Dropping a Dime on Madiba: How the CIA Helped Arrest Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela in prison

If you look at those matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace.

Nelson Mandela, 2002

The president’s press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, a terse, stout spokesman for a vacillating chief executive, grew irritated.  “We find no value in reviewing a 30-year-old history in this case,” growled Fitzwater.  In June of 1990, the Cox News Service newspapers published reports that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA) had in 1962 tipped off the South African security forces, enabling them to arrest the embattled leader of the resistance to apartheid, Nelson Mandela.  Indignant that the Washington press corps expected a White House explanation for the CIA’s historic misdeed, Bush’s spokesman reminded reporters, “This happened during the [John F.] Kennedy administration. . . Don’t beat me up for what the Kennedy people did.”  Amplifying his anger, Fitzwater revealed the insecurity of the Bush era: “I just don’t like it when people question our motives on blacks or on Mandela because of an incident that happened 20 years ago in another administration.  Go ask the Kennedy administration.”

marlin fitzwater
Go ask JFK!

American spies had collaborated with the vicious enforcers of state-sponsored racist terror in South Africa, condemning Mandela to nearly 28 years of incarceration.  Naturally, this revelation embarrassed the administration of President George Herbert Walker Bush.  The Republicans had been among the last people in the world to oppose economic sanctions on the apartheid state.  They had lost that battle in 1986, when Congress overrode a veto by President Ronald Reagan.  Bush, then Reagan’s Vice President, now nervously awaited the recently freed Mandela’s visit to the USA, where the now legendary leader of the African National Congress planned to press Washington to maintain sanctions until the final dismantlement of apartheid.

Bush, speaking for himself, explained that he could not plan to apologize to Mandela for America’s involvement in his capture because the president had “not looked into” the role played by the CIA.  The plea of ignorance proved a weak defense, as Bush had been CIA Director during the mid-1970s, a time, coincidentally, when congressional investigations revealed many Cold War schemes of coups, assassinations and mass surveillance by the agency and its partners in the U.S. national security state.

 Obama at Mandela funeral

What of today’s president?  Barack Obama wasted no time after the December 5 death of Mandela to appropriate the man and the moment.  A failing second-term president on the ropes, politically, following self-inflicted wounds sought to change the subject.  He reminded us that his first political speech had been given during a college foray into the sanctions movement.  Madiba, we are told, inspired Obama.

We listen in vain, however, for the president, his spokespersons, or much of the mainstream media to discuss the history of American spying on behalf of apartheid.  The CIA, the Pentagon, and the space program had important facilities and personnel in Cold War-era South Africa.  The CIA, which had just enabled the overthrow and eventual assassination of the popular African nationalist Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, pursued its zealous Cold War mission in a country whose social fabric had been torn asunder by the apartheid regime’s surveillance and brutality.

Small bits of the Mandela news coverage of the past week have reported that the United States not only helped catch Mandela in 1962, it continued to monitor him with apprehension long after his release from prison and even after his single term as South Africa’s first truly democratic president.  From the 1980s until 2008 Mandela’s party, the ANC, remained on Washington’s list of “terrorist” groups.  Pointless, absurd and unconstitutional watch lists and mass surveillance have, of course, become a staple of our daily news since the first disclosures from the whistleblower Edward Snowden.

We have come to learn that the NSA vacuums up as much data as it can from citizens in this country and around the world in its drive for what an internal memo calls “the golden age of Sigint” (signals intelligence – electronic eavesdropping), the capacity to grab data from “anyone, anytime, anywhere.”  In this post-Snowden moment, the avid eyes and ears of American spies working closely with their apartheid counterparts to find Mandela a generation ago has a particular resonance.

Painfully, Obama seems oblivious.  The president met Mandela, visited his prison at Robben Island, and has paid countless (albeit self-serving) homages to Madiba.  Indeed, the president is a key contributor to the prevailing narrative that figures the post-apartheid South African president as an icon of love and peace, the benevolent leader of the “Rainbow Nation.”  To be sure, news analysis since his death has increasingly pointed out that this is simplistic and understates the importance of Mandela as a thinker and fighter and revolutionary.  The CIA angle remains muted.  Mandela’s opposition to many aspects of American foreign policy also draws little attention.

Obama evidently sees little irony in his championing of a man who condemned American arrogance in the eras of the Cold War and the War on Terror.  He proves no readier than his predecessor over two decades ago to look closely at American complicity in Mandela’s ordeal.  More importantly, this president concedes nothing about the eerie resemblance between the out of control espionage of the Cold War and  Obama’s drone wars and mass surveillance state.

In Soweto, site of tragedy and triumph during the apartheid era, Obama joined leaders from around the world at Mandela’s memorial, taking his campaign to define Madiba to the next level:

There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality.  There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.  And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

Howick sculpture of Mandela
The artful commemoration of the golden anniversary of Mandela’s arrest, erected in Howick, South Africa, a sculpture imprisoning him with 50 columns of steel

Read in the light of Obama’s recent call for greater economic equality within U.S. society, and his longtime insistence that Africa needs strong governments, but not authoritarianism, this seems enlightened.  Hollow do the words ring, however, from the Commander-in-Chief whose drones inflame tensions around the world while claiming untold civilian lives.  From the former law professor-turned-aloof and indifferent chief executive who either did not know or did not care that the NSA has made a mockery of basic constitutional and human rights.  What might Madiba think?

It is fitting that the world has paused to remember Mandela, reverently, but it will be all the more fruitful if this commemoration unblinkingly faces the circumstances and meaning of his incarceration.  There was nothing inevitable about his survival and ultimate triumph after languishing so long at Robben Island.  Save the big speeches and ceremonies.  Eloquence fails when shared by those with self-serving, selective memory.

Larry Grubbs is a senior lecturer in the History Department at Georgia State University, and the author of Secular Missionaries: Americans and African Development in the 1960 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).