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Now Praised By Presidents, Mandela Wasn’t Always Admired In The U.S. (NPR Story)

As the days pass leading up to tomorrow's national memorial service in Johannesburg, I've been looking out most for the articles that really describe the fullness of Mandela's leadership over the years, especially more of the reality of his relationship to the United States.  Some would say it's 'complicated', although I would say it reflects the truth of this country's relationship to freedom movements around the world, especially as it relates to people of African ancestry.

All of this having been said, I came across this piece by Greg Myre today via NPR.  The following is my take on the key points.  Some highlighted excerpts follow below.

The key points:

  1. While U.S. presidents and other American political leaders are speaking so highly of Mandela today, they fully supported (at worst) and accepted (at best) their oppressive and racist policies for decades, before being pressured to support 'reforms' in South Africa.  While the Congressional Black Caucus isn't mentioned by name, it was this caucus that really kept the torch of freedom and justice for South Africa lit in this country.
  2. The justification for supporting the racist South African government was that they stood with the United States against Communism during the Cold War.  It was a cover, as the people and institutions advancing this position tended to be some of the same people and institutions opposing Civil Rights efforts in this country.  This didn't change until it became politically and financially expedient to do so well into the 1980's.
  3. Mandela's politics were firmly grounded in a "By Any Means Necessary" philosophy, including armed resistance.  This earned Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress a decades-long space on this country's terrorist watch list, a list Nelson Mandela remained on until 2008 - 14 years after being released from prison, and eight years after the end of his term as the democratically elected President of South Africa.
  4. During and after his term as President, Mandela publicly and privately challenged this country's foreign policy, and continued to support other international political leaders... against the wishes of (and threats by) the United States government.


When I refer to the Disneyfication of Mandela, I'm referring to the tendency to manufacture a "Mandela" that appeals to the sensibilities of people, primarily white, who always want to believe in the best possibilities of their moral selves, but who fail to acknowledge and challenge the worst of their moral selves... the part that allows them to completely ignore or rationalize the injustices happening all around them, in places near and far.

As such, don't expect to hear much or any of this "complicated" history during President Barack Obama's remarks at tomorrow's memorial service.  While you might give the president another pass, at least be clear in your own mind that the idea of Mandela we're being fed by many is but a caricature of the real man and leader.

There's more we can learn by studying the fullness of Nelson Mandela's example.  Understanding this fullness makes it even more clear why he's so loved and respected across the globe.  More importantly, understanding the fullness of his example puts into perspective what we should and must expect of each other and ourselves.


A few excerpts from Myre's NPR article...

As President Obama travels to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's memorial service on Tuesday, it might seem as though Mandela was an eternal object of admiration for U.S. presidents and the American public. But that wasn't the case by a long shot.

During Mandela's 27 years behind bars, successive U.S. administrations worked with, or at least tolerated, South Africa's white leaders. Only in his final years of incarceration did he and the anti-apartheid movement become a cause that gained traction in the United States.

In 1981, when apartheid was still in full force, President Ronald Reagan told CBS that he supported the South African government because it was "a country that has stood by us in every war we've ever fought; a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals."


For years, the U.S. labeled the ANC a terrorist group because it carried out attacks against civilian targets in South Africa. And it was Mandela himself who established the ANC's armed wing in the early 1960s before he was imprisoned.

The U.S.-South African relationship began to change after black South Africans launched a major uprising in 1984 pushing the anti-apartheid struggle onto American TV screens and newspaper front pages.

Soon after, U.S. politicians, many of them Democrats in Congress, began marching in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., getting themselves arrested by the dozens.

Congress then passed economic sanctions against South Africa in 1986. Reagan vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode him. The sanctions were limited and were never going to bring down the South African government. But the law marked the moment in the U.S. that South Africa became a moral and civil rights question, as opposed to a Cold War issue.


However, Mandela was at odds with U.S. foreign policy on multiple occasions.

He remained loyal to those who provided moral and financial support to his group during the years when the ANC had few friends in the West. This led Mandela to meet and praise leaders such as Cuba's Fidel Castro and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

The year after he was freed, Mandela called Castro "a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people."

Mandela also spoke out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and took issue with the U.S. campaign against Iran's nuclear program.

But on Tuesday, Obama is scheduled to address a packed stadium in Soweto, and the only topic that matters will be the way Mandela remade his country and served as an inspiration to the world.


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