Special Report

Mandela’s African Cold War

Should we forget which side he was on?

By 12.12.13

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Most Americans have never heard of Chris Hani or Oliver Tambo, both of whom died in 1993, and there was no fanfare in the U.S. media when Arthur Goldreich died two years ago. Since Nelson Mandela’s death last Thursday, the names of his former comrades in the anti-apartheid struggle have been omitted from the media narrative. The MSNBC hostess who last week enthusiastically credited Mandela with having “singlehandedly” ended apartheid was merely reducing to its ridiculous essence a myth that has become ubiquitous. What has been carefully omitted from the media myth — along with the names of many of Mandela’s colleagues in the African National Congress — is that the ANC was a communist-dominated party closely allied with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The controversy that erupted Tuesday after President Obama shook hands with Cuban dictator Raul Castro at a Mandela memorial in South Africa should have provided an opportunity to explain the history that has been deleted from the media’s Mandela myth. After all, Fidel Castro’s communist regime sent tens of thousands of soldiers to Angola to fight in a civil war where South Africa’s apartheid government sent troops into combat against Soviet-backed Marxists. The fact that Moscow and Havana spent the final 15 years of the Cold War fighting to spread communism in sub-Saharan Africa, and that Pretoria was a key Western ally against that effort, got no mention in the obituary praise for Mandela, who remained imprisoned until 1990.

Mandela himself proclaimed his gratitude to Castro in a 1991 speech in Havana: “The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. ... We also honor the great Che Guevara, whose revolutionary exploits, including on our own continent, were too powerful for any prison censors to hide from us. The life of Che is an inspiration to all human beings who cherish freedom. We will always honor his memory. … It was in prison when I first heard of the massive assistance that the Cuban internationalist forces provided to the people of Angola, on such a scale that one hesitated to believe, when the Angolans came under combined attack of South African, CIA-financed FNLA, mercenary, UNITA, and Zairean troops in 1975.” In his Havana speech, Mandela repeatedly invoked Cuba’s victory in the 1988 battle of Cuito Cuanvale in Angola: “The decisive defeat of the apartheid aggressors broke the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressors!”

The long war in Angola — where Cuban troop strength at times exceeded 50,000 and where the Soviets sent tanks and helicopters — is now nearly forgotten in the United States, but clearly loomed large in the view of Mandela and his ANC comrades. Some commentators claimed that Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at Tuesday’s ceremony in South Africa was an accident, that Obama didn’t know whose hand he was shaking, but could tribute be paid to Mandela without acknowledging the communist ally that Mandela so effusively praised?

By the time Mandela was released from prison in 1990, the Berlin Wall had already fallen, the Soviet Union was teetering on the verge of collapse and Castro had withdrawn most of Cuba’s troops from Angola (in compliance with an agreement negotiated by Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker). After Mandela’s death last week, controversy erupted when Newt Gingrich chastised conservatives who criticized the South African leader as a communist. Mandela “turned to communism in desperation,” Gingrich said: “I would ask of his critics: where were some of these conservatives as allies against tyranny? Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid? In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government, you accept the allies you have.” And in America’s struggle against Soviet tyranny, we likewise accepted the allies that we had — including the regime in Pretoria.

In 1986, when Gingrich joined the members of Congress who voted to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, Reagan vetoed the bill, and when Congress voted to override his veto, Reagan said: “Punitive sanctions, I believe, are not the best course of action; they hurt the very people they are intended to help. My hope is that these punitive sanctions do not lead to more violence and more repression.” Reagan further added: “Now is the time for South Africa's Government to act with courage and good sense to avert a crisis. Moderate black leaders who are committed to democracy and oppose revolutionary violence are ready to work for peaceful change. They should not be kept waiting.” Unfortunately for revisionist myth-makers, Mandela’s ANC did not “oppose revolutionary violence” in 1986. The ANC at that time was aligned with Moscow and Havana and other Marxist regimes which by their most fundamental doctrines were committed to revolutionary violence. And this is why the names of Chris Hani, Oliver Tambo and Arthur Goldreich are so important.

Goldreich was a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and of the ANC’s underground guerrilla army, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation,” known by the abbreviation MK). Mandela was instrumental in forming MK, and in 1962, Goldreich “went to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe… to obtain military assistance, including explosives for sabotage,” according to a 1995 history of the ANC. “Goldreich tried to convince the Soviets to directly intervene in South Africa, but they declined. They only promised military assistance and reportedly gave Goldreich $2.8 million." So at a time when John F. Kennedy was the President of the United States (and Ronald Reagan was still an actor), Mandela’s MK comrade Goldreich was in Moscow seeking Soviet intervention. In March 1963, the ANC’s deputy president Oliver Tambo also went to Moscow, securing an agreement to have MK leaders train in Russia. By that time, Mandela had already been arrested and charged in a series of bombings carried out by MK and, in the summer of 1963, South African police raided the farm near Rivonia where Goldreich lived (the rent was paid by the SACP) and where MK leaders were planning their revolution. It was the so-called Rivonia conspiracy that led to Mandela being sentenced to life in prison in 1964.

The ANC’s “armed struggle” continued, however, eventually under the leadership of Chis Hani, a young communist who jumped bail and fled South Africa after his 1963 arrest. Hani led MK operations from exile until he was legally permitted to return to South Africa in 1990, and subsequently became secretary general of the SACP. After Hani’s assassination in 1993, Mandela called Hani “one of the greatest revolutionaries this country has ever known” at a memorial service for his fallen comrade where he declared: “We are all militants. We are all radicals. That is the very essence of the ANC, for it is a liberation movement fighting for freedom for all our people.... It is not a question of armed struggle or negotiations. Armed struggle brought about negotiations.” What Mandela called an “armed struggle,” Margaret Thatcher had called something else in 1987 when she described the ANC as “a typical terrorist organization.”

More than two decades after the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union crumbled into the “ash-heap of history,” many inconvenient facts of the Cold War are forgotten. America’s liberal media seem so fanatically determined to forget which side Mandela and his ANC comrades chose in the Cold War, that I joked on Twitter last week we should form a “Conservative Committee to Remember South African Communists.” If we don’t remember the facts of history, who will? 

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.