The long-expected death of Nelson Mandela presents the entire human diaspora with an exceptional opportunity for reflection. But while much of the world mourns the loss of one of history’s greatest exemplars of moral and personal courage, discordant tones of inappropriate misrepresentation and explicit disapprobation have been given voice in the American corporate media. On the national stage, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, interviewed by Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, illustrated the right-wing’s extreme disconnection from reality by equating resistance to “an ever-increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people’s lives,” exemplified by Obamacare, with Mandela’s decades-long struggle against South African apartheid. The spectacularly moronic nature of Santorum’s remarks tended to overshadow a far more interesting comment from O’Reilly himself; namely, the accusation that Nelson Mandela was a communist. This charge has been echoed all over the right-wing media, and unfortunately the Leesburg Daily Commercial has been no exception, publishing an exercise in character assassination from one of O’Reilly’s cohorts, Cal Thomas. For those of us who care to read between the lines, Thomas’s hatchet job is not just further evidence of his despicable character, but a ghastly attempt to defend the 21st-century apartheid that remains to be confronted and defeated. Mandela’s legacy is being challenged because it presents a grave threat to today’s practitioners of hate – men who one day may be in need of the forgiveness that only rare souls like Mandela have been big enough to muster.
The Character Assassination of Nelson Mandela
Although Thomas concludes his piece on Mandela with a grudging acknowledgment of the man’s contributions to South Africa, his charity follows a lengthy evisceration of unmistakeably malicious intent. Thomas’s attack against Mandela comprises three prongs: portrayal of Mandela as a criminal, rather than a political prisoner of conscience; deployment of the communist charge, devoid of relevant context; and a far-from-subtle implication that the problems of modern South Africa are Mandela’s fault.
Attempting to clothe himself in some much-needed credibility, Thomas bases his column on his memories of visiting Mandela in Pollsmoor Prison in 1985, accompanied by fellow right-wing journalist John Lofton. Thomas seems proud of the fact that he was granted this “rare” opportunity by President Botha himself, but neglects to mention how supportive the American right-wing had always been toward the apartheid regime and how Botha may have used this fact to further the propaganda aims of his authoritarian regime. (The Reagan Administration saw South Africa as an important anti-communist ally. After years of muting criticism, Reagan proposed some token sanctions against the regime in 1985. A year later, Congress overrode his veto of the much tougher sanctions in the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. By the end of Reagan’s tenure, Botha’s successor, F.W. de Klerk, instigated reforms that turned out to be South Africa’s equivalent of Gorbachev’s perestroika, but Reagan and Bush claimed that the sanctions were not the cause.)
Duly setting off on a context-free trip down memory lane, Thomas immediately throws away his small corpus of credibility by introducing his biases at the same time as his subject:
Mandela gave us a tour of the prison. The guards, apparently, allowed him to roam almost at will. He showed us a small garden he tended of which he seemed proud.
Doesn’t sound so bad, does it: walking around freely, doing a spot of gardening in the pleasant Cape Town climate? Not once does Thomas mention that Mandela had been moved to Pollsmoor in 1982, and that it represented an improvement over the conditions he had endured on Robben Island for 18 years. The Associated Press, which Thomas would no doubt dismiss as part of the liberal establishment, reminds us that Mandela was sentenced to hard labor on a windswept, former leper colony, sleeping on the concrete floor of a two-square-meter cell.
Life as a prisoner was hard on the island. The diet was meager and inmates were allowed only two letters a year. News from outside would come sporadically — from occasional smuggled newspapers, or from visitors including Winnie, Mandela’s then-wife, on her two permitted visits a year.
Mandela’s 12 years in the quarry caused eye and lung problems that troubled him for the rest of his life, and by the time he emerged from prison, he had forgotten some of the simplest daily routines. Because shoelaces were banned in the jail, he did not remember how to tie them.
With two strikes against him for context, Thomas moves quickly to imply that Mandela deserved to be in prison:
The Mandela celebrated by world leaders following his death was not the Mandela we interviewed. He received a life sentence in 1964 for attempting to sabotage the apartheid government, but had been offered his freedom several times. He only had to promise not to engage in any more violence. Mandela told us, however, that if he were released from prison he would be back “in a day,” because he saw “no alternative” to violent revolution to end apartheid. There’s no room for “peaceful struggle,” said the man who would upon his release engage in peaceful struggle that would result in his becoming the first black South African president.[…]
Many violent revolutionaries became peacemakers once their oppressors were removed from power. Whether Mandela experienced a “conversion” after we met him, or simply adopted a more pragmatic path to his goals, I cannot say.
Although Thomas allowed a token reference to “oppressors” to sneak in, there is no missing the spirit of the Gipper, who branded Mandela and the ANC as terrorists and continued to give aid and comfort to a regime whose very existence insulted America’s revolutionary ideals. The excuse, of course, was that Mandela and his organization were communists intent on furthering Soviet global domination. But, just as in Vietnam and Chile, the truth was much more complicated than the Manichean conservative mind could perceive or admit.
Better White than Red?
The communist case against Mandela is based on a 2011 paper by Stephen Ellis, a British historian who possesses far more credibility than Cal Thomas, since he occupies the Desmond Tutu professorship at a Dutch university and is a noted African Studies scholar. Ellis’s research established that Mandela had been a prominent member of the South African Communist Party, despite the fact that Mandela and the ANC had long denied it. Cal Thomas takes great pleasure in disparaging Mandela’s opinion that under communism, “everybody would be living better,” failing to recognize the importance of the premise on which Mandela based his conclusion; namely, that “communism has no color bar and gives ‘equal opportunity to everybody’.” Instead of exploring Mandela’s painfully obvious reason for seeking an alliance with the communists, never mind examining what actually happened when Mandela was eventually in a position of power (conspicuously failing to give Mandela credit for his pursuit of neoliberalism at the expense of ANC doctrine), Thomas recites accusations of communism from Mandela’s trial without mentioning that the accusations were ultimately withdrawn, or that Mandela’s membership in the party was short-lived. Three strikes, and out.
For those who need a little more than smears, Bill Keller did a much better job in the New York Times:
The early collaboration of the A.N.C. with the Communists was a marriage of convenience for a movement that had few friends. The South African Communist Party and its patrons in Russia and China were a source of money and weapons for the largely feckless armed struggle, and for many, it meant solidarity with a cause larger than South Africa. Communist ideology undoubtedly seeped into the A.N.C., where it became part of a uniquely South African cocktail with African nationalism, Black Consciousness, religious liberalism and other, inchoate angers and resentments and yearnings.
But at important junctures — in negotiations to end white rule, then in the writing of a new constitution, and finally in governing — the faction of nationalizers and vengeance seekers lost out to the compromisers. In the talks that set the stage for democracy, Joe Slovo, the longtime leader of the South African Communists and a man fluent in revolutionary rhetoric, was the most ardent advocate of sharing power with the white regime. The prevailing doctrine was whatever worked to advance the cause of a South Africa governed by South Africans. This was true of Mandela and equally true of his successor, Thabo Mbeki. The current president, Jacob Zuma, seems to have no ideology at all except self-enrichment.
Indeed, Mandela’s association with the communists helped ensure the success for which he is most famous:
Perhaps the most important and lasting personal effect of the South African Communist Party on Mandela was that it made him, or helped make him, a committed nonracialist. The A.N.C. in its formative years admitted only blacks. For a long time, the Communist Party was the only partner in the movement that included whites, Indians and mixed-race members. That relationship is one of the main reasons Mandela cited for his rejection of black nationalism and his insistence that multiracialism remain at the heart of the A.N.C. ethic.
And Keller concludes with the great irony that it was the collapse of communism that sounded the death knell for apartheid, since the regime lost the Cold War relevance to which it had clung so desperately.
For Lincoln Mitchell of Columbia University, the right wing’s attacks on Mandela are vestiges of prior delusions:
In [the early 1980s] to take action of any kind against apartheid was enough to get you called a Communist and be told by right-wing apologists for apartheid to go back to Russia. Support for apartheid into the 1980s was not critical to American security nor were those who opposed [apartheid] Communist dupes. History has made both those things apparent, but it was less obvious to some at the time.
Calling Mandela a Communist or a terrorist shortly after his death is mean-spirited, but it is a bigger condemnation of the moral blindness of much of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War than it is a criticism of Mandela. It was American myopia and self-absorption which led us to call Mandela a Communist and a terrorist in our efforts to prop up a collapsing South African apartheid regime. It is a reflection of Mandela’s wisdom, poise and temperament that he was able to see beyond these attacks and build strong relationships between his country and ours.
But there is much more going on here than a blast from the past. And Mandela’s wisdom still has much to teach us about international relations.
Repeating the Mistakes of the Past: Israel, Palestine, and Mandela
For much of establishment Washington, Mandela’s legacy contains not just a painful reminder of one of America’s past moral failures, but a stern rebuke of a continuing failure of a very similar nature. The mainstream media has been careful to give the issue a wide berth, confining itself, as it is wont to do, largely to the safe territory of human-interest stories. For Cal Thomas, it is so deadly that it was not even mentioned tangentially in his attempt to devalue Mandela, even though it would appear to be a perfect fit with his obsessions as a professional propagandist. The landmine that almost everyone wants to leave untouched is the fact that Nelson Mandela was a firm friend of Yasser Arafat and a staunch supporter of the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom against Israeli oppression. And, just as American support for South Africa prolonged the abomination of apartheid, American support for Israel prolongs the immiseration and ghettoization of the Palestinians.
Professors Robin Kelley and Erica Williams give us the facts that Cal Thomas must know but is evidently afraid to publicize:
Shortly after being released from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela met Yasser Arafat in Zambia. He embraced the Palestinian leader as a “fellow freedom fighter.” On a trip to Australia in October 1990, Mandela referred to Israel as a “terrorist state,” which is perhaps not surprising since Israel “provided expertise and technology that was central to [apartheid] South Africa’s development of its nuclear bombs.” Israel’s illegal occupation also made it something of a rogue state in Mandela’s view. In 1990 he told a Los Angeles Times reporter that “the boundaries of Israel should not include the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or the Golan heights,” and “we [the ANC] identify with the PLO because, just like us, they are fighting for the right to self-determination.” Not surprisingly, Mandela was roundly criticized for his support of the PLO and dismissed as a terrorist himself. A decade later he explained to Larry King, “I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists.”[…]
[H]e always conceived of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood as a global movement, a struggle that demanded the kind of international solidarity the ANC and the United Democratic Front enjoyed in South Africa. In his address at the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, delivered in Pretoria on December 4, 1997, he cautioned just how easy it was to “fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others face. . . . But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
If a man widely revered around the world – a man with a stature now equal to that of Mohandas Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – calls from beyond the grave for the dismantlement of what amounts to apartheid in Palestine, then America is unmistakeably on the wrong side of history once again and Israel’s most ardent advocates within the United States must confront the fact that they are enabling evil.
Israeli puppets like Cal Thomas have worked tirelessly to convince the American people that the Palestinians are terrorists intent on destroying the Holy Land and on furthering the agenda of radical Islam – America’s replacement for global communism as the embodiment of evil and the convenient pretext for its own imperialism. Many evangelical Christians respond well to this brainwashing, since it fills the interstices of their incurious minds with neurologically compatible delusions. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, many other Americans have demonstrated a distressing responsiveness to the bandying of the ‘T-word’, failing to perceive its shopworn utility for authoritarians of all stripes.
Nonetheless, a decision appears to have been made by those who tell Americans what to think that Mandela’s stock is currently trading at a level that is dangerous to their dominance of the marketplace of ideas. Instead of positioning themselves against him in a direct feature-by-feature comparison, they have decided to recharacterize him with negative attack ads. When his corpse has cooled some more, and his stock has settled down a bit, they may become braver. But right now – with Israel increasingly isolated in its bellicosity against Iran, and in danger of having its own nuclear and chemical weapons subjected to the same rules by which it expects the rest of the world to abide – God’s two favorite nations don’t need a saint to bless their chosen enemies. For a brief moment in recent history, the moral high ground has been occupied by someone who actually deserves to be there.
Laureates and Degenerates
Mandela’s funeral provided President Barack Obama with an opportunity to follow Mandela’s example and let America’s skeletons out of the closet in a spirit of reconciliation. Obama could have issued a long-overdue apology for America’s general support of the regime that incarcerated Mandela, and acknowledged the particular role America played in Mandela’s arrest. It is by now beyond dispute that the CIA was responsible for Mandela’s capture. As long ago as 1990, state legislators in Michigan wrote to then-president G.H.W. Bush asking him to issue a formal apology to Mandela. They must have known that Bush – whose involvement with the CIA runs a lot deeper than most Americans realize – was probably the last man on the planet who would ever do such a thing. But could the First Black President of a formerly segregated United States step up to the plate?
Of course not. Obama failed to apologize when he visited South Africa (including Robben Island) in the summer, and he failed again at the funeral itself. Although many misguided individuals in the United States seem unable to acknowledge this fact, Barack Obama is a quintessentially American president. Mitt Romney’s blatherings notwithstanding, Obama, just like his predecessors, will not apologize for anything that really matters – even if America’s victim was a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
America got everything it wanted from South Africa: a biddable ally in the Cold War, and continued corporate access after its conclusion. Yet even in victory – as opposed to the disasters of American involvement in Indochina, Iraq, and Afghanistan – the United States is too small to admit that it was wrong. This is a truth upon which we can always depend, despite our inability to reconcile it with basic principles of justice.