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Nelson Mandela’s death has precipitated a global discussion as to his remarkable personal story and profound historical role. Surprising, his death has sparked an unexpected debate within the conservative right, revealing its ongoing unraveling. More significantly, this debate raises questions about Mandela’s relation to Cuba, his affiliation with the Communist Party and his support for armed struggle.
The comments of Republican politicians, 2nd-rate talking heads and establishment op-ed writers help illuminate the parameters of political discourse. They are part of a larger social discourse that characterizes both the disinformation industry (e.g., newspapers, cable news, blogs) and the distraction industry (e.g., TV entertainment, movies, videogames). They frame the boundaries as to what is reported, discussed, known. Together, they help forge the take-it-for-granted social consciousness that leads to the invasion of Iraq and the mass complacency over government-corporate digital surveillance.
The following examples suggest the scope of politicalization of Mandela’s death by the conservative right.
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A critical aspect of social discourse is what is not said. This intellectual failure is evident in the media coverage of Mandela’s death and the memorial events that followed. Most illustrative, one incident that drew the ire of conservatives was Pres. Obama’s shaking hands with the Cuban president. Florida’s rightwing Cuban-American congresswoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, denounced the gesture. “Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” she lamented.
Missing from the various comments regarding Mandela’s past was any mention of pivotal events of 1975. One did not find reference to them from Ros-Lehtinen or the establishment media. In 1975, while Mandela was safely imprisoned on Robben Island, two events took place that foreshadowed Mandela’s fate and the future of South Africa. One involved South Africa’s failure – with CIA backing – in its interventionist effort in Angola; the other involved Israel’s effort to help South Africa gain nuclear weapons.
In November 1975, the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) was about to legally take power as part of Angola’s independence from Portugal. In an effort to stop this from happening, the South African military intervened to support UNITA (Union for the Total Liberation of Angola). Then U.S. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger approved Operation IA-Feature, providing $40 million and U.S. military trainers to support UNITA and other anti-MPLA groups. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, faced with the likelihood of losing Angola, declared: “We might wish to encourage the disintegration of Angola.”
The Angola war dragged on for more then a quarter century, 1975-2002. The MPLA’s ultimate victory was due in large measure to the support it received from Cuba. Between 1975 and 1991, Cuba committed an estimated 300,000 fighters, educators and doctors to the anti-colonist struggle. In Angola, the showdown between the Cuban and South African forces took place at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987-1988. Writing from prison, Mandela acknowledged the decisive importance of the battle: it “was the turning point for the liberation of our continent — and of my people — from the scourge of apartheid.”
In 1975, P. W. Botha, South Africa’s future president, was defense minister and Shimon Peres, Israel’s future president, was defense minister. In May ’75, they met and signed a secret defense pact binding both parties to absolute secrecy. A key component of their agreement was that Israel would provide South Africa with nuclear weapons.
Sasha Polakow-Suransky details the meeting and agreement in his 2010 book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Alliance with Apartheid South Africa. As he discovered, Israeli officials “formally offered to sell South Africa some of the nuclear-capable Jericho missiles in its arsenal.” He quotes South Africa’s then military chief of staff, Lieutenant General R. F. Armstrong: “In considering the merits of a weapon system such as the one being offered, certain assumptions have been made: a) That the missiles will be armed with nuclear warheads manufactured in RSA (Republic of South Africa) or acquired elsewhere.”
As further clarified in a Guardian report, South African did not close the deal with Israel. Nevertheless, it “eventually built its own nuclear bombs, albeit possibly with Israeli assistance.” Going further the Guardian notes that “Israeli authorities tried to stop South Africa’s post-apartheid government from declassifying the documents” upon which the book was based. A spokesperson for Peres said that there were “never any negotiations” between the two countries.
This history explains why Cuba was Mandela’s first stop on his now legendary 1991 trip to North America. It also may explain why, among all the world leaders who attended the memorial ceremonies, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was noticeably absent.
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Among the Christian right, Mandela’s death has fostered an impotent debate between rightwing “wimps” and “hardliners.” The wimps are represented by Newt Gingrich, former Congressman, failed presidential contender and political money-changer. Rick Santorum, a former Senator and failed presidential contender, represents the hardliners.
Shortly after Mandela’s death, Gingrich posted the following to his Facebook account: “President Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest leaders of our lifetime,” he wrote. “When he visited the Congress I was deeply impressed with the charisma and the calmness with which he could dominate a room. It was as if the rest of us grew smaller and he grew stronger and more dominant the longer the meeting continued.” His sincerity seemed genuine.
On December 5th, Santorum appeared on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor and extended the following homage: Mandela “was fighting against some great injustice, and I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever-increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people’s lives, and Obamacare is front and center in that.” No one missed his gross insincerity
The debate between these two talking heads frames a growing split between factions of the Republican right. On one side are many representing global capitalism, especially finance capital, the country-club establishment. On the other side are Tea Party activists, split been “free market” advocates, libertarians, anti-abortionists and racists. This debate will likely intensify as the 2014 election nears.
In a New York Times op-ed, writer Bill Keller, a leading voice of the establishment right, offered a far more trenchant critique of Mandela’s pre-imprisonment activism. Drawing on the work of British historian Stephen Ellis, Keller insists that Mandela was once a member of the South African Communist Party. He suggests that this matters, reveling Mandela’s mendacity and political pragmatism if not opportunism. He grudging acknowledges that Mandela’s politics and practices were shaped by the Cold War. However, Keller never mentions the obvious conundrum that Mandela faced: if the U.S. and Britain backed South Africa’s apartheid government, where could he and the African National Congress go for support
Keller seems genuinely confused over the complexity of Mandela’s historical personality. It leads him to blunt the edge of his critique, acknowledging: “He [Mandela] was at various times a black nationalist and a nonracialist, an opponent of armed struggle and an advocate of violence, a hothead and the calmest man in the room, a consumer of Marxist tracts and an admirer of Western democracy, a close partner of Communists and, in his presidency, a close partner of South Africa’s powerful capitalists.”
Keller fails to mention that Mandela was on the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008, more then a decade after being elected president of his country. Perhaps more intellectually dishonest, he argues that Mandela was “an opponent of armed struggle and an advocate of violence” – the opposite of what he practiced during his pre-imprisonment period. Is such misrepresentation a cover for ignorance or a reflection of ideological intent?
Keller paints a picture of Mandela as a complex, committed and moral man, a remarkable historical figure. Sadly, Keller doesn’t know how to reconcile Mandela’s complexity, let alone that of an ordinary person, to the larger historical context in which everyone – Mandela, Keller, you or me – actually live. Remarkable, Keller never mentions key notions of the mid-20th century anticolonial struggles, especially “imperialism” and “national liberation.” The absence of these concepts – shorthand for global tyranny and local resistance — reflects an analytic absence, a blindness, to the direct links between power – social, political, economic — and the everyday lives of ordinary people. It helps explain Keller’s intellectual shortsightedness. One can only wonder if Keller would have supported Sam Adams and other insurgents during the earliest days of the American Revolution?
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Nelson Mandela lived a remarkable life and, in distinction to most other world-historic figures, remained true to his basic principles in jail and in power. The established media’s hero worship of Mandela, like that of Lincoln, serves to reduce the complexity of both history and character to clichés.
The absence of any substantive discussion of what happened in 1975, particularly the U.S. role backing South Africa’s failed attempt to overthrow the Angola government, contributes to the mythology of America as the noble liberator. The absence of any mention of Israel’s role in support of South Africa’s atomic bomb efforts is equally telling, especially in light of the current brouhaha over the nuclear policies of Iran and North Korea.
The end of apartheid not only brought freedom to South Africa’s majority black population and Mandela’s election as the nation’s president, but it also opened-up a long secret history of the country’s misguided effort to become a nuclear power. It’s a history one can only hope that politicians, pundits and media would recall in all the commemoration accompanying Nelson Mandela’s passing.