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Reminiscences About Nelson Mandela and the US Anti-Apartheid Movement

Meeting Mandela

by IKE NAHEM

Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.

– Nelson Mandela

The outpouring of emotion and dignified appreciation  that has met the passing of Nelson Mandela on December 5, 2013, flowed like a raging river from every nation and people on the planet. It was a grief tempered by a jubilation and wonderment at the life of this great and humble human being.

While it is certainly true that Mandela’s death resonated most powerfully with the South African people, and particularly with oppressed and exploited working people worldwide, it is also the case that Mandela was admired and loved by countless millions from all social classes and walks-of-life with any democratic and anti-racist principles who were sincerely touched and inspired by his amazing life, his example, and his deeds.

I had the unforgettable experience  — and the thrill of a lifetime — to meet, shake hands, and exchange a few words with Nelson Mandela.

It was June 1990 in the so-called VIP reception area of Washington’s National Airport. (The airport was later renamed for President Ronald Reagan who had notoriously vetoed legislation mandating economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa that was overridden by the US Congress. Less well know is the fact that the Reagan Administration, with bipartisan Congressional support, allied with apartheid South Africa and the ultra-reactionary, ultra-venal regime of Mobutu Sese Seko of the country he named Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in a series of devastating wars — fought overtly by the apartheid South African army and Mobutu and covertly by the CIA — against newly independent southern African states that were supporting Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC). In Mozambique and Angola pro-imperialist outfits such as RENAMO in Mozambique and UNITA in Angola, that had some support in tribal groupings,  were armed and trained under South African and CIA direction. Over a number of years through the 1980s this genocidal alliance laid waste to the southern Africa lands, killing some 1.5 million people by most credible accounts.)

I had gotten an invitation as a longtime activist and organizer in the anti-apartheid movement. I was also covering Mandela’s visit to the United States as the Washington, DC correspondent for the revolutionary socialist newsweekly, The Militant. In DC Mandela spoke to an overflow crowd of some 10,000 at the Washington convention Center and before a then-rare joint session of the US Congress.

Since I had first heard of it as a teenager affected by the US Civil Rights Movement and the speeches and writings of Malcolm X, I had always hated the apartheid system and wanted to do something about it. In college at Indiana University I had helped organize a big conference which featured anti-apartheid South Africans. But in the late 60s and early 70s, as the Vietnam War raged on and consumed the bulk of my political activity, the apartheid state was implacable and seemed invulnerable. In truth it was entering its last period as history started to accelerate.

Endgame for the Portuguese Empire

In 1974 the centuries-old Portuguese Empire in Africa collapsed as the semi-fascist Salazarist dictatorship was overturned by a group of progressive-minded military officers. The floodgates of long-suppressed mass, democratic action opened up in Portugal and, among other things, the overwhelming sentiment wanted nothing to do with maintaining colonies in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, the Cape Verde Islands, and Sao Tome and Principe against growing independence movements. It was in fact mounting opposition to Portugal’s colonial war inside the country that expedited the disintegration of the so-called “New State” regime.

Angola and Mozambique, the large “jewels” of the Portuguese African Empire,  were adjacent to apartheid South Africa and were both about to form governments dominated by liberation forces who were longtime friends and allies of the ANC. On the eve of its formal transition to full independence Angola found itself invaded by a powerful, highly mechanized South African army marching, practically unopposed by the badly outgunned Angolan forces,  on the capital Luanda aiming to install a puppet government. The new Angolan government urgently appealed to the Cuban government for help and got it just in in time. (A wonderful account of the Cuban mobilization is given by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Cuba in Angola: Operation Carlotta). Fidel Castro’s government dispatched thousands of volunteer soldiers and heavy equipment without even telling the Soviet government which they knew would oppose it as too risky and a provocation to Washington, with whom the Brezhnev government in the Soviet Union was pursuing a “detente” in Cold-War tensions following the end of the Vietnam War and US Watergate crisis. These considerations were of little importance to the Cuban leadership who saw clearly the worldwide ramifications for oppressed peoples and anti-imperialist struggles of a unbridled victory for the South African racists. (See Piero Gleijeses’s impeccably researched Conflicting Missions for details and the amazing history of the Cuban  Revolution’s internationalist history in Africa as well as the excellent French documentary film Cuba’s African Odyssey)

At any rate the Cuban army arrived, often going directly from port or airfield to combat in the front lines, and within a few months drove the apartheid invaders out of Angola. This was a political and psychological game changer in Africa. For the first time the white South African army (there were a number of white-officered conscripted African troops as well) were beaten in frontal combat by troops that were largely of color. The mystique of white superiority and domination was being broken.

Soweto

In June 1976, part of the chain of new consciousness inspired by these events, the Soweto student uprising took place. This insurrectionary student revolt that began against the mandatory school instruction of the Afrikaner language, was the greatest mass challenge to the apartheid regime since the Defiance Campaign and mass protests against apartheid “pass laws” in the 1950s and early 1960s led by the ANC with Mandela as the central organizer. The Soweto Uprising was drowned in blood with some 700 gunned down and murdered, to the utter revulsion of world public opinion.

I was living in New York when the Soweto Uprising occurred. I was an organizer for the National Student Coalition Against Racism (NSCAR) which had come together to defend court-ordered busing for school desegregation in the city of Boston where Black students were under vile, violent, racist assault in then all-white enclaves such as South Boston from 1974-76. After the Soweto Uprising NSCAR decided to jump into the anti-apartheid fight.

Two of the central leaders of the uprising, Tsietsi Mashinini and Khotso Seatlholo, managed to escape South Africa and the death warrant on their heads. NSCAR activists fought like hell to get them a US visa for a nationwide speaking tour. We finally succeeded and it was a big success. (When they got to New York we gave them the grand tour, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the then-overwhelmingly seedy and decadent Times Square of long ago. I’ll never forget the wide-eyed, 18 year-old Mashinini, who had an almost childlike gentle demeanor that combined with a visceral intellectual and political intensity, astonished reaction to the Times Square of the late-1970s. With that distinct South African accent and inflection, he said to me, “My God, in New York you have not only X movies but XXX. I do not understand.” I really had no answer to that.)

After the tour both young warriors went back to southern Africa and carried out underground revolutionary activity. Seatlholo was  arrested on a mission in South Africa in 1981 and spent nine years in prison until being released in the same year as Mandela. He died in 2004. Mashinini died from a violent assault by unknown assailants in Conakry, Guinea in 1990 and was awarded the Order of Luthuli in Gold by the new South African ANC government in 2011 for his historical role in the liberation struggle.

When my wife Erin and I first visited free South Africa in 2010, friends took us into Soweto, to the Memorial for the martyred youth and we saw a tribute to my two friends. We also visited Robben Island, off Cape Town and saw the cell where Nelson Mandela spent the big majority of his prison time.

Free South Africa Movement

In the mid-1980s, leading up to the crumbling of the apartheid regime, there burst onto the US political scene spreading from Washington, DC, the Free South Africa Movement. It was initiated by the DC-based group TransAfrica , led by Randall Robinson. It was decided to start daily picket lines in front of the South African Embassy, which was right in the middle of DC’s opulent, serene, and fabled Embassy Row. The protests featured selective people engaging in non-violent civil disobedience and getting hauled away for a day in DC’s jails.

As word spread of this happening, the protests grew bigger every day. A solidarity ritual took hold. Every day a new group would take the lead, mobilize some of their folks, and get arrested. Hundreds every day;  on some special days thousands. Every day. Sculptors Against Apartheid, Punk Rockers Against Apartheid, Jewish groups, Muslim groups, so many churches of many Christian denomination, Buddhists and atheists, practically every trade union in the DC area, feminists, gays and lesbians, college students every day from a different campus, public high-school students were joined by their counterparts from elite private schools. One day I couldn’t believe my eyes there was a downright militant, chanting delegation of Accountants Against Apartheid! Pretty soon even bourgeois politicians got on board.

We had a movement on our hands. Campuses and banks were coming under heavy pressure to divest from South Africa. The forked-tongue Reagan Administration policy  of “Constructive Engagement” began to collapse.

It was amazing. It was inspiring. And it told me that the apartheid state was doomed…and probably sooner rather than later.

A few years later in June 1988, Fidel Castro’s Cuban Army led a military force including Angolans, South Africans, and Namibians (a former German colony ruled by the apartheid state) that routed the South African army in the historic Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. The racist army was forced into a headlong retreat back to South Africa where the African townships were now in open, permanent, mass rebellion. Endgame for the apartheid regime. The South African rulers, and eventually their covert allies in the  Ronald Reagan Administration, were forced to negotiate massive concessions in formal talks with revolutionary Cuba, the ANC, and other southern African liberations forces. (Over 300,000 Cuban soldiers served in Angola in the over ten-year period.)

1990: Namibia won its independence; Nelson Mandela and all the political prisoners were freed; the ANC and all the banned anti-apartheid organizations were legalized.

Meeting Mandela

And Nelson Mandela was coming to the United States! It was the second country he visited since winning his freedom, in recognition of the strong, unstoppable anti-apartheid movement here. His first stop was Cuba to speak before hundreds of thousands, embracing his close friend Fidel Castro, and thanking the Cuban government and people for what he called their crucial, even decisive part in his release from prison and breaking the back and the morale of the apartheid state. (For the full speech of Mandela in Cuba see http://db.nelsonmandela.org/speeches/pub_view.asp?pg=item&ItemID=NMS1526)

I was feeling pretty humble standing there with my fellow activists in the VIP Lounge among the so-called dignitaries, capitalist-party politicians, diplomats, Secret Service Agents, well-coiffed media personalities, and other “celebrities.” Mandela’s flight touched down, taxied, and the living legend who spent 27 years in apartheid jails continuing the freedom struggle every day, entered the room. As I approached him I teared up. My tiny piece of the struggle was a big piece of my life. I caught that amazing smile and thought to myself, What a burden it must be to have people blubbering all over the place when they meet you. But I guess he’s used to it. I shook his hand and gave him some copies of a pamphlet with several of his recent speeches — always clear, precise, and elegant — published by Pathfinder Press, which I was helping to widely distribute. They were very attractive and professionally done and he seemed very pleased.

I managed to blurt out, “It’s an honor to meet you.” He replied, “Well it’s an honor to meet you.” “But I’m nobody special,” I protested. Mandela looked me in the eye, smiled and said, “Well you become someone special when you fight for freedom.”

The Struggle Continues

South Africa, a ravishingly beautiful land where my wife and I met so many warm and friendly regular folks as well as activists in today’s struggles, is still far from overcoming the brutal legacy of apartheid. Despite important advances in housing construction and access to electricity, running water, private toilets, medical care, and education, South Africa today remains starkly unequal and there is growing unrest and turmoil, especially from industrial workers and agricultural laborers. Corruption among the small, emerging layer of newly-rich Africans, including a good number of past and present ANC leaders who have gained entry into the still-white dominated business and financial summits, has shocked and disgusted the many who still lack running water or decent housing, or who are among the 25% — 50% among Black African youth — who are officially unemployed. Police violence is rampant, as exemplified by the cold-blooded murder of 34 striking platinum miners by police last year.

Nelson Mandela and his generation of revolutionaries like Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Ruth First and so many others, are almost all gone now, but what they fundamentally accomplished in leading the mass, revolutionary struggle to destroy the structures and prerogatives of apartheid rule, was to lay the foundations for the contemporary struggles of workers and farmers to advance around questions such as land reform, education, access to medical care, women’s rights, and decent housing under the most favorable political conditions. They avoided a potentially devastating civil war instigated by western imperialism, although many thousands died in the interim period from Mandela’s release and election in 1994. Heavy pressure and blackmail was piled on the multi-class ANC leadership in this period leading up to the election of the first post-apartheid ANC government and President Nelson Mandela to preserve the essential economic and financial dominance of “white” monopoly capital in the state.

The destruction of apartheid established the democratic and political space, the rights for working people to move about freely, to associate, and to organize in their interests, which they are doing every day, in the ongoing fight for social justice and social equality. The struggle, personified by Madiba, the Xhosa name by which Mandela was affectionately known, conquered dignity and democratic freedom, the prerequisite for the previously oppressed majority to win a good and better life, to pursue happiness, to fight for the political, social, and state power of workers and farmers.

The ideas and example of Nelson Mandela will never die as long as human beings live and fight for freedom, justice, and equality by any means necessary.

Ike Nahem is a longtime anti-war, labor, and socialist activist. His work against apartheid goes back to the late 1960s. Nahem is the coordinator of Cuba Solidarity New York (cubasolidarityny@mindspring.com) and a founder of the New York-New Jersey July 26 Coalition (http://www.july26coalition.org). Nahem is an Amtrak Locomotive Engineer driving high-speed trains from New York to Washington, DC. and a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a division of the Teamsters Union. These are his personal political opinions. Comments and criticisms can be sent to ikenahem@mindspring.com.]