Moral Low Ground

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‘On This Day’ 1962: CIA Mission Leads to Arrest and 28-Year Imprisonment of Nelson Mandela

Not always considered a hero by the United States…

Nobel Peace Prize winner and former South African President Nelson Mandela is arguably the world’s most respected and beloved living figure. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls him “a hero to people of all backgrounds and experience who strive for freedom and progress,” lauding his “unfailing courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles.” But what most Americans don’t know is that Mandela suffered many of those “overwhelming obstacles” as a direct result of the United States, which considered him a criminal and a terrorist for many years.

When the racist apartheid regime ruling South Africa freed Mandela in 1990 after more than 27 harrowing years in prison, President George H.W. Bush personally phoned him and informed him that the American people were “rejoicing at your release.” I wonder if Mr. Mandela found Bush’s call ironic, considering that it was the CIA, an organization Bush once led, that had gotten him arrested.

Mandela, always a strong believer in non-violence, was forced to take up arms half a century ago as peaceful protests against apartheid inhumanity were brutally crushed. The white rulers of South Africa cleverly portrayed Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) as an outlaw band of communist terrorists and the United States, deep in the Cold War and deeply invested in South Africa’s stupendous mineral wealth, took the bait. In Washington’s eyes, Nelson Mandela was not fighting for the freedom of his people from the racist tyranny of apartheid, he was a terrorist who needed to be neutralized.

To that end, a CIA agent infiltrated the ANC and in 1962 informed South African security officials that Mandela, a wanted man on the run, would be leaving a dinner party in Durban dressed as a chauffeur. He was arrested at a roadblock and spent the next 10,000 days behind bars. During the early years of his imprisonment on notorious Robben Island, he received meager rations, was forced to perform back-breaking labor in a lime quarry and was allowed only one letter and one visitor every six months. When his mother and oldest son died, he was not permitted to attend their funerals. And every Thursday, Mandela and other black prisoners were forced to dig a six-foot deep ditch and climb into it. The white wardens would then piss all over them.

Many years later, after Mandela was freed and elected the first post-apartheid President of South Africa, his advisors asked him who he would like to invite to his inaugural dinner. His choice? The wardens of Robben Island. Such was the grace of this “terrorist.”

To add insult to injury, the United States only removed Nelson Mandela from its terrorist watch list in 2008. After he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize; after he’d led his country out of the darkness of apartheid, avoiding a civil war that many thought was inevitable; after he’d risen from Robben Island prisoner to be elected South Africa’s first black president– after all of this, the great Nelson Mandela was still officially considered a terrorist and needed special permission to enter the United States.

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