups and anti-Apartheid activities of the American Communist Party.

A communist no more – Mandela as president

One interesting aspect of Mandela’s presidency is that despite his communist past, he quickly embraced neoliberal capitalism once in office. On Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman interviewed former anti-Apartheid activist and later South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils on Mandela’s turnaround considering economic policies.

“From Marxism to Neoliberalism: Ronnie Kasrils on How Mandela & ANC Shifted Economic Views (1/2)”

A posthumous nontroversy (I): Conservative politicians saying nice things about a former communist

In the American news media, especially in the conservative blogosphere, a dubious controversy (or nontroversy) over Mandela’s political past has been stirred up in the days following his death.

Newt Gingrich, of all people, a politician not generally suspected of being a lefty, said some reasonable things about Mandela and was promptly criticized on his Facebook page. Yes, the obvious commie bashing and racism is in those comments. Other conservative politicians who praised Mandela posthumously received similar reactions. Gingrich, in his response to those commenters, asked a poignant question:

Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid?

Watch a summary of the whole thing on the progressive talk show The Young Turks here:

A posthumous nontroversy (II):  Obama shakes hands with Raúl Castro

As one would expect with a historic figure as important as Mandela, there were many political leaders present at his funeral. President Obama ran into Cuban President Raúl Castro, brother of Fidel Castro, and shook hands with him. Some conservative politicians criticized Obama for a friendly gesture towards an authoritarian communist regime with a dubious human rights record.

On the one hand, this is true. There are many things worthy of criticism about the Cuban government, especially its abysmal human rights record. On the other hand, the U.S. has upheld the embargo against Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power, making this gesture in the context of a funeral look minuscule.

Conservative politicians in good/bad company

Furthermore, many American politicians, including conservative Republicans, have been shaking hands—and continue to do so—with dictators and other unruly figures, whenever it suited ‘the national interest.’ Some examples: Nixon meets Mao Zedong in 1972, Donald Rumsfeld meets Saddam Hussein in 1983, Condoleezza Rice meets Moamar Gadhafi in 2008.

Only in the 80s: John Rambo the jihadist

The ambiguous and rather flexible morality of realpolitik is also reflected in pop culture. Consider this: In the 1980s action movie Rambo III (1988), Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo fights along the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union. They are presented as benign freedom fighters against foreign communist occupation. Who else was among the Afghan Mujahideen, in reality? Osama bin Laden.

While there is no evidence of direct financial support for Bin Laden from the U.S., according to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. government did fund militant jihadists in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Who was the American president at the time? Conservative icon Ronald Reagan.

Much ado about nothing

All things considered, the outrage over Obama shaking hands with Raúl Castro is nothing but a tempest in a teapot. In a perfect world, there would be no dictators, no authoritarian regimes, and certainly no superpowers backing any of them while hypocritically pretending to make the world safe for democracy. And to be clear, I extend that criticism to other states such as my native Germany, which allows the export of weapons and surveillance technology into non-democratic regimes.

That being said, in the world as it is, leading politicians will from time to time brush into unruly characters. It cannot be avoided.

Here is another entertaining clip from The Young Turks:

Read more:

Here Are 6 Moments From Mandela’s Marxist Past That You Won’t Hear On CNN.” (Zach Carter and Shadee Ashtari, Huffington Post, 2013/12/06)

The Day Mandela Was Arrested, With A Little Help From the CIA.” (Jeff Stein, Newsweek, 2013/12/05)

When Conservatives Branded Nelson Mandela A Terrorist.” (Rick Ungar, Forbes, 2013/12/06)


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