The death of Nelson Mandela last week marked the end of an extraordinary life. Mandela was a moral and political giant of the kind we have seen all too infrequently in recent decades. He was a true leader who in the face of extraordinary hardship and oppression never gave up, and emerged from 27 years in prison with an equanimity and resolve that are a model of all of us.
Mandela's death has been met by eloquent statements about his character, personal story and deep commitment. In the U.S., these statements have been made by people across the political spectrum including Democrats such as President Obama and noted conservatives such as Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The comments from Cruz and Gingrich have generated a backlash from some of their right-wing constituents and supporters who apparently view Mandela as a terrorist, Communist or bigot.
Many of these right-wing attacks are offensive and extremely disrespectful to the memory of a truly great man, but they should not be so quickly dismissed as just the rantings of angry right wingers. These comments about Mandela are also echoes of what many said about him when he was alive, particularly before he became president of a free South Africa.
During those years, Mandela was viewed as a terrorist by the U.S. and some European countries. The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher referred to Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) as a "typical terrorist organization." As late as 2008, Mandela was on a U.S. government terrorist list. Although, this was likely an oversight of some kind, Mandela was described as a terrorist for many years by the U.S. government. Mandela was not a terrorist, but because he did not renounce violence during his struggle against a brutal regime, but one allied with the U.S., that is what he was called by supporters of that regime.
The accusations that Mandela was a Communist are also not simply sprung from the imaginations of Tea Partiers. Mandela did not govern as a Communist when he became South Africa's president, nor did he demonstrate much belief in Communist doctrine, but he was the leader of a national liberation movement seeking allies in his struggle. The Cold War politics, which were the international backdrop of that struggle, pushed Mandela and the ANC to the Communist Party, which Mandela joined shortly before his long jail sentence began.
Thus, referring to Mandela as a Communist and terrorist is not simply an angry ad hominem attack, although it may be that as well. These comments are also a good reminder of both the world in which Mandela operated as well as the extent to which Cold War politics and colonial attitudes framed many western views of Mandela. Mandela is a hero now, but for much of his life the U.S. and our allies were not on his side. This too should be remembered when we celebrate his amazing life.
Part of remembering Mandela's life fully and honestly is to understand him, and our own country, in the full context of his time. This means understanding that during the Cold War, our own ideological dogma forced us on to the wrong side occasionally. South Africa is one of the most memorable, but not only, examples of this. U.S. support for the apartheid regime was rationalized by placing South African into a bigger more global struggle.
Anybody who, as late as the early 1980s, ever held up a sign calling for the end of apartheid, knows this. In those days to take action of any kind against apartheid was enough to get you called a Communist and be told by right-wing apologists for apartheid to go back to Russia. Support for apartheid into the 1980s was not critical to American security nor were those who opposed security Communist dupes. History has made both those things apparent, but it was less obvious to some at the time.
Calling Mandela a Communist or a terrorist shortly after his death is mean-spirited, but it is a bigger condemnation of the moral blindness of much of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War than it is a criticism of Mandela. It was American myopia and self-absorption which led us to call Mandela a Communist and a terrorist in our efforts to prop up a collapsing South African apartheid regime. It is a reflection of Mandela's wisdom, poise and temperament that he was able to see beyond these attacks and build strong relationships between his country and ours.