This dark secret of the Cold War highlights just how warped U.S. foreign policy was, and is.
For the last 23 years, the United States and the United Kingdom have desperately tried to keep the wraps on a deeply embarrassing secret, whose truth has only been alleged. In light of recent history — the end of apartheid, the election of Nelson Mandela as the first Black president of South Africa and, 14 years later, the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president of the United States — the idea that the U.S. and the U.K. were directly involved in the arrest of Mandela in 1962 forces hard questions about the nations’ motives and support for the Apartheid State and about the ramifications of being on the wrong side of history.
As originally published in the Chicago Tribune in 1990, a former Central Intelligence Agency official acknowledged that Paul Eckel, a former senior CIA operative, walked into his office hours after Mandela’s 1962 arrest to the South African special police saying, “We have turned Mandela over to the South African security branch. We gave them every detail, what he would be wearing, the time of day, just where he would be. They have picked him up. It is one of our greatest coups.”
In light of controversial foreign policy decisions, such as current American intervention in Yemen and central Africa and past experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the question of if the United States — 30 years from now — will be covering up its actions begs the question of the morality of dividing the world between good and bad.
Cold War logic
With Mandela free, the operative felt that this information was no longer a matter of national security. The operative called this episode “one of the most shameful, utterly horrid” byproducts of the Cold War struggle between Moscow and Washington.
The revelations about the CIA’s friendship with Apartheid South Africa were not new, as rumors of a cover-up had been circulating for years prior to the operative’s confession. The CIA’s disdain for Mandela has been revealed through a series of leaked and declassified intelligence files, which reported that the African National Congress felt that “terrorism, civil disorder, strikes, and propaganda are the only practical means now available to break down authority within South Africa,” and that the ANC was receiving assistance from the Soviet Union, Cuba and East Germany; that Mandela was a terrorist who called for the sabotaging of South Africa’s communication and transportation networks and that Mandela’s return to power in the ANC — as seen in 1985 — could trigger a continental race war against the Apartheid State in Africa.
From the United States’ point of view, Black majority rule equated to Communism. The ANC received critical support and praise from the socialist community for its attempts to liquidate apartheid. From the socialists’ point of view, the Black South Africans’ effort to liberate themselves from oppression speaks directly to the populism that forms the foundation of socialism. The fact that the ANC had an active alliance with the African Communist Party didn’t help to alleviate Western fears, either.
In the Kennedy era, the world only had two sides — Communist and Western. Fears of Communist expansion triggered the Vietnam War and led almost to thermonuclear war with the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Fear of the communists moving into Africa pushed the United States to support well-established American-friendly governments. With the establishment of the South African Republic in 1961, the United States sought to take on the guardian role England lost when South Africa left the British Commonwealth. This translated into taking on the Apartheid State’s enemies, including the ANC, which was seen as a threat to the stability of the new government.
In exchange, the United States secured mineral rights to the nation’s uranium, which was desperately needed as the U.S. built up its nuclear stockpile. To this day, former and active members of the ANC are flagged for questioning when entering the United States. In 2007, Barbara Masekela, the South African ambassador to the U.S. until 2006, was denied an entrance visa to visit a dying cousin. In 2002, former ANC chairman Tokyo Sexwale was also denied an entrance visa.
Miscarriages of justice
In 1960, Mandela went underground following his release from jail, where he had been held without charges following the Sharpeville massacre. At the time, Mandela and 155 other people were the defendants of the 1956 Treason Trial, in which the South African government held that the ANC, the Congress Alliance, the South African Communist Party, the South African Indian Congress and the South African Congress of Democrats all committed high treason. Mandela, disguised as a chauffeur, took the time to reorganize the ANC and to organize strikes.
Mandela also traveled to Ethiopia to meet with Emperor Haile Selassie I, and to Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and England. During his leave, the Treason Trial judgment exonerated all of the defendants, which hardened the government’s posture. Based on information received from a CIA informant in Mandela’s inner circle, a roadblock stopped Mandela’s car and Mandela was arrested and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for leaving the country without permission and inciting riot.
The London Press alleged it was a CIA officer named Donald Rickard who passed the information from the informant to the special police. Sir Bob Hepple QC, who fled from South Africa to England at this time, claimed that MI-5 — England’s equivalent to the CIA — was in collusion with the South African police against the ANC as well.
“We know that MI5 and the South African police collaborated,” he said. “When I arrived in Britain and had to claim political asylum in December 1963, I was interviewed by a home office man who was clearly MI5. It was clear he knew things he could only have got from the South African police.”
In 1963, the government charged the ANC leadership, including Mandela, with 221 charges of sabotage meant to disturb the Apartheid State. Called the Rivonia Trial, it was controversial in the sense that the arresting indictment was rejected as baseless and was allowed to be replace with an expanded indictment.
In his own defense, Mandela said from the dock of the court, “This is the struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society, in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be, my Lord, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Eight of the 10 defendants, including Mandela, received life sentences. Mandela would be pardoned and released from prison in 1990.
In 1986, the United States started its campaign to rewrite history. After a long series of raids from the ANC suggested that the Apartheid State’s days were numbered, and after international and domestic popular support grew to a point that it was impossible to ignore, the House begrudgingly issued a resolution calling for the release of Mandela. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was a representative at the time, opposed the resolution based on the fact that the ANC was still on the “terrorist list.”
The ANC was officially removed from the United States terrorism watch list in 2008. The bill, H.R. 5690, also removed Mandela from the watch list — the former president of South Africa and Nobel Prize laureate was a recognized terrorist, according to the federal government, until five years ago.
Starting with the presidency of George H. W. Bush, the official line from Washington was that the federal government always supported Mandela’s call against apartheid and was always against his imprisonment. When Mandela met with Bush in 1990, he was touted as a hero. In part due to media intervention, the country’s past stance against Mandela was whitewashed.
However, when asked about the seeming contradiction, Bush administration press secretary Marlin Fitzwater exploded. “We find no value in reviewing a 30-year-old history in this case,” he initially said.
“This happened during the (John F.) Kennedy Administration,” he said later. “If you want to ask Pierre Salinger or Nicholas Katzenbach or Jack Kennedy or Teddy, go do it. But don’t beat me up for what the Kennedy people did.”
Salinger was President Kennedy’s press secretary and Katzenbach the deputy attorney general.
“I just don’t like it when people question our motives on blacks or on Mandela because of an incident that happened 20 years ago in another administration,” Fitzwater added. “Go ask the Kennedy Administration.”
No administration has addressed the issue since.
With Nelson Mandela now 95 years old and near death, the United States must recognize that in dividing the world in absolute terms — between good and bad — that eventually the nation may find itself backing the wrong side.
It is at these times that character is defined. The martial artist Bruce Lee once spoke on the nature of making mistakes. “Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.”
This article originally appeared on MintPress on August 19, 2013. It has been re-posted in memory of Nelson Mandela.