President Obama and former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush flew to South Africa to pay their respects to Nelson Mandela, the country’s first democratically elected president who died on Dec. 5 at the age of 95.
At the height of South Africa’s campaign against the warrior for majority rule in South Africa, the U.S. government’s behavior was far from respectful as it supported a regime that oppressed more than 90 percent of its people.
Under South Africa’s rigid racial segregation system known as apartheid, Whites were only 5 to 10 percent of the population but allocated 87 percent of the land to themselves, forcing other racial groups – Black, Coloured, and Indian – to live in segregated homelands away from Whites in the central cities. Officials denied people of color citizenship while maintaining an all-White government, prohibited Blacks from traveling outside their overpopulated segregated homelands without a passbook and operated segregated, unequal education systems that tracked Whites for professional jobs and Blacks for menial employment.
In 1947, South Africa passed the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act that prohibited marriage between persons of different races. A year later, it passed the Immorality Act, which made sexual relations with a person of a different race a criminal offense. When there were Black uprisings to protest minority-rule, anti-apartheid leaders were either arrested or murdered.
Yet, the U.S., which prides itself as the world’s foremost democracy, continued to support the violent apartheid regime.
“The C.I.A. actually colluded with apartheid,” Jesse Jackson said in an interview here. “That’s not anything we can be proud of.”
And the U.S. certainly shouldn’t be proud of the way it helped neutralize Nelson Mandela as he fought oppression.
As Amy Goodman, host of “Democracy Now!” radio program, said on MSNBC, “The U.S. devoted more resources to finding Mandela to hand over to the apartheid forces than the apartheid forces themselves.”
According to an op-ed in the New York Times, “The fugitive leader of the African National Congress was arrested in August 1962 while driving through the town of Howick, in Natal Province, disguised as a white man’s chauffeur. At his subsequent trial, he was sentenced to life in prison. Nowadays, of course, all shades of opinion in the United States are united in pleading for his release. Such pleas might be a little more heartfelt if it were generally appreciated that his arrest came as a result of a tip-off from the Central Intelligence Agency to the authorities.
“According to recent reports in The Johannesburg Star and on CBS News, Mr. Mandela was traveling to meet a C.I.A. officer who was working out of the United States Consulate in Durban, the capital of Natal. Instead of attending the meeting, the C.I.A. man told the police exactly where and when the most hunted man in South Africa could be found.”
The C.I.A.’s support of minority-rule in South Africa did not stop with the fingering of Mandela.
The New York Times article explained. “At the end of the 1960′s, the C.I.A. supplied advice and assistance in the creation of the infamous Bureau of State Security. In 1975, the C.I.A. worked closely with the South African military in their abortive invasion of Angola….”
Written in 1986, the New York Times article stated, “This summer, the American media carried well attested reports on the assistance being rendered the cause of white supremacy by the National Security Agency, which is responsible for the collection of communications intelligence. It is a matter of routine for this agency to comply with requests from Pretoria to monitor communications channels used by the African National Congress. This intelligence, which the Boers could not obtain on their own and which is invaluable to them for their war on the A.N.C., is handed over in return for data on Soviet shipping movements that Washington could gather, albeit more laboriously, by other means.”
Instead of challenging South Africa directly, the U.S. engaged in what it called “constructive engagement,” which was neither constructive nor engaging. The idea, originated by Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, was that by maintaining diplomatic and military relations with South Africa, the U.S. could exert more influence over time. That did not work.
What worked was Black South Africans, in the streets of Soweto and through the African National Congress (ANC) fighting for their own rights. Blacks in the U.S. joined them by staging daily protests in front of the South African Embassy in Washington – led by Randall Robinson, Mary Frances Berry, Walter Fauntroy and Eleanor Holmes Norton, among others – and mobilizing divestment campaigns against U.S. companies doing business in South Africa. College students championed the issue on their campuses and Leon Sullivan, a Black board member of General Motors, created “the Sullivan Principles” for U.S. companies doing business in South Africa.
The divestment campaign spread around the world and pressure increased on the U.S. to take a larger role in dismantling apartheid.
Shortly after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu visited Washington in 1984 and denounced construction engagement as “an abomination” that was “immoral, evil and totally un-Christian.”
Prodded by the Congressional Black Caucus, Congress passed a bill in 1986 imposing sanctions on South Africa if it did not meet five conditions, including the release of Nelson Mandela. Then-U.S. Congressman Dick Chaney voted against the bill. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the measure, calling it “immoral” and “repugnant.” Congress overrode Reagan’s veto.
The Congressional action did not end U.S. support of Pretoria.
In violation of a United Nations arms embargo, the Reagan administration invited top South African security officials to visit the U.S. The United States also vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have imposed economic sanctions on South Africa.
President Reagan placed Nelson Mandela on the U.S. international terrorist list, where he remained until 2008.
Democratic presidents also ran afoul of Mandela after he became president of South Africa in 1994.
During the Clinton administration, the State Department announced in October 1997 that it would be “disappointed” if Mandela followed through on plans to visit Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, who had been a supporter the ANC when it was forced to go underground.
Speaking at a banquet in Johannesburg, President Mandela said, “How can they have the arrogance to dictate to us who our friends should be?”
The Clinton administration and Israel also objected to Armaments Corporation of South Africa (Armscor) selling tanks valued at $650 million to Syria.
“We will conclude agreements with any country whether they are popular in the West or not,” Mandela said in 1997. “The enemies of countries in the West are not ours.”
Especially when one remembers that the West has not always been Mandela’s friend.