Obama’s hypocrisy regarding Nelson Mandela

The self-serving admiration professed by Barack Obama for Nelson Mandela is one of the most hypocritical displays in recent memory.

South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela turned 95 in the Medic-Clinic Heart hospital on July 18, 2013, where he was admitted due for a lung infection on June 8. When Obama visited Africa earlier this summer, accounts in The New York Times, USA Today and Bloomberg cite him as one of Mandela’s admirers. [1] [2] [3]

The Times referred to Mandela as a “beacon” for Obama and it has been noted that he compared Mandela to George Washington, (which is ironic considering Washington was a slave owner). Obama may compare Mandela to Washington, but it would be foolish to compare Obama to Mandela.

Obama and Mandela were both the first elected black presidents of their respective countries. Both leaders have also been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, which can be a strange honor at times, considering suspected war criminal Henry Kissinger also possesses one. After that the similarities end.

In 2009, Obama inherited the reactionary policies of the Bush-Cheney junta shortly after he was sworn in as the nation’s first black president. Instead of abolishing them, like he promised on the campaign trail, he strengthened them or created new ones that were equally hostile to civil liberties and human rights.

The recent witch hunts against Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, the expansion of The USAPATRIOT Act, the National Security Agency’s warrantless electronic surveillance, the flagrant use of torture in Guantanamo Bay and other aspects of the quasi-police state Obama has created represent everything Mandela opposed.

It is important to note that the policies regarding the “war on terror” Obama abides in were fashioned by the same elements that worked with the very government that imprisoned Mandela in the first place. One only need to compare the histories of the US and South Africa in the 20th and 21st centuries to see the disturbing similarities.

Apartheid was an oppressive social system established in 1948 that enforced racism, segregation and an imbalance of power where the White minority ruled. This order resembles aspects of the US’s own shameful past: laws that prohibited interracial marriage, enforced racial categorization and segregated public amenities.

Americans like to believe that racism is dead in the US. However, with the Supreme Court striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, established in 1965 to counter the Jim Crow laws of the south, it becomes apparent that this not the case.

Journalist Greg Palast was correct when he wrote that the Supreme Court Justices might as well have “burned a cross on Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s grave.”[4]

Unlike Obama, Mandela recognizes that oppression is based on class and the divide-and-conquer tactics of racial inequality only serve the interests of the ruling elite. In a 2005 speech in London he eloquently expressed these sentiments:

“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.” [5]

Many experts claim that Mandela is a democratic socialist who is “openly opposed to capitalism, private land-ownership and the power of big money” and fought against economic injustice, as noted by biographer Anthony Sampson.

The paranoia surrounding the “threat of Communism” has enabled some of the worst assaults on political dissent. It has been decades since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The scare tactics and hostility created by red-baiting, however, proved too irresistible to be buried with the likes of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In the last two presidential elections, Obama was “painted red” and dubbed a “socialist” by the corporate and fringe conservatives, which is an insult to actual socialists. To the contrary, Obama’s major contributors and cabinet appointees dispel this notion, showing that his allegiance is to big business.

The regimes of South Africa from 1948–1994 had the same concern that the “communist threat” would topple the ruling class’s iron grip on their society.

Mandela joined the African National Congress in the ‘50s, whose goal was to achieve a “united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society.” [6] The ANC later forged an alliance with the South African Communist Party, which was outlawed by The Suppression of Communism Act. In 1956 he co-authored The Freedom Charter, a summary of the ANC. [7]

For his revolutionary activities, he was charged with inciting workers’ strikes and for leaving the country illegally. Mandela was convicted and spent 27 years behind bars, from 1962 until his release in 1990.

Anti-communist fervor would live on in administrations after the Cold War. The decades-long isolation of Cuba, which the United Nations strongly opposes, persists over 50 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. This outmoded policy allows room for exaggeration and lies to be spread about their political system.

One seldom-mentioned fact about Cuba is its role in helping liberate other post-colonial nations, including South Africa. When the Western Powers refused to help Mandela with the efforts of emancipation and democracy—primarily due to financial interests—he and the ANC turned elsewhere for support, and found it.

During a visit to Cuba (where Obama refuses to lift the embargo) in 1991, “Mandela thanked Fidel Castro’s government for supplying arms to the [African National Congress] in the early 1960s” and that “the Cuban army’s resistance of invading South African forces in Angola during the 1970s and ‘80s had strengthened the anti-apartheid cause and led indirectly to his freedom.”

Mandela praised Castro’s “consistent commitment to eradicate racism.” [8] Around the time he was imprisoned, the US was plagued by racial violence, ugly facts that are still being glossed over to this day.

In South Africa, like the US years later, there was a new kind of threat to be exploited for political gain—terrorism.

The Terrorism Act of 1967 created the Bureau of State Security, which possessed the authority to arrest “terrorists.” In other words, anyone who protested government policies could be imprisoned without trial and detained indefinitely. [9] Geopolitical scientists and historians felt a sense of déjà vu when similar polices were initiated by George W. Bush and Obama.

On July 18, the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld the “legality” of Sections 101 and 102 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which would allow the military to indefinitely detain persons who are accused of “consorting with terrorists” or those who commit “belligerent acts” against the US. [10]

As journalist Chris Hedges points out, “Journalists, whose job it is to do just that, would undoubtedly qualify,” creating a new level of government censorship. [11]

The Cold Warriors had found a new enemy for America by casting an eye on their former anti-communist allies in the Middle East, the Islamic extremists. It was the foreign policy of the ‘80s that would shape the fascistic “war on terror” and “homeland security” that Obama would continue.

One of these Cold Warriors is former vice president Dick Cheney. When Cheney was a Wyoming congressman in 1986, he voted against the House of Representatives’ “Mandela Resolution” which called for the immediate release of Mandela and official recognition of the ANC. He justified himself by labeling the ANC a “terrorist organization.” [12]

The Congress voted 245–177 in favor of the resolution, but was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan. [13] However, some within Reagan’s own party retaliated and eventually gathered enough votes to override Mr. Reagan’s veto. Cheney and Reagan showed no remorse for their actions.

Author Lenny Flank, who has edited a collection of Mandela’s writings and speeches, describes the motivation behind Reagan’s signature before it was reversed by Congress:

“Under a policy called ‘constructive engagement,’ the Reagan and [UK Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher Administrations continued to prop up the Pretoria regime. American and British corporations were supported in their dealings with South Africa.”

In 2013, The Nation reported that conservative ideologues Grover Norquist, Jeff Flake and Jack Abramoff (convicted of fraud and conspiracy in 2006) started their careers in the anti-divestment movement of the 1980s, trying to keep trade open with the South African regime, giving the corrupt Apartheid regime validation. [14]

Obama likes to remind people of his involvement in boycotting South African trade from 1979–1980, when he was enrolled at Occidental College. In 2010 he wrote, “[Mandela’s] sacrifice was so great that it called upon people everywhere to do what they could on behalf of human progress. In the most modest of ways, I was one of those people who tried to answer his call.”

The Reaganites and Thatcherites who collaborated with the apartheid regime inspired the neoconservatives who came to power following the widely-disputed election of Bush in 2000. They seized the reigns of foreign policy, initiating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which for the most part had already been drawn up in many of their think tank policy papers in the ‘90s. Obama continued these military adventures and even used military aggression in Libya and has considered action in Syria.

On the war issue, Mandela would take offense being compared to Obama.

In 2002, Mandela openly opposed US military aggression in the Middle East, viewing the misadventure as “a holocaust.” [15] Mandela admirer Archbishop Desmond Tutu labeled Bush, Cheney and their cohorts as war criminals and called for their prosecution. However, in 2008 Obama made it clear that he and his administration were going to “look forward.” In other words, they would not seek prosecution.

This justifies the claim that America is, in the words of the late Gore Vidal, “the United States of Amnesia.” Obama embraces the worst right-wing elements of the past and present, while hiding his true nature behind the banner of human progress. As commander-in-chief and as a lawyer who taught constitutional law, he disregards the Bill of Rights with the same callousness as his Republican predecessor.

Mealy-mouthed politicians, pundits and other bandwagon-jumpers will shower praise on Mandela and preach sugar-coated platitudes about the legacy he will leave behind, but they will not recognize the man’s radical philosophies which inspired him and millions around the world to break free of their chains.

The victims of despotism, in the US or elsewhere, should remember Nelson Mandela’s courage when facing their oppressors. When Mandela’s captors informed him after 25 years of imprisonment that he was going to be released, he essentially told them, as recounted poetically by Christopher Hitchens in Letters to a Young Contrarian:

“I am not leaving. You do not have the power to release me, least of all to release me to gratify yourselves. I shall not leave this cell until I hear that everybody else has been released, and that all the laws of tyranny have been stricken from the books.”


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/28/world/africa/mandela-obama-africa.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[2] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/06/30/obama-mandela-south-africa/2476535/

[3] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013–06–23/obama-south-africa-visit-completes-world-awakening-from-mandela.html

[4] http://www.gregpalast.com/ku-klux-kourt-kills-kings-dream-law-replaces-voting-rights-act-with-katherine-harris-acts/

[5] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/4232603.stm

[6] http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=172

[7] http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=72

[8] http://articles.latimes.com/1991–07–28/news/mn-519_1_leader-nelson-mandela

[9] http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/1967-terrorism-act-no-83–1967

[10] http://legaltimes.typepad.com/files/hedges.pdf

[11] http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article35576.htm

[12] http://www.salon.com/2000/08/01/south_africa_3/

[13] http://www.commondreams.org/views/080300–102.htm

[14] http://www.thenation.com/article/175172/meet-conservatives-who-campaigned-apartheid-south-africa#axzz2YhK8C8Fc

[15] http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/01/30/sprj.irq.mandela/

Mike Kuhlenbeck is a freelance journalist and author whose work has appeared in The Des Moines Register, Z Magazine and Little Village. He is a proud member of the National Writers Union and the Society of Professional Journalists. He can be reached at writermikekuhlenbeck@gmail.com.

One Response to Obama’s hypocrisy regarding Nelson Mandela

  1. Nick Egnatz

    Mike, you are spot on about Obama. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Mandela. The following articles should all shed some light on the Mandela legacy. After coming to power, Mandela and the ANC caved to the tremendous pressure from neo-liberalism and ditched the Freedom Charter demands for nationalization of South Africa’s wealth and redistribution of the land. They settled for allowing the native people to participate in the rigged capitalist system–black capitalism.

    March 23 Anniversary Beginning Apartheids End Battle Cuito Cuanavale
    Bruce Dixon

    John Pilger
    Mandela’s Tarnished Legacy–from apartheid to neo liberalism

    Globalization and South Africa

    Naomi Klein

    Thomas Mountain
    Mandela, Godfather of Neo-Apartheid South Africa