Washington (AFP) – In 2008 just before his 90th birthday, the United States gave Nelson Mandela a special present, striking him from a decades-old terror watch list and ending what U.S. officials called “a rather embarrassing matter.”
By then the anti-apartheid icon had long left behind the jail cells where he was incarcerated for 27 years, and was already enjoying retirement and his status as one of the most revered statesmen of the 20th century after becoming South Africa’s first black president.
In past years, U.S. officials have beaten a path to his door in his family village hoping some of his almost saint-like aura would rub off on them.
On Thursday, when Mandela died at age 95, President Barack Obama hailed him as belonging “to the ages” and ordered that flags on U.S. government buildings be flown at half-mast — a rare tribute to a foreign leader.
Yet decades ago many in America did not share in the adulation of Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC), which had been billed a terrorist organization by both South Africa and the United States. His severest right-wing critics painted him as an unrepentant terrorist and a communist sympathizer.
Key dates in South Africa’s apartheid era.
It was even reported that the CIA had helped engineer Mandela’s 1962 arrest when an agent inside the ANC supplied South African security officials with a tip-off to track him down.
In the 1980s however, late Democratic U.S. senator Ted Kennedy drafted legislation with senator Lowell Weicker that would eventually become one of the global catalysts leading to the collapse of the apartheid system.
President Ronald Reagan sought to bury their 1986 anti-apartheid bill aiming to impose economic sanctions on South Africa by imposing his veto, saying he believed it would only lead to more violence and repression for black South Africans.
But for the first and only time that century, Congress rebelled and overrode Reagan’s veto on a foreign policy issue, passing legislation that slapped sanctions on Pretoria, snapped direct air links and cut vital aid.
Some observers maintain that the story of Mandela’s redemption and the undeniable justness of his cause hold unique lessons for Washington as it grapples with other flagrant abuses of human rights by repressive regimes around the world.