WASHINGTON – The Nelson Mandela eulogized to the world by President Barack Obama as “a giant of history” and the “last great liberator of the 20th century” seemed a different person from the one the United States held at arm’s length, to put it diplomatically, for much of his life and career.
Even as presidents from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton denounced apartheid as a racist, untenable system, administrations from the 1960s had friendly ties with South African governments and viewed Mandela with suspicion, if not outright hostility, through the prism of the Cold War.
And Mandela remained on a U.S. terrorism watch list from the 1970s until the late 2000s. That period covers the living presidents of that period — Jimmy Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush — all of whom joined Obama at Mandela’s memorial service at a sports stadium in Johannesburg’s Soweto area Tuesday, as well as Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
Even after his 1990 release from prison, his election as South Africa’s first black president and the dismantling of apartheid, the U.S. relationship with Mandela was an uneasy one, notably because of his harsh criticism of Israel, the Iraq War and the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Still, if the U.S. presidents present at Tuesday’s ceremony harbored anything other than good will toward Mandela, it was not apparent and has been absent since his death last week.
Comparing him to Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and America’s Founding Fathers, Obama lauded Mandela for his leadership of a resistance movement, giving voice to the oppressed, holding a splintering nation together in a time of great peril and creating a constitutional order to preserve the freedoms he struggled to realize.
Yet Washington officialdom did not share such a sympathetic or charitable view over much of the past 50 years.
On Aug. 5, 1962, South African authorities arrested Mandela at a hideout, reportedly with the help of a CIA informant.
Although the connection has never been proved, some former American intelligence officials say they understand it to be true. And it is clear that the Kennedy-era CIA saw Mandela, then the leader of the National Action Coalition that organized demonstrations and strikes to protest white rule, as a troublemaker and communist sympathizer, at the very least.
“Mandela, a probable communist . . . is believed to have been responsible for much of the NAC’s success in seizing the initiative from anti-communist groups,” the CIA said in its May 21, 1961, Current Intelligence Weekly Summary. Calling Mandela “an able organizer,” the report cast doubt on his commitment to nonviolence and implied he might only be interested in a veneer of peaceful intent. “Mandela allegedly hopes violence can be avoided, since peaceful demonstrations would increase the NAC’s aura of respectability,” said the report, which was declassified in 2006.
A heavily redacted 1986 U.S. intelligence assessment, declassified in 2001, would later conclude that evidence of Mandela’s communism was inconclusive but referred to him as an “African nationalist” and a “socialist” whose “fundamental political philosophy has not changed” despite his years in prison.
But while Mandela may have been on the U.S. intelligence radar as early as 1961, policymakers in Washington don’t seem to have paid any particular attention to him until his trial in 1964 and then only lightly.
Perhaps this is because Mandela was serving a life sentence while African liberation movements gained steam and gradually succeeded in winning independence from colonial rule.
Whatever the reason, while Mandela languished in prison, the U.S. maintained a cordial relationship with Mandela’s jailers, relying on the staunch anti-communism of South Africa’s white leaders to try to blunt Soviet expansion on the continent.
In 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger outlined U.S. strategy to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, telling him: “We see it as a practical matter. The first problem to tackle is Rhodesia, then Namibia and lastly South Africa. We need South Africa’s help in solving the other two problems, although I have stated . . . that apartheid must end,” according to the relevant volume of the “Foreign Relations of the United States.” In other words, South Africa had to change, but it could wait.
Thus, despite a 1964 arms embargo imposed on Pretoria, the two countries had solid military ties, significant intelligence-sharing and formal diplomatic relations all cemented by major private American investment in South Africa that made the U.S. its second-largest trading partner.
Indeed, not even the Soweto uprising of June 1976 — during which nearly 200 people were killed while protesting the required use of Afrikaans language in black schools — was enough to prompt anything more than slow and halting policy shifts from Washington.
Carter’s election in 1976, partly on a platform of protecting human rights, saw the introduction of the “constructive engagement” policy, which relied on limited sanctions aimed at quietly promoting reform in South Africa. Reagan’s election in 1980 with a foreign policy focused on defeating communism initially saw South Africa reform drop off the White House priority list. As international calls for Mandela’s release and apartheid’s end skyrocketed and gained major popular momentum, Reagan resisted.
In 1983 and 1985, Congress passed targeted sanctions opposing International Monetary Fund assistance to South Africa and banning sales of all but humanitarian and medical supplies to its security forces.
In 1986, fueled by the fiercely anti-apartheid Congressional Black Caucus and a spirited public relations campaign, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, overturning for the first time in 100 years a presidential veto on foreign policy legislation and barring future investment and loans. A year later, intelligence sharing with South Africa was banned and a growing divestment movement in individual states picked up steam. U.S. sanctions began to be eased in 1991, the year after Mandela’s release, but were not entirely lifted until after his election in 1994.