The cloyingly sweet tributes to the late Nelson Mandela do as much to undermine the man’s legacy as they do to distort the record as to how various statesmen and their regimes responded to him when he was a full fledged activist. Hard as it is to believe, there was a time when Mandela was persona non grata to a set of regimes, regarded as a disposable nuisance at best, a dangerous terrorist at worse.
The disbelief would be understandable given the groupie congratulatory phase the late figure has been subjected to. British Prime Minister David Cameron would claim that, “A great light has gone out in the world.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of how, “Mandela was a stranger to hate. He rejected recrimination in favour of reconciliation and knew the future demands we move beyond the past.” National Security adviser Susan Rice spoke of how, “Even as we mourn, we remember how privileged the world was to witness the transformation he wrought by changing minds and hearts.”
Painfully sweet tributes such as Nelson Mandela: the fight for Freedom were aired on networks, scrubbed of history and filled with floss. Little wonder then, that some Twitter twits genuinely believed that Morgan Freeman, rather than Nelson Mandela, had died.
But there were a few cracks in the mirror of perfection developing as flowery tributes filled the halls of remembrance. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to lower the flag to half-mast in commemoration of the man’s passing. A few historical explanations behind that symbolism are worth recounting.
In October 1990, the Australian Returned Serviceman League’s Bruce Ruxton would chastise Melbourne City Council for granting Mandela the freedom of the city. Mandela belonged to a terrorist organisation that, in Ruxton’s view, “paled” before the Irish Republican Army and Palestine Liberation Organisation. Showing his sense of perspective, Ruxton claimed that he spoke for “80 out of every 100 Australians who wanted to trade and play sport with South Africa” (Canberra Times, Oct 23, 1990). Mandela should best stay away from Australia and remain in South Africa attempting to stop the spate of killings affecting the country. “It’s about time that somebody said something abrasive about Mr. Mandela. He is not a hero, he is the leader of one of the worst terrorist groups.”
Ruxton’s views shed a historical light that has rapidly dimmed even as Mandela was being sanctified. In 1975, the future Australian Prime Minister John Howard, then an opposition backbencher, would rise in parliament to express his indignation that, “as a keen follower of cricket all my life”, he wished to “express his great disappointment” at the cancellation of the impending cricket tour. Apartheid would not be defeated by “hermitically sealing off South Africa”. In April 1986, as opposition leader, Howard would reiterate the policy of the coalition on trade sanctions against South Africa: “We remain of the view it is a short-sighted, negative policy.”
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had to eat her words after a period of condemning Mandela as a terrorist, and the ANC as a terrorist organisation. In July 1990, she would tell her fans in South Africa to put their trust in Mandela, implying that some terrorism did have its benefits. “I think it is absolutely vital, because he is a reasonable person and can see the force of argument.” Thatcher had made it clear she was no fan of anti-apartheid trade sanctions, or the ANC, during her time in office.
It would take Thatcher’s acolyte, the current British Prime Minister David Cameron, to claim that Thatcher was wrong to have been sceptical of Mandela. Yet Cameron was happy to travel to apartheid South Africa in its last days. As anti-apartheid activist and former Cabinet Minister Peter Hain reminds us, “just on the eve of the apartheid downfall , when negotiations were taking place about a transfer of power, here he was being wined and dined on a sanctions-busting visit.” The Tories of Cameron’s vintage used to boast “Hang Nelson Mandela” badges, much of this described by James Hanning in Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative Party (2009).
The greatest hypocrisy of all should be reserved for the United States, whose government supported the apartheid regime in the hope that it would defeat communist movements in Africa. Washington and Pretoria backed the brutal insurgency of Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). It took failures in Mozambique and Angola to drive Pretoria’s white regime to the brink, a corner where transition would have to be considered.
Robert Parry, a veteran student of the Reagan period, even goes so far as to suggest being told that Mandela’s arrest in 1962 may have been prompted by a CIA officer’s tipoff, though agreement within the organisation about its role remains unclear (Consortium News, Dec 6). Jacob Heilbrunn, writing in The American Prospect (Dec 19, 2001), would find among the columns of Commentary, National Review and The Wall Street Journal a line sympathetic with the white government in Pretoria and suspicious of black militancy. Such commentary came in three stages: perceived black inferiority in the 1960s, the problematic necessity of apartheid in the 1970s, and the dangers of communism in the 1980s.
While U.S. President Ronald Reagan expressed dislike for apartheid, he disliked the ANC even more. On July 22, 1986, he vetoed a bill that would have imposed economic sanctions on Pretoria. He reserved his harshest criticism for those “Soviet-armed guerrillas of the African National Congress” accusing it of having “embarked on new acts of terrorism within South Africa.” Instead, Reagan urged further involvement with the apartheid regime, seeing the “Western business community as agents of change and progress and growth.” Congress was not of the same view, and enacted the sanctions bill by 78-21.
George Orwell warns against the embrace of any cult of saints. To be a saint, you probably had to have been a rather serious sinner. Revolutionary figures, as Mandela was, embraced their share of diplomatic means and revolutionary violence. He was a serious combatant to the White regime of South Africa. Its officials knew that. Many outside South Africa knew that, and anti-communist regimes were particularly troubled.
The fable makers prefer another Mandela, the historical figure one extracts from books as a precedent; the convenient prop for any historical cause one is defending; a gentle, smiling creature who found peaceful solutions, wished no harm and inflicted none. It is that Mandela that will prove to be the least attractive of all, the revolutionary deprived of his revolutionary dress.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org