In the summer of 1990, the renowned New York City neighborhood of Harlem was filled with excitement over the coming arrival of the world’s most notorious political prisoner of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela. Mandela, having been incarcerated in 1964 for having actively challenged the despotic rule of the Apartheid regime under South Africa’s white minority, had just been released on February 11, 1990 after an international campaign calling for his release became so forceful that it could no longer be ignored. Now, approaching nearly 82 years of age, Nelson Mandela was touching down in the United States for the first time in his life. The amount of love awaiting Mandela in Harlem was like none other anywhere else in the world outside Africa, and that love would be reciprocated. Upon being greeted by such a warm welcoming in Harlem, Mandela said he felt he was among fellow “comrades-in-arms”.
Then, on the evening of June 21st, Mandela arrived at Aaron Davis Hall at the City College of New York for a town-hall meeting anchored by Ted Koppel of ABC News‘s Koppel Report. What followed was a round of questions asked by pre-selected members of the audience who bombarded Mandela with questions thinly designed to trip him up by painting him as an anti-Western radical, or worse, a “terrorist”. In fact, it wasn’t even until the final ten minutes of the meeting when Ted Koppel finally brings the conversation to the topic of whether or not the United States should continue imposing sanctions against the racist South African government in order to force it to negotiate. After all, this was the whole purpose of Mandela’s visit to the United States. But over the course of nearly two hours, everything from the “fiscal solvency” (or lack thereof) of some post-colonial African nations to the struggle of the Palestinians against the nation of Israel is brought up. What is amazing to watch, however, is how in the course of the entire meeting not one questioner was ever able to trip the man known as Madiba up, despite all of the best efforts of the U.S. imperialists.
WATCH BELOW IN ITS ENTIRETY, or scroll down further for a discussion of some of the highlights:
After being greeted with a standing ovation from an overwhelmingly adoring audience, Nelson Mandela, or as his friends endearingly called him – Madiba, takes a seat that has been prepared for him alongside veteran ABC News Nightline reporter Ted Koppel. Koppel begins the conversation by informing “Mr. Mandela” that “you are participating in what is a very old and very honorable American tradition.” This claim is somewhat dubious, however, considering that the questions asked at this supposed “town hall meeting” are almost exclusively by people who are political operatives or politicians. But why let that get in the way of good TV? After informing Mandela that he “think(s) we have some people out here who have some very provocative and perhaps even controversial questions to ask you”, Koppel proceeds to call on the designated questioners.
- One notable exception to the right-wing questioners who’ve been intentionally scattered throughout the audience is the first person to ask a question, the progressive Reverend Calvin O. Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Butts, in contrast to those that follow him, asks an important, heartfelt and thought-provoking question about the ways in which African Americans, as people who’ve been systematically disadvantaged and dispossessed at home in America, can best be of use for Mr. Mandela in the struggle against the apartheid system in South Africa. (*) Mandela, while making it clear that the African National Congress (A.N.C.) “condemns racialism wherever it may be found”, declares: “It would not be proper for me to delve into the controversial issues which are tearing the society of this country apart.” He reiterates in some ways his stated purpose of visiting the United States, which is to urge the U.S. Congress to keep sanctions on the South African government.
Koppel follows this up by asking, “Mr. Mandela, why are you so insistent on maintaining sanctions at a time when it could be argued that the South African government has made more concessions – your release being only one of them – than it has ever made in the past 40 years?”
The response Koppel receives to his question is pure Nelson Mandela: “I should know better about this matter, Mr. Koppel, than you. After all, it is the ANC, not the government that is responsible for the present talks. We have been hammering the government since 1986… The police are still killing our people as they’ve done over the years; vigilante groups are openly arming themselves for the specific purpose of attacking progressive groups and progressive leaders; the right wing is also arming itself openly, and they say they are doing so for the purpose of destroying the ANC… Why do you think we should now lessen our strategies? What has happened?!“
Having clearly had his foolish question turned back around on him, Ted Koppel says, “Let’s move on to the next question.”
- Now we go to a question from Gloria Toote, a New York Attorney who in the past campaigned to elect both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the presidency of the United States, a woman who became “the first Black woman to serve in a sub-cabinet role in a Republican Administration” back in 1973. Toote expresses her concerns “about the future economy of South Africa”, pointing out that other African governments who won their Independence did not practice “sound fiscal policy.” That she is speaking for the interests of Big Business (with a capital B) is obvious from her question in which she asks if the ANC will continue using South Africa’s resources “in a meaningful way”. Of course, the reality is that these resources were being used to the detriment of non-African peoples.
TOOTE: What can assure me as a human being and a concerned African American that the ANC will indeed have a fiscal, solvent policy that will continue the use of the resources of South Africa in a meaningful way? Or, should I put it more succinctly, will your economy be based on the Marxist system, socialism or capitalism?
MANDELA: I knew that was the question you wanted to ask. I’m happy that you’ve had the courage to put it directly… We are not concerned with labels. We are practical men and women. We do not care if whether the cat is black or white, as long as it can catch mice… We want to rectify the imbalances that exist in our economy… One of the companies in our country owns more than 75% of the shares quoted in Johannesburg. This is illustrative of how our economy is organized. The resources of the company are monopolized by a white minority… We want to develop an economy which will put an end to that. And we leave it to other people to put a label if they so wish.
Now that, my friends, is a clever answer.
- After just two questions asked by audience members, Koppel directs his guest’s attention towards a monitor so that “a couple of people back in South Africa” can ask him some questions. The first of the people to appear on the screen is Koos van der Merwe, co-founder of the right-wing South African Conservative Party and an all-around white nationalist.
MERWE: I’m a South African. I’m an Afrikaner. I want self-determination for my people in a part of South Africa. You can’t have the whole South Africa for yourself. A part of it belongs to my people. Nelson, you’re not going to nationalize the essence of the white people. I have worked for my banks, my mines, my businesses, and my farms. You are not going to take it. Stop your violence. Stop your sanction campaign. Stop your nonsense. Leave the violent campaign alone. Come and sit down. Become a normal person and talk, and maybe that way we can find solutions. And lastly, forget Communism, Nelson, it’s gone.
To this request from a man who is clearly unreasonable, ignorant and downright racist, Mandela smiles and casually responds in Afrikaans, with a sentence translating into English as, “I hope we will have the opportunity to discuss the affairs of our country.” This he says is to demonstrate for the audience that he is bilingual, a statement which causes the audiences to burst out in laughter.
- Probably the most blatantly hypocritical question of all comes from Ken Adleman of all people, the same Kenneth Adleman who, as a conservative neocon crony for both Bush Administrations, pushed for U.S. imperialism in Western Asia. (He would go on in 2002 to put his full support behind invading Iraq, writing that locating the fabled “weapons of mass destruction” would prove to be a “cakewalk”.)
ADLEMAN: Those of us who share your struggle for human rights against apartheid have been somewhat disappointed by the models of human rights that you have held up since being released from jail. You’ve met over the past six months three times with Yasser Arafat, whom you have praised. You have told Gaddafi that you share the view and applaud him on his record of human rights in his drive for freedom and peace around the world; and you have praised Fidel Castro as a leader of human rights and said that Cuba was one of the countries that’s head and shoulders above all other countries in human rights, in spite of the fact that documents of the United Nations and elsewhere show that Cuba’s one of the worst. I was just wondering, are these your models of leaders of human rights, and if so would you want a Gaddafi or an Arafat or a Castro to be a future president of South Africa?
MANDELA: One of the mistakes which some political analysts make is to think their enemies should be our enemies. (*standing ovation from audience*) Our attitude towards any country is determined by the attitude of that country to our struggle. Yasser Arafat, Colonel Gaddafi [and] Fidel Castro support our struggle to the hilt. There is no reason whatsoever why we should have any hesitation about hailing their commitment to human rights as they’re being demanded in South Africa… They do not support [the anti-apartheid struggle] only in rhetoric; they are placing resources at our disposal for us to win the struggle. That is the position.
KOPPEL: Mr. Mandela, you’ve said quite a number of controversial things in that last response.
Clearly arranged by ABC producers to act as a followup to Ken Adleman’s question, Koppel directs Mandela’s attention towards “some distinguished guests behind us, one of whom, Mr. Henry Siegman… came to Geneva to visit you precisely because [he] was so concerned… because of the support that you seemed at different times to give to the P.L.O. [Palestine Liberation Organization]”. He then calls on the executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Henry Siegman, to stand up and direct his question toward Mr. Mandela.
SIEGMAN: Before I pose my question, let me say first that when I had the pleasure and honor of meeting with Mr. Mandela in Geneva we said to him, and I’d like to repeat this now in order to put my question into context, that the commitment of the Jewish Organizations that met with you to the struggle against apartheid, against racism, against injustice in South Africa, is absolutely unconditional. It is not dependent on whether we are happy or unhappy with responses that Mr. Mandela gives to some questions. Having said that, I think I would be dishonest if I did not express profound disappointment with the answer that Mr. Mandela gave to the previous question, because it suggests a certain degree of amorality that suggests that what these people do in their own countries, what a Gaddafi does in Libya, or what a Castro does in Cuba, is totally irrelevant even in terms of the issue of human rights, as long as they support the cause of the ANC. I hope that is not what Mr. Mandela meant, and I would hope that he would clarify that issue further.
MANDELA: Firstly, we are in a liberation movement which is fully involved in a struggle to emancipate our people from one of the worst racial tyrannies the world has seen. We have no time to be looking into the internal affairs of other countries. It is unreasonable for anybody to think that this is our role. I have been asked by somebody (referring to Rev. Calvin Butts) who wants me to express an opinion on the differences that are taking place within the U.S.A., and he made his position quite clear, that there is racialism in this country. I have refused to be drawn into that. Why should Mr. Siegman accept my refusal to be withdrawn into the internal affairs of the United States, and at the same time want me to be involved in the internal affairs of Libya and Cuba? I refuse to do that. As far as Yasser Arafat is concerned, I explained to Mr. Siegman that we identify with the PLO because, just like ourselves, they are fighting for the right to self-determination. I went further, however, to say that the support for Yasser Arafat in his struggle does not mean that the ANC has ever doubted the right for Israel to exist as a state, legally. We have stood quite open and fairly for the right of that state to exist within secure borders. But of course, as I said to Mr. Siegman in Geneva and others, that we carefully define what we mean by secure borders. We do not mean that Israel has the right to retain the territories they conquered from the Arab world, like the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the West Bank. We don’t agree with that. Those territories should be returned to the Arab people. I also explained to Mr. Siegman and company that in our organization we have Jews. In fact, Mr. Gaddafi did not allow our offices in Libya precisely because we had the courage to say to him, ‘We work with the Jews in our organization.’ And he didn’t allow us to open an office until February this year, when he had to accept us as we are. We are not prepared to destroy that for anybody. We have an independent policy which we assert no matter with whom we are discussing.
- After getting entirely off track discussing people and places having little or nothing to do with sanctions against South Africa, Koppel calls on another audience member named Malcolm Dunn, who at the time of this broadcast was the Chairman of the American Legal Defense Fund for the Minority Business Organization.
DUNN: We [African Americans] who have gained democracy and have reached certain levels of proficiency in business and education in various professions would like to know; what can we offer? What can we, who have been denied access, total absorption into the American system in those professions, what can we prepare ourselves to offer to you in the Motherland in your attainment of the ‘one person, one vote’? I ask this in the context of Eastern European countries being free. And the money formerly sent to Africa is now being diverted to those Eastern European countries. I ask also in the context that our own country has opened up its doors to people of a lighter hue before they have absorbed us fully in this country.
MANDELA: The Black people of the USA have a lot to offer the people in South Africa in the course of their struggle… You have been exposed to opportunities which we don’t have. You have better educational facilities… You have been able to acquire expert knowledge, skills which we’ll require, especially when during the post-apartheid South Africa, you can help us a great deal by making that expertise available to us.
- Reverting back to the diversion tactics meant to steer the conversation once again away from the brutality and cruelty of the apartheid regime and the injustices it was carrying out on a daily basis, Koppel and company try and zoom in on the supposed intra-racial strife among South Africa’s Black political parties. “There are black leaders in South Africa,” states Koppel, “with whom you and your organization have differences. One of them represents many of the Zulu people.” Appearing on the monitor is the Chief Minister Kwazulu, Gatasha Buthelezi, of the right-wing Inkatha Freedom Party, the ANC’s chief rival organization known to have collaborated with the white apartheid government.
BUTHELEZI: I know, Madiba, that you are not responsible for our not getting together. And I know it’s other people that have said… that they don’t want you and I to get together. But Madiba, all these years you’ve been incarcerated you know we’ve been in touch. You know that I’ve always paid tribute to you; that I’ve refused to negotiate with any of the white leaders in this country for decades now, because I told them that it was absolutely non-negotiable that I could get to the conference table without you and our brothers who were incarcerated with you, and others, before the unbanning of ANC, PNC and other organizations. So I think in your absence you might be interested to know that one of our brothers who’s very close to you has been to see me. He’ll have a certain message for you when you return. And I’m certain myself that it’s absolutely up to you, because there’s nothing that prevents you, even in the United States, to pick up a telephone and say ‘Hello’ and talk to me as we were doing ever since you’ve left jail.
MANDELA: I do not think it correct for me to wash our dirty linen in a foreign country. I am hesitant to do that even though here I have the feeling that I am among comrades-in-arms… One thing that I’d like to dispel with all the force at my command is that there is no difference whatsoever between myself and my organization on the attitude towards Inkatha and yourself, a person. If I have not seen you, it is because of decisions which we have carefully discussed amongst ourselves and of which I am a part. I, however, would like to repeat what you already know. I have said on numerous occasions, I would like the ANC and Inkatha to sit down and resolve our problems, and end the violence that is going on today in Natal. But you know as well as I do that the question is no longer simple. The government has taken advantage of the differences between my organization and your organization… They are using those differences for the purpose of trying to eliminate the ANC and what they consider to be members of that organization who are a threat to white supremacy.
Nelson Mandela very impressively always managed to bring the focus back to the real issues at hand. refusing to be drawn into the political fray which sought to alleviate pressure from being applied to South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk. Speaking of the ways in which de Klerk for years violently suppressed ANC members with the brutality of the police force, Mandela wonders why the president hasn’t been able to similarly suppress the violence being committed by members of the I.F.P. against members of the A.N.C.
MANDELA: Mr. de Klerk has never been able to give a satisfactory answer to my question… I have said to him: you have not suppressed this violence deliberately because you believe that by using these differences between these two organizations you can catch your enemy number one, the ANC… That is the main problem facing the people of South Africa. It is the government and its police in the violence that is taking place in Natal.
- Next comes yet another corporate shill of the right, this time the South African apartheid government’s former consul general in New York, Abe Hoppenstein, who quickly devolved into a foolish lecture attempting to whitewash the crimes of the apartheid regime that he was very much a part of, seeking to portray the ANC-IFP conflict as an example of ‘black-on-black crime’ thereby making it appear as if the whites of South Africa seem like the “responsible adults in the room.”
HOPPENSTEIN: As one who for a period of years has advocated for your own conditional release… I am delighted to see you here in New York… I also want to commend you for your loyalty to your friends, controversial though they may be… In dealing with Natal in particular, I as a white South African am most concerned about the blood-letting carnage that is going on. And whilst I take the point that you’ve made that the police possibly or could probably do more, I do believe that the challenge or the ball is in your court, Mr. Mandela, because one cannot afford to have South Africans killing South Africans. We’ve gotta have peace, harmony, a strong economy; we’ve gotta hold out our hands to each other so we can build the new South Africa with a minimum amount of violence.
Hoppenstein follows this up by urging Mandela to “extend a hand” and “make peace” with Buthelezi, finishing off his remarks sternly saying, “I hope you agree!”
MANDELA: I do not consider your remarks as a lecture to me, because you know it is the ANC and not the government that has compelled the government to sit down and talk peace with us. It is the ANC that is mobilizing the entire country today around the question of peace. You would also know that I have made several calls at public rallies that no solution is possible in South Africa without involving Chief Buthelezi. You know this.
MANDELA: I have made this call not once, but several times. But it is the government that is responsible for all our problems in regard to Natal. The government has had no hesitation whatsoever in repressing similar violence before. Why is it that it has not even attempted to suppress that violence? After all, no government anywhere in the world can tolerate violence in which close to 4,000 people have been killed without interfering. Why is your government not interfering? That is the question that you must answer.
HOPPENSTEIN: I would answer you by saying that I don’t represent the government and I would hope that the government would do exactly what you say. I do not quarrel with you and I do not presumptuously lecture you, Mr. Mandela. I wish you well.
And with that answer Hoppenstein takes a much-needed seat.
The Nightline segment of the broadcast opens up with Ted Koppel once again bringing the conversation around to issues of foreign policy having little to do with whether or not the U.S. Congress should continue to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime or not. Having opened up the last segment announcing that there was going to be some “controversial questions”, Koppel now begins this segment by pressuring Mandela to elaborate on his supposed “controversial answers.”
KOPPEL: Some controversial things [were said], not the kind of things necessarily that a very political man says. If you were very political you might have been more concerned about not alienating some people in this country who have it within their hands, within their power, either to continue sanctions against South Africa or to raise those sanctions, to lift them. Why were you not a little more political? Perhaps we’re too accustomed to politicians in this country?
Mandela is not quite sure what to make of this question and asks Koppel to clarify what he meant.
KOPPEL: What I’m saying is that in this country, for example, there has been for many years a close alliance between the Jewish and the black population in the Civil Rights struggle. There is likely to be a rather negative reaction to some of the things that you have said. That reaction could very well cause people to call up their Senators and say, ‘Ah, go ahead and lift the sanctions.’ Why not? After all, President de Klerk is doing a great deal against apartheid. Only today, in fact, his number two man… came out and said that the government perceives itself in South Africa as being part of the anti-apartheid struggle.
This statement drew laughter from Nelson Mandela and members of the audience. One must wonder if Koppel wasn’t in fact trying to suggest to members of the American public that they should in fact be “calling up their Senator” and telling them to lift the sanctions. After all, why spend so much time talking about Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat when Mandela’s positions on them have already been made quite clear? What’s more, the mere suggestion by Koppel that the apartheid South African government is leading in the struggle to end apartheid is beyond absurd.
MANDELA: One of the problems we are facing in the world today are people who do not look at problems objectively, but from the point of view of their own interests… Once a person is not objective, it is extremely difficult to reach an agreement. One of the best examples of this is to think that because Arafat is conducting a struggle against the state of Israel that we must condemn him. We cannot do that. It is just not possible for any organization or individual of integrity to do anything of the sort.
KOPPEL: Let me just…
MANDELA: And secondly…
KOPPEL: If I just might intervene with one point. I don’t want to leave the impression that this is going to be a Jewish blanket issue. There are a great many Cuban Americans in this country that would be just as offended by the comments you made about Fidel Castro.
MANDELA: No, Mr. Koppel. I don’t agree with you. I have said that I think it would be a grave mistake for us to consider our attitude towards Yasser Arafat on the basis of the interest of the Jewish Community. We sympathize with the struggles of the Jewish communities. In our own country, in the political trials that have taken place, when few lawyers were prepared to defend us, it has been the Jewish lawyers who have come forward to defend us… I was trained to become a lawyer by a Jewish firm at a time when few firms in our country were prepared to take risks. And, as I have said, we have many Jews, members of the Jewish Community in our struggle, and they have occupied very top positions. But that does not mean to say that the enemies of Israel are our enemies. We refuse to take that position. You can call it being political or a moral question, but for anybody who changes his principles depending on whom he is dealing, that is not a man who can lead a nation. (*standing ovation*) Apparently, Mr. Koppel, you have not listened to my argument. If you have done so, then you have not been serious in examining. I have replied to one of our friends here that I refuse to be drawn into the differences that exist between various communities inside the U.S.A. You have not commented that I am going to offend anybody by refusing to involve myself in the internal affairs of the USA. Why are you so keen that I should involve myself in the internal affairs of Cuba and Libya? I expect you to be consistent.
Noticing that Ted Koppel is now completely frozen, Mandela remarks, “I don’t know if I have paralyzed you.” Both men smile at this, and it’s clear to everyone by now that Koppel has more than met his match.
KOPPEL: Since I’ve just about recovered from my paralysis… the point that I was trying to make, and clearly I did not make with any great success, is that you must not be mislead by what is, after all, what in this country we’d call a hometown crowd. These people are very much with you… You don’t have to convince them. They are people who already believe in you and believe in your cause. But this is a very large and diverse country…
MANDELA: Now I don’t know where your concern arises. The Jewish leaders themselves are able to determine their own affairs… If the Jewish leaders have any doubt about our stand, I am prepared to address them and relay their concern, because they are a very important community in South Africa and of course in the States… But they must know what our stand is. Arafat is a comrade-in-arms and is treated as such.
Finally, with just a little more than 10 minutes left in the broadcast, the final audience member to be called upon, Democratic Senator David Boren of Oklahoma, brings to the conversation around to the main issue at hand, whether or not sanctions should continue to be imposed on the South African apartheid regime.
BOREN: While there may be some different opinions on different issues, like positions on Arafat and Gaddafi, I think the American people understand what’s going on in South Africa. We have seen families divided because they have been classified according to race. We know that people are denied the right to vote because of race. And the American people, regardless of party or position on other issues are not about to relieve the pressure until that system is changed…
The Senator’s declaration was greeted with enormous approval by just about everybody who was in the audience. The man of the hour himself, Nelson Mandela, even stood to give the Senator’s show of support a standing ovation. Despite all that was said that night, and despite the wide array of topics that were discussed, it’s what was not mentioned during the entire two-hour meeting that is most outrageous. Not a single participant given the mic ever made note of the fact that the United States was practically in support of the South African apartheid regime for at least 4 decades! And, as if its record on this case wasn’t already bad enough, the United States continued to have Nelson Mandela and the organization he represented, the ANC, listed on its international list of terrorists at the very moment the town-hall meeting took place in 1990! It would not be until 2008 that the U.S. decided it was safe for Nelson Mandela’s name to be removed from the official ‘terrorist’ list. In fact, it was a member of the CIA who in 1962 helped the South African white regime find discover Mandela’s whereabouts so that they would be able to arrest him, an arrest that ultimately resulted in the ANC leader being incarcerated for more than 27 years. (**) Perhaps even more astounding, in light of the incessant amount of questions Koppel and co. directed at Mandela in regards to human rights and the P.L.O., is the fact that Israel began supplying a large amount weaponry to the South African apartheid regime in 1976, weaponry that included (though unknown to the rest of the world at the time) a nuclear weapon.
And while all the Western governments in one way or another either turned a blind eye, or worse, actively encouraged the rise of the oppressive South African apartheid government, the United States was able to contribute to the legacy of apartheid in a way few other nations ever could. The whites of South Africa, who constituted a minority of the population in the region all throughout the 20th century, were faced with the task of figuring out a way in which they could monopolize South Africa’s vast amount of resources and generate wealth into as few hands as possible; enforcing the rule of white supremacy was the most assured way of achieving that aim. Luckily for them, there already existed a successful blueprint to follow. It was called the United States of America, a place where attitudes characteristic of ‘Jim Crow’ permeated the South as well as the North.
* Interestingly, despite Rev. Calvin Butts having asked the question very calmly, a 1998 editorial in the New Yorker refers to the Reverend having “snapped during a visit by Nelson Mandela in 1990″. Apparently to the columnist who wrote the piece, Butts accurately stating that New York City “is one of the most racially divided cities in the world” is the same as “snapping” at someone.
** In early 2003 Nelson Mandela was still firmly against imperialism in the world, no matter where it might be. His was among the earliest and most persuasive voices opposing U.S. military invasion of Iraq, saying of then-President Bush, “All that man wants is Iraqi oil“, and asking aloud, ” Why are they [the United States] not seeking to confiscate weapons of mass destruction from their ally Israel?” The speech, addressed in January of 2003 to a gathering of the International Women’s Forum in South Africa, strongly condemned American imperialist power in the world starting well over half-a-century ago.
If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. [APPLAUSE] They don’t care for human beings. Fifty-seven years ago, when Japan was retreating on all fronts, they decided to drop the atom bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; killed a lot of innocent people, who are still suffering the effects of those bombs.
Those bombs were not aimed against the Japanese, they were aimed against the Soviet Union to say, ‘look, this is the power that we have. If you dare oppose what we do, this is what is going to happen to you’. Because they are so arrogant, they decided to kill innocent people in Japan…
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