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U.S. Didn’t Always See Mandela as a Hero

2013 December 10

Changing Times or Faulty Memories?


Nelson Mandela was on the U.S. “terrorist watch list” until 2008 – five years ago – according to the Washington Post. Try to keep that in your head while you listen to the effusive praise coming out of our halls of power this week. Reporter Catlin Dewey writes, “It’s easy to forget that the U.S., in particular, hasn’t always had such a friendly relationship with Mandela.” In the 1980’s, both the Reagan administration in the U.S., and Thatcher’s in Britain, were allied with South Africa’s apartheid regime, and regarded Mandela’s African National Congress as “encouraging communism.” Both Britain and the U.S. were major trading partners with  apartheid South Africa.

For those of you who weren’t around during that period, please also keep in mind that apartheid didn’t just mean keeping people “separate but equal” — the phrase often used to justify racial segregation in the United States. It was a system of near total control and brutalization of the majority of the country’s population by its minority. For one quick “snapshot” of what that meant on the ground, take a look at contributing SATorturewriter Margaret Green’s report on the involvement of white healthcare professionals in the torture of prisoners, both blacks and their white supporters, in South African prisons.

On his blog, Dispatches from the Edge, Conn Hallinan recalls – from a west coast focus – the struggles of many in the student movement to raise consciousness about apartheid South Africa at a time when their interest was focused on Vietnam. As he says, “It is hard to get Americans to look beyond their shores unless a lot of body bags are coming home.”

Hallinan describes the long, frustrating, but ultimately successful campaign of students at the University of California in Berkeley to force the university to divest – to pull its invested endowment funds – from South Africa. It’s a struggle that was waged by students in other parts of the country as well, though it may be true, as Hallinan claims, that Berkeley was in the vanguard.

“The turning point in the fight against apartheid came in 1984, when students and faculty at the University of California, Berkeley demanded that the biggest university in the world divest its billions of dollars of investments in companies that did business with South Africa…

“The students built shantytowns on campus, besieged the Board of Regents and took over historic Sproul Plaza for six weeks. The University responded in typical fashion: tear gas, arrests, expulsions and stonewalling, all of which was like trying to douse a fire with gasoline. Civil rights groups and trade unionists joined the demonstrations, along with people throughout the Bay Area…

“The pressure was just too much, even for the powerful and wealthy Board of Regents. In 1986 UC withdrew $3 billion from companies doing business with South Africa, dwarfing modest divestment decisions by universities like Harvard. [Congressman Ron] Dellums re-introduced the divestment legislation, and in 1986 the U.S. Congress passed it. It was the death knell for apartheid.”

(But, as my wife has reminded me, it was our own town, Boston, that was the first city in the United States to impose sanctions on banks and other companies that did business with the apartheid regime, and Boston was the first stop on Mandela’s triumphal visit to the U.S. in 1990, after he was finally released from prison. In the header photo above, he’s flanked by Senator Ted Kennedy and Boston Mayor Ray Flynn during that visit.)

As Hallinan notes, under growing domestic and international pressure, the U.S. did eventually legislate trade sanctions against the apartheid state but, as Mandela’s then wife Winnie said at the time, “[They] continue to condone the activities of thSArealitye South African government…It appears that their interests in this country far outweigh their so-called abhorrence of apartheid.”

In U.S. News & World Report, Steven Nelson notes that, in 1986, four members of the U.S. House of Representatives who are still serving today voted against the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The Act demanded Mandela’s freedom and sought to impose economic sanctions against Apartheid’s minority white rule. Representatives Joe Barton of Texas, Hal Rogers of Kentucky, Howard Coble of North Carolina, and Ralph Hall of Texas, all Republicans, though Hall was a Democrat at the time, voted against the bill, which had previously passed the Senate. The legislation nonetheless passed, but was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan. On the vote to override the President’s veto, Barton, Rogers, and Coble once again voted “no,” and Hall failed to cast a vote.

This week, Barton, Rogers, and Coble all praised Mandela – without any acknowledgement of their previous refusals to demand his freedom. Barton noted that “The world lost a great leader.” Rogers went a bit further, saying that “The world has lost a remarkable leader.” And Coble said that meeting Mandela “was one of the highlights of my life.” Hall had no comment.


NOTE: As I was writing this piece, friends sent me a link to Mandela’s statement from the prisoner’s dock during the Rivonia Trial, which resulted in his being sentenced to life in prison (he ultimately served for twenty-seven years). It is a remarkable document. The struggle of the African National Congress, he said in his conclusion:

“…is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

SOME OTHER SOURCES: A couple of other interesting resources I came across in writing this post are the African Activist Archive at Michigan State University — for example see here for some background information about groups involved in the Boston area divestment campaign — and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.



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