Remembering—or not—a revolutionary
Watching the corporate media tributes to former South African leader Nelson Mandela, you had to assume that certain aspects of Mandela’s life would be forgotten or downplayed. Here’s one example, from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria (12/5/13):
This is a man born in 1918, born when the sun never set on the British empire, and lived a long life, and was part of a kind of tradition of nonviolent resistance to colonial power and colonial oppression that was part of the Indian independence movement. He was greatly inspired by Gandhi, by the nonviolent struggle.
If you’re familiar with Mandela’s life story, you know this is misleading. Yes, Mandela initially pursued nonviolent resistance. But he led the armed wing of the African National Congress, a shift in strategy that Mandela and others believed would be more effective in their struggle against racial apartheid (Rivonia Trial, 4/20/64). It was that violent resistance that landed him in prison. In 1985, Mandela was offered a conditional release if he were to renounce violence; he refused (Daily Beast, 12/9/13).
Hours later on CNN, former Time editor Rick Stengel offered a more realistic assessment of Mandela’s views:
One of the most interesting things he ever said to me was this idea of non-violence. Remember, we compare him to Gandhi, we compare him to Martin Luther King. He said: “I was not like them. For them, nonviolence was a principle. For me, it was a tactic. And when the tactic wasn’t working, I reversed it.”… That’s a very important difference.
Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote his paper’s obituary (12/6/13) for Mandela. Keller did describe Mandela’s armed efforts to overthrow his country’s racist regime—seemingly in an effort to belittle them:
Mr. Mandela’s exploits in the “armed struggle” have been somewhat mythologized. During his months as a cloak-and-dagger outlaw, the press christened him “the Black Pimpernel.” But while he trained for guerrilla fighting and sought weapons for Spear of the Nation, he saw no combat. The ANC’s armed activities were mostly confined to planting land mines, blowing up electrical stations and committing occasional acts of terrorism against civilians.
Mandela, as it happens, went into great detail at his 1964 trial—where he was convicted of sabotage, not “acts of terrorism against civilians”—about the ANC’s decision to abandon its commitment to nonviolent resistance and turn to armed struggle, a phrase that does not actually require scare quotes. This decision was made, Mandela explained, in order to prevent the opposition to white-minority rule from devolving into random acts of terrorism:
Firstly, we believed that as a result of government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalize and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war.
Secondly, we felt that without violence, there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law.
Mandela went on to recount that the ANC first turned to sabotage as the form of opposition least likely to result in lost lives, and then, after the apartheid regime made sabotage punishable by the death penalty, decided to begin preparation for a turn toward guerrilla warfare. Shortly after his return from leaving the country to get military training, Mandela was caught—too soon for him to have taken an active part in military activities. This was all laid out very clearly by Mandela at his trial 49 years ago. But including it in his obituary would have spoiled the chance to mock the pretensions of “the Black Pimpernel.”
Several journalists shared memories of (usually trivial) interactions with Mandela, as if to assert a personal connection to history. Unfortunately, though, these recollections could end up emphasizing how many US reporters stood on the wrong side of history, identifying more with the white supremacist regime than with the black liberation struggle, which they viewed with trepidation if not terror.
That attitude came through strongly when CBS Evening News’ Scott Pelley (12/6/13) asked correspondent Bob Simon, “Bob, what do you remember about that first moment when you saw a free Nelson Mandela?” Simon responded:
The remarkable thing was, nobody had seen or heard a word from him in 27 years. So we didn’t know if we were seeing a doddering old man who’d been broken by the apartheid regime. We didn’t know, even though he’d negotiated with the regime, whether he’d go free and say to his ANC buddies, “OK, let’s get them,” and create rivers of blood, or whether he was there to lead the nation. And we didn’t know for 24 hours.
That night, he gave a long, rambling, boring speech, and we were worried. The next morning, he gave a news conference, and he called on reporters from the pro-apartheid papers, he treated them like friends, and he was eloquent and funny and gracious. And I thought, maybe he can do it.
That Simon and his colleagues were worried that Mandela’s “ANC buddies” might be inspired to “create rivers of blood,” when the racist government then in power was responsible for numerous non-imaginary massacres, suggests that Mandela had quite a few “pro-apartheid” reporters that he needed to be gracious to—not all of them South African.
Rehabilitating US Policy on South Africa
With plenty of outlets glossing over Nelson Mandela’s history, NBC Nightly News (12/7/13) attempted to present an alternative history of US policy towards apartheid South Africa. In telling the story of the Soweto student uprisings of 1976, the show made it sound like a moment that clarified US opposition to the apartheid regime.
“The uprising would claim hundreds of lives before it was over,” anchor Lester Holt said. “But it would also severely damage the apartheid government and rally world opinion against it.”
Holt then cited as evidence for the world reaction a contemporary statement by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (8/31/76): “Our own self-interests in an Africa that lives in peace and racial harmony, and our abiding commitment to peace and world order, permit us no other course.”
But Kissinger’s line about “no other course” is not, as it would appear, indicative of a US position to defeat apartheid; it came amidst some boilerplate rhetoric about the United States being in a unique position to do the right thing for the cause of freedom. That shouldn’t be confused with actual policy.
Kissinger’s remarks were delivered before a trip to Africa; according to State Department cables released via WikiLeaks (Daily Maverick, 4/16/13), he was encouraged to meet with leaders of the black resistance movements. Kissinger did not meet a single one. No serious sanctions were imposed on South Africa until 1986, when Congress overrode a Reagan veto. —P.H.
CIA and Mandela: A Story That Still Can’t Be Told
Back in 1990, Extra! (3–4/90) noted that the media coverage of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison failed to mention the evidence that the CIA had tipped off South African authorities to Mandela’s location in 1962. The story had been reported by CBS Evening News (8/5/86) and in a New York Times column by Andrew Cockburn (10/13/86) a few years earlier, but the idea that the US might be responsible for imprisoning the anti-apartheid leader for 27 years was apparently too much of a downer to bring up.
When Mandela’s death dominated the news in 2013, this story was still too unflattering for most US media to tell.
There were a few exceptions. MSNBC host Chris Hayes mentioned it on December 5 (“We know there’s reporting that indicates the CIA actually helped the South African police nab Mandela the first time he was captured”). On Melissa Harris-Perry’s MSNBC show (12/7/13), Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman brought it up:
The US devoted more resources to finding Mandela to hand over to the apartheid forces than the apartheid forces themselves. It was the CIA that actually located Mandela, and he was driving dressed up as a chauffeur when he was stopped, and he was arrested and ultimately serves 27 years in prison.
And on CNN’s Outfront (12/6/13), Cornel West told guest host Jake Tapper, “Keep in mind, though, Brother Jake, the CIA colluded with the apartheid regime to find Nelson Mandela.” The lesson might be that the kinds of guests rarely included in corporate media are the ones more likely to bring up this history.
In the New York Times’ long obituary (12/6/13), Bill Keller presented it as a story that is yet to be confirmed: “There have been allegations, neither substantiated nor dispelled, that a CIA agent had tipped the police officers who arrested Mr. Mandela.” He reiterated that on NPR’s Morning Edition (12/6/13): “I have not seen utterly convincing confirmation or refutation of it.”
Keller—who was convinced about Iraq’s WMDs (NYTimes.com, 9/6/11)—has presumably read the accounts of CIA involvement in Mandela’s capture, including a Cox News Service report (6/10/90) of a retired CIA official admitting that a CIA operative told him of the operation (“We have turned Mandela over to the South African security branch”) the day it happened.
So with Mandela’s death making headlines everywhere, there was still very little coverage of this part of the Mandela story. One place you could find it, though, was the New York Times letters-to-the-editor section (12/10/13), where a letter from historian Stephen Ellis appeared:
Nelson Mandela’s membership in the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s was acknowledged by the Communist Party itself last week, confirming the findings of my own historical research, reported by Bill Keller (“Nelson Mandela, Communist,” column, December 8).
Perhaps the United States government will now confirm the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in Mr. Mandela’s arrest in August 1962, which is also indicated by my research. It was the height of the Cold War, and it was all a long time ago, but the truth still counts.
“The truth still counts” shouldn’t just guide a government’s decisions about what it chooses to reveal about its own history; these should be words journalists live by as well.—P.H. & J.N.