At Mandela’s Deathbed, the Conclave of Hypocrites

An outpouring of admiration and fond notices by world leaders as Nelson Mandela lies dying obscures the unpleasant reality. It is far too easy to forget that apartheid South Africa’s western allies allowed him to rot in prison for 25 years while they cultivated the savage and racist regime in Pretoria, writes Rue89 editor Pierre Haski, who covered apartheid South Africa for a French news agency in the 1970s.

We are seeing an avalanche of readymade homages to Nelson Mandela, and they are certainly well deserved, given the personality, the sacrifices and the life of the great South African leader. Reading them one might be tempted to believe that he was always a beloved figure, that he was the victim of a tiny handful of white extremists isolated on the distant tip of Africa.

The reality is quite different. For most of his political life, Nelson Mandela was considered a dangerous man by the Western world, including a good number of the people who are now typing up adulatory readymade obituaries in every capital.

The present controversy around Jean-Marie Le Pen’s stance on Mandela [in France], which began when Le Pen’s daughter recently tried to rewrite history on Radio France Inter, might lead us to think that the National Front leader was alone in his position [that Mandela was a terrorist]. But he was merely more plainspoken than the rest, particularly after one could no longer call Mandela a terrorist openly in polite company.

But history is forgetful. The West as a whole sided with white South African power for many decades, until the uprising by black youth in Soweto in 1976 succeeded in cracking the consensus. Still, the consensus would not really disappear until the end of the Cold War in 1989.

The moral condemnation of apartheid, and even South Africa’s expulsion from the Commonwealth after the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960-prelude to Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment in 1962-weighed less in the end than geopolitical considerations. Not surprising perhaps, but something we should remember rather than hiding ourselves behind what is in fact a very recent consensus.

In the 1960s and 70s, NATO strategists considered South Africa an essential key to the control of the Cape maritime route used by supertankers at the time, and also an important source of certain minerals vital to the defense industry.

Portugal’s NATO membership during the years of the Salazar dictatorship, which during the 1960s was involved in endless wars in its African colonies of Angola and Mozambique, strengthened the informal membership of Pretoria’s minority white authorities in the ‘anti-communist front.’

At Silvermine, on the Cape peninsula, the South African army installed a fortified listening post that surveilled the southern sea lanes, transmitting its information to Western intelligence agencies. Information traveled in both directions, and it is said that it was a CIA tip that led to Nelson Mandela’s first arrest.

France, too, collaborated closely with the apartheid regime. It sold South Africa its first nuclear plant in the 1970s, knowing full well that this contributed to Pretoria’s military nuclear proliferation, a program that officially halted at the end of white domination.

In 1976, when I was AFP’s correspondent in Johannesburg, the French embassy, which had no contacts whatsoever in Soweto, and worried about irritating the Pretoria government, asked if I would organize a dinner at my house in which a representative of the French foreign ministry might meet with Ntatho Motlana, who was the personal representative of Winnie Mandela, wife of the imprisoned leader.

The African National Congress, whose principal leaders were rotting in prison on Robben Island, was very isolated. In the 1970s, when the liberation movement’s delegations, headed by Thabo Mbeki, passed through Paris, the one-day president would stay in a maid’s room at the house of a Moroccan friend, haughtily ignored by the French government.

Later, at the beginning of the 1980s, as the situation inside South Africa became more or less insurrectional, France’s conservatives participated in Pretoria’s ploy to favor a ‘third way’ in the person of the ‘presentable black’ Gatsha Buthelezi.

While his militias attacked ANC partisans with machetes, Buthelezi was being officially received by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and in France by Jacques Chirac who was then mayor of Paris (the photos are on display in Buthelezi’s living room in Kwazulu Natal).

At the same moment, then-prime minister Laurent Fabius was imposing the first French sanctions, and withdrawing the French ambassador from Pretoria.

It needed the revolt of South Africa’s black population, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and a tsunami of public opinion around the world before Western leaders would change their attitude and push the apartheid regime to free Mandela and negotiate [with the ANC].

Today’s consensus around the figure of Nelson Mandela must not allow us to forget the criminal misdeeds of yesterday, misdeeds that contributed to leaving him in prison for a quarter of a century, and that prolonged the life of the wicked system of apartheid.

It is far easier to pretend that we were always on the side of the ‘good,’ and against that of ‘evil,’ than it is to ask ourselves about the false rationalizations that let the ‘land of human rights’ and other defenders of democracy remain so long accomplices of a system that was based on the denial of humanity.

The disappearance of this giant of history should be a moment to look back objectively at our past.

Pierre Haski