Mandela and Misremembering US History

FireShot Screen Capture #056 - 'Nightly News_ How one high school protest changed South Africa' - www_nbcnews_com_id_3032619_#53767768U.S. media coverage of Nelson Mandela’s legacy celebrates the late icon’s forgiveness. They mean his ability to reconcile with some of the leaders of South Africa’s apartheid years, of course; but one area that gets relatively little attention is US support for the racist government Mandela fought against.

As we noted, the CIA’s role in helping to capture Mandela barely registered in the week’s media remembrances (FAIR Media Advisory, 12/10/13).  Ignoring history is one thing; re-writing history is another. On NBC Nightly News (12/7/13), anchor Lester Holt discussed the student uprisings in Soweto that were violently suppressed: 

The uprising would claim hundreds of lives before it was over. But it would also severely damage the apartheid government and rally world opinion against it.

It’s true that the shocking images from that day moved many people around the world. But what came next was bizarre; a clip from a speech by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, months after those student protests:

Our own self- interest is in an Africa that lives in peace and racial harmony and our abiding commitment to peace and world order permit us no other course.

Viewers will be forgiven for thinking that the violence moved the US to act against apartheid, with Henry Kissinger leading the way. 

That is, of course, not what happened.  That Kissinger speech came right before his trip to Africa; according to diplomatic cables he was encouraged to meet with anti-apartheid activists; apparently he did not.

The Reagan administration then pursued a policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with the racist government.  Yes, apartheid was defeated. But the US government was on the wrong side of that fight for far too long, whatever corporate  media may try to suggest.

It’s not that talk of political differences is completely missing from the US media. Why, just look at this Washington Post headline (12/10/13): “In Life, Nelson Mandela Often Irritated U.S.” Read the lead sentence carefully:

One of the ironies of the praise offered by world leaders for Nelson Mandela at a state memorial service Tuesday is that the former South African president frequently irritated the United States and others with his policy positions and his loyalty to longtime supporters such as Cuba and Libya.

So apparently it is ironic that “world leaders” praise Mandela because he “irritated the United States and others.” The piece is actually just about the United States being irritated, with one reference to Israel. As the report explains, countries like Cuba and Libya were staunch supporters of Mandela’s ANC and the fight against apartheid; he stood by those governments after he was released from prison. There’s nothing particularly ironic about that.

A more accurate portrayal came from Greg Myre at the NPR website (12/9/13), the point of which is conveyed pretty clear in the headline: “Now Praised By Presidents, Mandela Wasn’t Always Admired In The U.S.” He pointed out:

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.”

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.