Letter: From ‘Terrorist’ to Freedom-Fighter

To the Editor:

In recent days, most of the world has united in bidding farewell to South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela and in celebrating the achievements of his long life. And with good reason: Mandela was one of the greatest statesmen and humane spirits of the 20th century. The United States was very much present at his Dec. 10 memorial service, and President Obama’s moving speech was warmly received by the crowd.

Today Mandela is seen here as a hero, but that was not always the case. From the 1960s on, Mandela and the African National Congress were regarded as terrorists by many U.S. authorities. The CIA infiltrated the ANC and has been accused of participating in Mandela’s 1962 arrest that led to his trial and 27 years of imprisonment.

Many in New Hampshire remember then-governor Meldrim Thomson’s 1978 junket to South Africa. He returned full of praise for the apartheid regime, and described Soweto as “wonderful.” Thomson was also impressed by the nation’s “free elections” in which the great majority of citizens were excluded from voting because of their race. Thomson was extreme, but not alone, in his admiration.

The administration of Ronald Reagan famously changed U.S. foreign policy’s focus from human rights to fighting “terrorism” — but his understanding of those issues was seriously deficient. Reagan considered apartheid South Africa a valued anticommunist ally and called for “constructive engagement” rather than pressure for change. In 1986 he did denounce apartheid — while vetoing a bipartisan effort to impose meaningful economic sanctions designed to end it. Congress overrode the veto.

A few years after Reagan left office, Mandela was released from prison and South Africa’s infamous apartheid laws were repealed; the U.S. sanctions were then lifted. Nevertheless, Nelson Mandela and his party remained on an official U.S. “terrorism watch list” until 2008, 14 years after he became South Africa’s president.

Why is all this still important? Other days will come when this country must deal with both terrorists and genuine freedom fighters like the ANC. It is essential that we have leaders who, unlike Ronald Reagan and Meldrim Thomson, can tell the difference.

John Lamperti