By Nick Cooper
Illustration by John Forse
From Twitter death hoaxes to health updates to pre-obituaries, Nelson Mandela has been in the headlines constantly for the last few months (as of the print deadline, he’s still alive). However, when Mandela, South Africa, and the world most needed the media spotlight, it was conspicuously absent. The first decade of Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment was the most miserable- he spent it breaking rocks into gravel and quarrying lime on Robben Island. He was harassed, cut off from the world, and forbidden to wear sunglasses, permanently damaging his eyesight. He slept in a damp concrete cell and contracted tuberculosis, the source of his current suffering. The same newspapers that have eloquent words for him now were silent.
The mid-’60s were what Larry Shore, a South African American anti-apartheid activist and professor at Hunter College, refers to as “the worst years, when apartheid wasn’t on the radar.” In the U.S., Martin Luther King, Jr. broke the media silence, calling for sanctions against South Africa in his speeches. Then came Robert F. Kennedy’s trip to South Africa, where he met black leaders and called apartheid evil (this trip is the subject of Shore’s film RFK in the Land of Apartheid).
By the ‘70s and ‘80s, black solidarity movements, radicals, students, and musicians built pressure for sanctions and divestment. Eventually, institutions and politicians in wealthy countries were pressured to impose sanctions and apartheid fell. Suddenly the people of the world loved Mandela and felt that they shared his victory, regardless of whether they had previously been anti-apartheid, pro-apartheid, or had never heard of apartheid. Many seemed to think they themselves, or their group, had somehow helped. Barbra Streisand gives the credit to liberals, saying:
I am also very proud to be a liberal. Why is that so terrible these days? The liberals were liberators. They fought slavery, fought for women to have the right to vote, fought against Hitler, Stalin, fought to end segregation, fought to end apartheid. Liberals put an end to child labor and they gave us the five-day workweek! What’s to be ashamed of?
There is apartheid today in Israel/Palestine and liberals such as Streisand are not fighting it. Instead, she played a benefit concert for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Activists of color, radicals, communists, anarchists, socialists, and union members roll their eyes (and the dead ones roll over in their graves) when liberals try to take credit for winning rights for women, workers, or non-whites. With a few exceptions, such as RFK, liberals were not the ones being executed, imprisoned, blacklisted, and oppressed for their efforts.
Republicans and conservatives in the Global North had close ties to the apartheid government, including such allies as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Pat Buchanan. Larry Shore had moved to the U.S. in 1973 and saw them slamming Mandela and the ANC, “Many Republicans called Mandela a terrorist… With some very rare exceptions, no Republican ever supported Mandela.” Nonetheless, after apartheid fell, the Republicans weren’t going to let the liberals be the only ones to steal credit.
So, when Mandela spoke at Rice University in 1999, the Republicans were out in force, each trying to outdo the others as Mandela’s closest friend (watch the video). The event was sponsored by Shell Oil, which started things off on a bizarre note as Shell was the single corporation anti-apartheid activists had boycotted the most. Shell not only violated a U.N. embargo by providing fuel to the apartheid regime, but also hired a Washington-based firm called ‘Pagan International’ to conduct an international spying and subversion program (named the ‘Neptune Strategy’) against anti-apartheid activists. However, at Rice that day, Shell was trying to rebrand itself. According to Larry Shore, when the sanctions against South Africa ended, “Shell wanted to get back into South Africa and donated money to the ANC. They were sucking up to Mandela.”
Shell’s sponsorship was just the beginning of the absurdities. James Baker III, a Reagan and Bush White House official, who now lauded Mandela as the greatest among the important figures of the second half of the 20th century, introduced the program. His Royal Highness Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia (aka “Bandar Bush” from Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911), introduced Nelson Mandela. And finally, Ken Lay presented Mandela with the “Enron Prize for Distinguished Public Service.”
Sharing the stage with these oil mafiosos, Mandela thanked the American students who had helped hasten the end of apartheid and the audience of Rice students applauded themselves. However, even during the ‘80s when other universities had protests and some divested from South Africa, the Rice students who were part of the anti-apartheid movement could have been counted on one hand.
For South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the anti-apartheid struggle has never ended, it has only moved to Israel. Tutu said, “I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about. Many South Africans are beginning to recognize the parallels to what we went through.”
Activists struggling against apartheid in Israel are lobbying, making films, organizing protests, marches, boycotts, and concerts, etc. — the same type of things they did in response to South Africa. Folks such as Barbra Streisand, James Baker, and Bandar Bush are not helping out, but it seems likely that after Israel/Palestine has been transformed into a multiethnic democracy, they will show up to take credit.