Mandela & Company
South African president has tea party with pariahs
On a visit to South Africa in 1995 I had the great fortune of meeting that country's first democratically elected president, Nelson Rolihlala Mandela. It was an honor to meet "Madiba," as he is affectionately referred to in South Africa, but there was one aspect of my encounter with him at the African National Congress's (ANC) "Shell House" offices in Johannesburg which left me rather ill at ease.
Hanging in Nelson Mandela's secretary's office was a photograph of the South African president posing in front of a tent with a grinning Muammar el-Qaddafi at some location in Libya. Pointing to the picture, I said somewhat apologetically, "I've got to be honest, that's the one thing about the man that I think is unfortunate."
His secretary countered with the sort of arrogance that I had always thought had been the exclusive preserve of the Apartheid-era bureaucrats: "That's just to annoy our American guests," she said. The insult of the picture, coupled with the injury of the secretary's comment, had combined to produce an effect that was perhaps more powerful than she had realized or even intended.
Some will recall that soon after being released from prison by former South African president F.W. De Klerk, citizen Nelson Mandela did a fundraising tour of the United States. To tremendously understate the case, his effect upon American audiences was dramatic. Few could have been left unimpressed by Mandela's uncanny strength of spirit after 27 years in prison, an amount of time spent under conditions that would have wholly sapped a lesser person.
One of the more memorable displays of his charisma came in an episode of Ted Koppel's "Nightline" which, on this special occasion, was televised before a live American audience. At one point during a break in the questions Koppel had been posing to his guest, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC) asked, "Have I paralyzed you?" evoking vociferous laughter and applause.
Even after his years in a brutal South African penal system, the now gray and increasingly grandfatherly Mandela was endearing. We were glad to see that he had lost none of the sharp wit which we had come to expect after the famed Rivonia Trials which resulted in his life-sentence. Some of Mandela's statements during his American tour, however, were less endearing than others.
Prompting some to seriously question the aging black leader's sanity, Mandela said at one point that he claimed Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat (who, we recall, was at the time still considered by most to be a dangerous terrorist), Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, as his comrades-in-arms. It was a statement that raised more than a few eyebrows and prompted Mandela's handlers to suggest that, in the future, he refrain from moving too far from scripted statements.
Mitigating the damage that these comments would otherwise have caused, was Mandela's tremendous store of political capital: he had enough of the stuff to make any other world figure envious. Still, many wondered, what could possibly have possessed the man to squander his hard-earned prestige when he was so quickly approaching the status of an icon? In the ensuing discourse, a number of explanations were proffered to account for the ANC leader's tactlessness.
As Mandela's impending rise to the South African premiership seemed inevitable, some suggested that his ascension to high political office would force him to tone down his rhetoric as he became better acquainted with the subtleties of realpolitik. According to this view, Mandela's revolutionary comments were borne out of his need to appeal to constituents who would have been disappointed not to hear any mots de guerre from the defiant leader that legend and 27 years had immortalized.
At the time I was personally wont to forgive Mandela for such impropriety for a different reason. I rationalized that this was a man who had just spent the better part of three decades behind bars, often in solitary confinement. Who could blame him if his world view was slightly out-of-sync with reality? According to this view it was understandable, even "to be expected," that Mandela would not be up to speed with the political norms and diplomatic niceties of the day. Both hypotheses were soon to be tested by the unfolding policies of the Mandelan presidency.
The intervening years since Mandela's American tour and his subsequent landslide election to the office of South African state president have made the results of the test clear. Mandela's feelings of fraternity for the bad boys of global politics seem not to have ebbed. In fact, contrary to what others and I had hoped, Mandela's relationship with rogue leaders and their regimes seems to have taken on a position of increased importance in his administration.
Mandela recently bestowed South Africa's highest honor, the Order of Good Hope, upon Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Perhaps in a testament to their ideological ties, both Qaddafi and Mandela have in the past played host to Louis Farrakhan, the unashamedly anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam. It was Qaddafi's generous offer to the black American leader that raised the ire of the Clinton administration. While Mandela offered no official financial support to Farrakhan, he did receive him warmly, disquieting Jewish communities in South Africa and the U.S. alike.
The same Qaddafi honored by Mandela has refused to hand over the two Libyan men suspected of carrying out the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in the deaths of 270 people. The same Qaddafi leads a country which is on our state department's list of terrorist-sponsoring regimes.
Indeed, an uncomfortable irony seems to have escaped the notice of most observers: While Libya remains on the state department's terrorism blacklist, Qaddafi was given the Good Hope award precisely for his early assistance of the ANC in its struggle against Apartheid, a struggle which often took the form of terrorist attacks against South African civilians.
There has been additional evidence to indicate that Mandela's attitude toward his comrades has changed little since his rise to office. If anything, at least some of Mandela's time in office has been spent in the acquisition of new friends of the Qaddafi-esque ilk. Perhaps even more disquieting than the largely symbolic fraternity between Qaddafi and Mandela, were last year's allegations that Mandela intended to sell chemical weapons to Syrian dictator Hafiz al-Assad. This episode was followed by a state visit by Vice President Al Gore Jr. '69 to South Africa during which Gore is reported not to have even broached the subject of the arms deal in his conversations with the South African president.
In addition to the newly-acquired Syrian friendship, Mandela seems bent on solidifying ties to Iran as well. According to The Boston Globe, the value of South African imports from Iran "has almost tripled and that of exports doubled since 1994." Only a week ago, reports the Globe, "Pretoria signed two new agreements on investment and taxation with Tehran's visiting foreign minister." This comes at a time when bi-partisan coalitions in the House and Senate have proposed legislation to impose sanctions on countries continuing to offer the Iranians missiles and missile technology.
The fact that the ANC resorted to terrorism against South African civilians in the latter years of the struggle to end Apartheid undoubtedly caused the group to simplisticly infer connections with the causes of Arafat, Qaddafi and more recently, Assad. The ANC's associations with the pariahs of the world delegitimized an otherwise legitimate cause and only made it more difficult for the ANC's non-Marxist, non-terrorist sympathizers to support them. Pretoria's continued pursuit of these relationships in the face of Western objections raises important foreign policy considerations for Washington.
When I met Nelson Mandela, I was captivated by his charm, his humility, dignity and the aura of leadership which he seemed to exude. He appeared to be a man of truly epic proportions, but, more importantly, he was a gentleman. My hope is that Nelson Mandela will change his policies towards the Arafats, Qaddafis and Assads of the world so that my respect for him may be restored.
Justin C. Danilewitz '99 is a Crimson editor living in Adams House.