South Africa: When America Met Mandela

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Photo: Werner Beukes/Sapa

Children walk past a mural of Nelson Mandela in Soweto, Wednesday, 26 June 2013. The anti-apartheid struggle icon is still in a critical condition in hospital.

"Who is this man Mandela?" The U.S News & World Report asked in January 1990. Apparently no one much knew, since the magazine could only come up with three short paragraphs about the ANC leader.

This sketch of Mandela's life seemed to be drawn from a Who's Who collection, detailing his early education, legal practice, and arrest by South African authorities in August 1962. Referring to him a as a "living legend," a "martyr," and "saint," the article noted that "Mandela has not been photographed or quoted directly since his final statement from the dock."

Nobody knew what Mandela looked like after 27 years in prison. Yet the effort by South Africa's apartheid government to ban his image and words backfired as Mandela acquired a near-messianic aura.

The "Free Mandela Campaign," launched after he was charged with sabotage at the "Rivonia Trial" in 1963, became one of the most visible international human rights movements of the 20th century. The United Nations General Assembly repeatedly called for his unconditional release. Trade unions, political parties, and student groups around the world joined the campaign to free the leaders of the ANC.

In 1984, both houses of the U.S. Congress adopted a "Mandela freedom resolution." Mayor Eugene Gus Newport of Berkeley, California proclaimed June 9, 1984 to be "Nelson and Winnie Mandela Day."

Detroit's city council adopted a resolution on September 10 of that year calling for the freedom of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. On October 11, anti-apartheid organizations in the United States presented the United Nations with petitions for the release of Nelson Mandela signed by over 34,000 people.

The imminent release of what the London Times called "the colossus of African nationalism in South Africa" sent media around the world into a frenzy. "Waiting for Mandela" became the standard headline. In an article titled "Awaiting Mandela," The Economist wrote: "the man jailed a quarter of a century ago on sabotage charges now holds the key to peaceful resolution of his country's racial conflict."

Nevertheless, the magazine managed to spend most of the editorial giving credit to apartheid leader Frederik Willem de Klerk for his "reforms." Returning to Mandela at the end, the editor observed: "Prestige apart, this is true: when arrested 25 years ago, Mr. Mandela was merely one of the party's four provincial leaders."

The Voice of Freedom

"Nightline makes history," Ted Koppel declared from Cape Town where he had relocated to cover Mandela's release live. Koppel hosted a "town meeting" before the event where de Klerk's henchmen were given an opportunity to promote the new, "reasonable" face of apartheid.

From the beginning, however, it was clear that the U.S. media was out of its depth. The Mandela story did not fit into the neat news routines of the United States.

First, the release was delayed by several hours, throwing everybody's deadlines off. Then, organizers allowed members of the South African Communist Party to hang the red flag on the podium and make "radical" speeches. Finally, Mandela's first speech in 27 years began with fifteen minutes of salutations to all the dignitaries assembled and freedom fighters past and present who had made that moment possible.

But it was Mandela's visit to the United States some four months later that most highlighted how much America had yet to learn about the anti-apartheid leader.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela arrived to a tremendous reception at John F. Kennedy International Airport on 20 June 1990. 750,000 New Yorkers lined Broadway for a "ticker-tape" parade usually reserved for returning war heroes and sports teams.

Mandela rode through New York in a specially built bulletproof vehicle nicknamed the "Mandelamobile" by New York police. That night 100,000 people jammed Harlem's Africa Square to hear Mandela speak at the same podium where Malcolm X had called on the South African government to release Mandela two decades before.

New York also honored the ANC leader with a rally of 80,000 at Yankee stadium complete with a rock concert and vendors selling Mandela T-shirts, Mandela flags, and Mandela caps.

Introducing Mandela, the equally legendary Harry Belafonte said there had never been a voice more identified with freedom. Rising to the moment, Mandela donned a Yankees cap and broke into an impromptu rendition of the toyi toyi a South African victory dance. Time editors, astonished at the reception, titled the next issue of the magazine "A Hero in America."

During his 11 days in the United States, Mandela visited eight cities, made 26 televised speeches, attended 21 meetings and fund-raisers, and addressed five news conferences.

The interviews sometimes produced dramatic confrontations. In a pointed exchange with Koppel during a nationally televised "town meeting" at City College of New York, Mandela defended his right to meet with leaders of "rogue states" like Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, and Muammar Gaddafi. "They support our struggle to the hilt," Mandela told Koppel and proceeded to lecture him on gratitude and self-determination."Any man who changes his principles according to whom he is dealing," he told Koppel to applause from the audience, "that is not a man who can lead a nation." Koppel was speechless. Breaking a protracted silence, Mandela laughed, asking, "I don't know if I have paralyzed you?" Members of the Jewish Congress at the "town meeting" argued that Mandela's support for the PLO was unacceptable but quickly added that they appreciated Mandela's statement that he supported Israel's right to exist.

The Castro issue proved less amenable to Mandela's charm. On June 28 the Cuban-American mayors of Miami and surrounding cities refused to meet with Mandela because of his statements about Fidel Castro.

The airwaves of Spanish-language radio in Miami were filled with attacks on Mandela for his comments. Outside Miami Beach Convention center, African-American activists faced off with Cuban-Americans during an appearance by Mandela attended by some 5,000 cheering admirers.

This snub from Miami's Cuban-American community led to a three-year boycott of Miami's tourism industry by African Americans organized by Boycott Miami: Coalition for Progress which announced in 1993 that Miami had lost over $50 million in revenues from cancellations by black businesses.

The boycott ended in August 1993 after an agreement that called on Miami's business community to commit to black empowerment through providing loans, bonding, insurance, and contracting opportunities.

In Washington, Mandela's schedule included meetings with the President George H. W. Bush in the White House and a rare nationally televised address by a foreigner to a joint session of both Houses of Congress. During this address, Mandela called on the United States to maintain sanctions until apartheid had been dismantled.

He linked the anti-apartheid struggle to that of American freedom fighters like John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Paul Robeson. In Atlanta, he paid tribute to the leaders of the civil rights movement and laid a wreath on the tomb of Martin Luther King Jr.

"Can't Touch This."

Mandela's final stop in the United States was in Oakland, California, which was widely known as the "cradle of the divestiture movement." Congressman Ron Dellums was ecstatic about the visit. "I was elated when he agreed to come to Oakland to attend a rally in our municipal stadium," he said.

"With tens of thousands of community activists filling the ball field and the stands, Mandela was greeted with thunderous cheers. Being able to bring Mandela home to my community and introduce him to my people brought to my mind the words of a popular rap tune 'Can't touch this.'"

Nowhere had the anti-apartheid movement taken hold like in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the mid-1980s longshoremen refused to unload South African cargo at Bay Area ports. Cities like Oakland adopted some of the toughest divestment laws in the country. In Berkeley, students boycotted classes, built shanties, occupied buildings, and were arrested in efforts to get the university to divest.

In 1986 California Governor George Deukmejian signed legislation proposed by then-Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) allowing the state's pension fund to divest its $13 billion in assets. Over 100 U.S. companies, including IBM and Coca Cola, followed suit.

American conservatives, meanwhile, maintained a hard line against Mandela and his "maintain sanctions" campaign. President Bush and his aides in the State Department used every opportunity to praise de Klerk. At a press event during Mandela's visit, Bush took time to discuss his warm regard for de Klerk even though the questioner had not asked about him.

The White House had also tried to invite de Klerk for a state visit several times only to reverse itself because of popular opposition. According to The Washington Post, "Mr. de Klerk can depend on a warm center of support in the White House. While Mr. Mandela has been a hero to the masses, Mr. de Klerk is officialdom's champion."

The Post argued that Bush's regard for de Klerk was based on a "habit" of supporting South African whites. Summing up Bush's position, The Post concluded: "Although American officials admire Mr. Mandela, they believe Mr. de Klerk is more important, and his departure from the scene would most upset prospects for peaceful change."

Forbes also joined the bash-Mandela club with an article by Michael Novak titled "No hard Questions Please, Nelson Mandela and the US Media." Novak accused reporters of "racism" and "double standards" for supposedly placing Mandela above criticism.

"If Mandela were white-if he were Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Fidel Castro or even Mikhail Gorbachev-his substantive views would certainly have been subjected to criticism." Novak also claimed that Mandela was merely a pleasant face of a "secretive and extremist organization" that "maintains a close alliance with the Communist Party."

U.S. News & World Report argued that the visit was "an unalloyed triumph within black America," but added that "much of white America wasn't paying serious attention. A riveting interview with Ted Koppel on ABC, broadcast during prime time, drew a meager 9 percent share of the television audience ... Mandela discovered the same lesson as Gorbachev on his last visit: It's hard for any foreign visitor to fire the American imagination these days."

Free at Last!

South Africa held its first democratic elections in 1994. The election featured the incumbent National Party's F.W. de Klerk, Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party, and Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress.

On May 2, 1994, de Klerk conceded defeat, saying Mandela had "walked a long road and now stands at the top of the hill. A traveler would sit down and enjoy the view but a man of destiny knows that beyond this hill lies another and another ... As he contemplates the future I hold out my hand in friendship and cooperation."

Hours later Mandela claimed victory at a Johannesburg hotel. In a gracious speech, Mandela congratulated de Klerk and the people of South Africa, calling the moment "a joyous night for the human spirit." On May 6, the Independent Electoral Commission announced its final vote tally: 62.6 percent for the ANC, 20.3 for de Klerk's National Party, and 10.5 percent for Inkatha.

On May 8, planes approached South Africa from all corners of the earth bearing the largest gathering of black heads of state ever.

Three of these planes carried the 44-member official U.S. delegation led by Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and a congressional delegation. The overwhelmingly black delegation marked an historic stage for African-American participation in U.S. foreign policy.

Vice President Al Gore emphasized the African-American connection in official remarks generally ignored by the mainstream U.S. press. "The transition here and the civil rights movement in the United States have been closely intertwined longer than many realize," he said. "The lessons of the spirit which came out of America's civil rights movement have been vigorously exported to South Africa and have, in turn, been taken to the United States."

The ceremony was followed by an African and African-American healing ceremony at Johannesburg's integrated Marker Theatre, where poet Maya Angelo and South African artists raised up the names of the ancestors who had made the moment possible.

Al Gore raised up the names of Du Bois and the African Methodist Episcopal Church and other African American activists who had participated in the struggle. "To the United States, this transformation has special significance. After all, for years Americans agonized over the horrors of our own apartheid. And the struggle for justice in South Africa and in the United States has in many ways been one struggle."

Nesbitt is a professor of Africana Studies at San Diego State University. He is the author of Race for Sanctions and has published numerous book chapters and articles in academic journals.

This article originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

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