Nelson Mandela’s Closest Allies

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Nelson Mandela refused to ever dilute his ties to his old friends and allies against Apartheid–even if they were unpopular with the West. (Photo: Paul Simpson / Flickr)

The long struggle of Nelson Mandela—from freedom fighter and political prisoner to president of South Africa—has, in death, received universal acclaim from world leaders.

Even George H.W. Bush, who was U.S. president when a white racist dictatorship held the predominantly back South Africa hostage, gushed with praise. UK Prime Minister David Cameron and other Western leaders past and present were similarly effusive.

So if the leaders of the most powerful countries had always admired and respected the freedom struggle of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) so much, then why on earth did the white racist regime of South Africa last so long? If everyone was really on Mandela’s side, how was it possible they could not have achieved Mandela’s release from jail long before he had spent 27 long years behind bars?

Western Hypocrisy

In fact, most Western leaders during the period from 1964, when Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, until a few years prior to 1990 when he was released, were resolutely opposed to Mandela and the ANC.

Massive Western investment in gold, diamonds, and mineral resources by companies like the Anglo-American Corporation and De Beers propped up the Apartheid regime. A few white overlords became fabulously wealthy in South Africa and overseas as blacks sweated like slaves in the mines for a pittance. That did not outrage the governments in Washington, London, or Paris.

The death of a great man is not only a time for eulogies, but also a time for the record to be set straight—a fitting time to bring some inconvenient truths and skeletons out of the historical cupboard.

“President Mandela was one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time,” declared George W. Bush. And yet Mandela’s ANC was still on a U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008, which meant that Bush’s own secretaries of state had to certify that Mandela was not a terrorist so that he could enter the United States.

“Nelson Mandela was a towering figure in our time: a legend in life and now in death a true global hero,” intoned David Cameron. Yet the current UK prime minister went off on a jolly trip to Apartheid South Africa in 1989, all expenses paid by a firm lobbying against sanctions.

The veterans of the Apartheid jails, the thousands victims of torture, and millions more scarred by the daily abuse inflicted by the white supremacist regime know that most Western leaders did nothing to support them during their decades of darkness and repression. The help and solidarity came from neighboring African countries, as well as from India, Cuba, and the worldwide anti-Apartheid movement.

In the United States, support from the black civil rights movement was in part fueled by its own struggle against racial segregation. ln the UK, London dockers went on strike and refused to unload imports from South Africa. Anti-Apartheid activists led a boycott against South African goods and disrupted South African cricket teams that played matches in the UK.

The Commonwealth group of nations led the way in implementing a boycott of South Africa, calling on all governments to implement trade sanctions. But the UK government under Margaret Thatcher insisted in 1987 that she wanted nothing to do with that “terrorist Mandela,” and her government distinguished itself as the sole opponent of sanctions adopted by the summit of Commonwealth nations.

Did Cameron apologize for Maggie Thatcher’s bigotry rooted in the racist ideology of the British Empire? Not a bit of it. In Western Europe, only the Swedish government of Olaf Palme fully supported Mandela and the ANC.

Mandela’s Defiant Foreign Policy

Mandela has been lauded as a great conciliator and peacemaker, as well as the principled architect of a new South Africa.

But many Westerners who climbed aboard the right side of history long after the anti-Apartheid train had left the station have bought into a revisionism of Mandela ‘s thinking about his past, neglecting the reality that Mandela was also a resistance leader and rebel commander of the armed wing of the ANC.

In the wishful thinking of some Westerners, Mandela the peacemaker is supposed to have renounced his earlier convictions about the necessity of armed struggle and the common cause he felt with all the other anti-colonial revolutions being waged by the frontline states of Angola, Namibia, and Mozambique.

In reality, Mandela the great peacemaker and architect of the rainbow nation conducted a lifelong battle against injustice. He was not and never had been a pacifist. The Apartheid regime treated blacks as a sub-human species and refused to negotiate with the black majority. As Mandela told the BBC, “This left the ANC with no alternative but to opt for armed struggle.”

In pursuit of a new South African foreign policy, Mandela reaffirmed as president his lifelong support for the Palestinian struggle and never renounced his support for the right of a brutally suppressed people to rise up.

After his famous 1994 election victory, Mandela was the target of much wooing from the likes of President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair to pressure the new South Africa to align with Western foreign policy and to ditch the ANC’s close relations with Cuba, the PLO, and Libya.

Close to Cuba

Mandela never made any secret of his special love for Fidel Castro and Cuba. Soon after his release from prison, Mandela made Cuba one of his first trips abroad. Later, Mandela accorded Fidel Castro a state visit and the special honor of addressing the South African parliament.

Washington squirmed with displeasure. While Cuba was among the nations that trained ANC guerrillas in exile and provided medical aid, the U.S. government under President Ronald Reagan famously referred to the Apartheid dictatorship as a “democratic friend” and an ally of the West.

In the 1988 Angolan Civil War battle of Cuito Cuanavale, a victory celebrated across Africa, Cuban military forces fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Angolan government troops decisively repulsed insurgent forces and South African soldiers. This landmark defeat for PW Botha and FW de Klerk forced them to the negotiating table. “The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola has made it possible for me to be here today,” the great liberator declared in his address to a rally in Matanzas, Cuba. “What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations with Africa? For the Cuban people internationalism is not merely a word, but something that we have seen practiced to the benefit of large sections of humankind.”

When challenged on his friendship with Castro by President Bill Clinton, Mandela replied through an Argentinian journalist, “I do this because our moral authority tells us that we cannot ignore those who have helped us during the darkest moments in our country’s history. They gave us resources as well as taught us how to fight and win. And those who have berated me for being loyal to our friends can literally go and throw themselves into a pool.”

Continued Criticism

After he retired from the presidency, Mandela again critizised the United States over the Iraq War and President Bush’s contemptuous disregard of the UN and international law. “If you look at those matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace,” the 84-year-old African statesman said in a 2002 interview.

He also vigorously attacked Tony Blair’s poodle-loyalty to President Bush in the White House. “He is the foreign minister of the United States,” Mandela declared. “He is no longer the Prime Minister of Britain.”

Mandela was always too magnanimous to ask Western leaders where their governments were during the 27 years he suffered in jail. He probably laughed about their hypocrisy. But he refused to ever dilute his ties or his closeness to his old friends and allies against Apartheid.

Many African leaders and others from the developing world attending the funeral of Mandela knew how much Western leaders contributed to the longevity of Apartheid. It is an enduring travesty that so few words of apology ever crossed the lips of those prominent mourners.

Tom Fawthrop is a British journalist and filmmaker who was active in the anti-Apartheid movement in the UK. He directed the documentary Healing Africa: The Havana Prescription about Cuban medical aid to Africa (Eureka Films, 2012). He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and can be contacted at [email protected]