From the White House to the halls of Congress, U.S. government officials have responded to the death of Nelson Mandela with a hail of testimonials to the late South African president’s leadership in the struggle for freedom and human rights.
Until five years ago, however, the U.S. officially considered Mandela a terrorist. During the Cold War, both the State and Defense departments dubbed Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress, a terrorist group, and Mandela’s name remained on the U.S. terrorism watch list till 2008.
Presidents Carter and Reagan and Congress had all instituted sanctions against the white minority South African government because of its policy of racial apartheid. But in 1986, Reagan condemned Mandela’s group, the ANC, which was leading the black struggle against the apartheid regime, saying it engaged in “calculated terror … the mining of roads, the bombings of public places, designed to bring about further repression.”
After the apartheid regime in South Africa declared the ANC a terrorist group, the Reagan administration followed suit.
In August of 1988, the State Department listed the ANC among “organizations that engage in terrorism.” It said the group ”disavows a strategy that deliberately targets civilians,” but noted that civilians had “been victims of incidents claimed by or attributed to the ANC.”
Five months later, in January 1989, the Defense Department included the ANC in an official publication, “Terrorist Group Profiles,” with a foreword by President-elect George H.W. Bush. The ANC was listed among 52 of the “world’s more notorious terrorist groups.” (One of the others listed, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, is now the ruling party in the West Bank.)
The publication referred to Mandela, who had once led the ANC’s military wing, as part of the “leadership,” though by then he had spent more than a quarter century in prison. It also accepted the apartheid regime’s claim that “ANC’s operations — which heretofore had sought to avoid civilian casualties — abruptly changed. Attacks became more indiscriminate, resulting in both black and white civilian victims.” Five months before the report was issued, the ANC had taken responsibility for some attacks that resulted in civilian deaths but had pledged to prevent a recurrence.