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America’s Shameful Treatment of Mandela

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 7/10/2013, 11:17 a.m.

During his trip to South Africa, President Barack Obama graciously and reverentially praised Nelson Mandela as a leader who inspired people around the world and that included himself.

This was more than just praise for one of the planet’s most respected leaders, the man Obama called by his traditional tribal (and affectionate) name Madiba. He also accurately noted that Mandela was a driving force in the freedom struggle against apartheid and the post-apartheid struggle for democratic, non-racial rule in South Africa.

Obama’s heartfelt remarks about Mandela have been part of the consistent U.S. government’s narrative about Mandela since the official dumping of apartheid in 1990 and black majority rule in 1993.

But the embrace of Mandela and the reality of black majority rule in South Africa have come at a steep price. The price was the U.S. government’s decades old assault on Mandela’s character and leadership.

The malign treatment by the United States of Mandela didn’t end with his release from prison in 1990, the official unbanning of his African National Congress or even his becoming the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1993. It didn’t end when he took the rare, tactful and universally praised step of stepping down from the presidency in 1999 after one term. It didn’t even end as then Democratic presidential candidate Obama in 2008 inched close to his election as America’s first African American president.

The U.S. government still continued to brand Mandela a terrorist and the ANC a terrorist organization. This ridiculous tag on Mandela as a terrorist chilled U.S. relations with Mandela and the South African government even after the power takeover.

The chill began with the Reagan administration’s well-documented fierce resistance to the demand that corporations and non-profits divest their financial investments in South Africa, and the administration’s refusal to support United Nations and international trade sanctions and an arms embargo against South Africa.

The Reagan administration’s line was that the ANC was Cuban-backed and posed a communist threat to South Africa and by extension U.S. investments. Mandela by then was well into his second decade in prison on Robbins Island, posed no threat to the South African government and had no direct say in the political or military operations of the ANC. Yet he was still regarded by the Reagan administration as a dangerous subversive. Mandela’s release from prison, the recognition by the apartheid government of the ANC, and his subsequent presidential election changed little, except the terminology of how Mandela was tagged.

This dovetailed with the United State’s shift to the global fight against terrorism. Mandela, instead of being a communist and a subversive, simply had the terrorist label slapped on him — though Regan had dumped him and the organization on the terrorist watch list in the 1980s and it stood unchallenged during those years. It took a concerted effort by civil rights activists and many congressional Democrats to end the political targeting of Mandela. But it was not a slam dunk. As late as 2007, ANC officials, and that included Mandela, who sought to travel to the United States. still had to get a State Department waiver or special certification in order to enter the country. Mandela had to get that even for his White House visit with George W. Bush in 2005.