By Dan Flathers
Nelson Mandela, who passed on Thursday at 95, was a man with great flaws who nonetheless overcame them for the greater good -- and became a great man in the process. What Mandela managed to do after prison was to quickly ascend to the pinnacle of power in the country which had imprisoned him -- a remarkable thing!
It is sad that many will diminish what Mandela accomplished by promulgating an incomplete story. A case-in-point is how the transformation of South Africa actually came about. It wasn't how you might think.
Any serious student of history should note that the one American politician most responsible for Mandela's ultimate release was President Ronald Reagan. That this might be a surprise to anyone is indicative of the poor reporting by the American press.
Mandela was not the same person leaving prison that he was going in. He was an avowed Marxist revolutionary well-before and during most of his imprisonment. There was good reason to list him as a terrorist in the 1960s (just as it was inexplicable that he was still on the list -- even throughout the Clinton Administration -- until the Bush State Department removed his name in 2008.)
Because of the Cold War geopolitics of the time, Reagan had serious concerns that South Africa and Zimbabwe would fall under Soviet influence (it and China were underwriting the ANC.) Recall the international outrage and tension brought about by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979: Soviet aggressiveness and influence was on the rise worldwide.
Because of United States diplomacy headed by Edward Perkins, Reagan's U.S. ambassador to South Africa (a black man, for those to whom such things matter), Mandela was offered release in the mid-80s by the South African government on the condition that he renounce violence. He refused, but by then was well-into the process of his personal conversion to Methodism and non-violent democratic change. The talks nonetheless continued.
By the time he was released in 1990, Mandela was convincingly preaching national reconciliation. His wife, Winnie, remained an unrepentant, vile murderess and political gangster -- Google "necklacing" -- who openly capitalized on Nelson's imprisonment for her own political ends. He waited until her conviction before divorcing her in order to unify the reforming ANC.
Sen. Ted Kennedy almost blew the whole thing by bitterly leading the only successful Senate foreign policy veto override of the 20th century by strongly implying that Reagan supported apartheid (which is akin to weirdly claiming that his own brother supported Jim Crow.)
Though the media now regurgitates the false narrative that the 1987 sanctions ultimately affected Mandela's release, the sanctions actually put the South African government at risk of violent collapse and the rise of a civil race war in its wake (precisely what happened in neighboring Zimbabwe.)
South Africa survived the transition to more freedom, more democracy with none of the expected bloodshed because of Nelson Mandela's personal conversion and the steady, quiet support he and South Africa received from the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Dan Flathers is a Toms Brook resident.