Mandela: never forget how the free world's leaders learned to change their tune
Nelson Mandela Square sits at the entrance to the glitziest shopping mall in what is reputed to be the wealthiest square kilometre in Africa. Towering over the cafes around the northern Johannesburg piazza, as if guarding the diamond jewellers and designer clothes shops within, is a six metre tall, 2.5 ton of the great man dancing.
The mall's owners say the statue is intended to honour Mandela and his country's hard-won democracy and most of the shoppers milling around it would probably see it that way. But the great totem always seemed to me to be mocking the new .
Many of the same prosperous whites who gaze on the giant Mandela from plush cafes and pour out their love and admiration for his sacrifice in saving South Africans from themselves can also regularly be heard bemoaning the state of the country he bequeathed. They worship the man but despair of the legacy of his handiwork in the levels of crime, corruption, authoritarianism and "falling standards" under democratic government.
Not all whites, but a good number of them. And they feel free to do this because when they look at Mandela they see absolution. Their praise of his willingness to forgive comes with the understanding that they too are forgiven and absolved of the past. Freed of responsibility for how South came to be what it is, they head back to the pool and congratulate themselves on their luck in embracing the world's greatest modern statesman. Bring up past responsibilities and you face being accused of failing to understand Mandela's message.
In the past few days, amid the mourning and celebration of a unique leader, we have been reminded that burying the past through praise for Mandela is not just a South African phenomenon. Listening to the leaders of the free world compete to extol South Africa's first democratically elected president, there is a striking absence of acknowledgement not only of how little their countries did to get him out of prison but how much they supported the regime that kept him locked up for 27 years. No mention from David Cameron of vigorous opposition to sanctions against the white regime and her deriding of Mandela's supporters as "living in cloud cuckoo land" for believing he might one day lead South Africa. No acknowledgement from Barack Obama of trumpeting of the Afrikaner-led government as a beacon of democracy in Africa while he consigned Mandela and the African National Congress to the terrorism list.
Still, Cameron and Obama may have failed to acknowledge past transgressions, but they weren't responsible for them. Israel's president, , issued a statement extolling Mandela's sacrifices for freedom, apparently hoping that no one would remember that, as defence minister in the 1970s, Peres signed secret military pacts with Pretoria that, among other things, helped developed weapons used against black Africans.
At that time, Peres was also unctuously praising co-operation between as "based not only on common interests and on the determination to resist equally our enemies, but also on the unshakeable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and our refusal to submit to it". All this as Mandela sat in prison for seeking justice in equality. The outpouring of love for Mandela in the more than two decades since he walked free has driven into the background just how divisive South Africa policy was in the UK and US. In the 80s, growing popular sentiment in favour of sanctions and boycotts ran up against a resurgent right unembarrassed by overt racism.
It's tempting to focus outrage and derision on the young Conservatives who turned out the infamous "Hang Mandela" poster and older Tories whose brand of fascism gloried in public support for white rule in Rhodesia and South Africa. But the real crime was the policies in Washington and London rooted in the harsh calculations of the cold war. Thatcher and Reagan firmly pursued a policy that effectively sacrificed black liberty in South Africa to western strategic gain. The apartheid regime made a lot of headway in Washington and Westminster portraying itself as the last line of defence of western civilisation in Africa in the face of a communist tide, especially after the last Portuguese colonies on South Africa's doorstep – Angola and Mozambique – won independence and swung into the Soviet camp. Zimbabwe's freedom in 1980 solidified the claim that South Africa stood alone against the barbarians.
Reagan made his position clear in the mid 1970s, a few years before he became president, when he described South Africa and then white-ruled Rhodesia as "two of five African nations out of 49 that have democracy, multiparty systems, etc". Once in the White House, his administration allied with Pretoria to fight a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Angola through anti-Marxist rebels and a South African invasion in years of conflict against the Cuban and Angolan armies. Hundreds of thousands died and much of the country was destroyed.
In this climate, Pretoria had little trouble persuading the Reagan administration that the ANC – with South African Communist party members in its top ranks, ties to Moscow and Havana, and and as supporters – was the enemy. No wonder the ANC ended up on the US terrorism list, where it remained until 2008. Even when the popular mood in the US shifted against the apartheid regime, Reagan vetoed sanctions passed by Congress. It had to override the veto.
All of this was done under the guise of defence of democracy and universal human rights. But those terms came to have an Orwellian concept in Africa where Washington, London and Paris saw the defence of freedom in perpetuating the bloody, plunderous dictatorships of the likes of among a host of presidents for life as well as helping the truly murderous into power, such as , simply because they declared themselves anti-communist.
It all came crashing down in 1990 when Thatcher was forced to swallow her infamous dismissal of any prospect of ANC rule and welcome Mandela to Downing Street a few months after his release, knowing it was a matter of time before he became South Africa's president.
As western governments finally rushed to embrace the sanctified ex-prisoner, they pressed him to repudiate ties to those who had been his loyal backers – the collapsed Soviet Union, Gaddafi, Castro and Arafat – on the grounds that they were unfit friends. Mandela refused to bow to such brazen hypocrisy. Still that didn't stop Bill Clinton and later Tony Blair from co-opting him as though the US and UK had been at the forefront of support for South Africa's struggle for freedom.
But perhaps the most shameless piece of historical revisionism of recent days came from Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister. He greeted news of Mandela's death by proclaiming him "a freedom fighter who disavowed violence". That was a pointed jab at the Palestinians. It's also untrue. Mandela was instrumental in founding the ANC's armed wing and stood by the right to violent resistance until apartheid was buried. It may not have been a very effective armed campaign, and it did not resort to the indiscriminate killing of civilians by suicide bomb, but Mandela never disavowed violence in the struggle against a violent system.
A few years back, I asked about his close dealings with the old South African regime, including two periods as prime minister during the 1980s when Israel drew closest to the apartheid government. His response was to brush away history. "I never think back. Since I cannot change the past, why should I deal with it?" he said. Peres is clearly not alone in that view.
Chris McGreal is a former South Africa correspondent who won the 2002 James Cameron prize for coverage of African affairs
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