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America’s Shameful Treatment of Mandela

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

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.

The issue finally came to a head that year when Barbara Masekela, the former South African ambassador to the United States, was denied a visa to visit a dying cousin in the United States. A chagrined Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it “embarrassing.” In April 2008, she urged Congress to remove Mandela and the organization from the terrorist watch list.

With a big prod from the Congressional Black Caucus, Congress finally voted to remove the now 90-year-old (and Nobel Prize winner in 1993) Mandela and ANC from the U.S. government’s official terrorist watch list. But even the language of the bill that removed him from the list was hardly a full-throated, ringing praise of the ANC and Mandela or a disavowal of the disgraceful history of his treatment. It did not acknowledge the towering role and stature of Mandela in the fight for justice.

It simply said that it would add the ANC to a list of groups that should not be considered terrorist organizations. The closest Congress came to repudiating the official maltreatment of Mandela was then Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s retort that it was “a great shame” that his name was on the watch list. Rice, for her part, followed this and called Mandela “a great leader.”

Bush promptly signed the bill in July 2008 after Senate passage. This seemingly closed the book on not a 20 year but the 40-year branding of Mandela as a political pariah by the U.S. government. This vicious legacy left a deep scar of suspicion and doubt, and distance from South Africa’s government leaders, and colored relations between the governments that hasn’t ended even today as the United States and the world publicly celebrate Madiba’s colossal place in history.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.