Probing Mandela's Politics ANC's Anti-Colonialist History Puts Today's Statements in Perspective

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NELSON MANDELA'S popularity in the United States as an individual opposing apartheid has over-shadowed the fact that he is deputy-president of the African National Congress. Yet Mr. Mandela has consistently reiterated he is a loyal and disciplined ANC member.

The ANC is not well known in American politics, and Mandela's interview on the ABC News Program "Nightline" was probably the first time its views were presented to a large American audience. Mandela defended the ANC's relations with Cuba, Libya, and the PLO (not to mention the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe). He emphasized there was no reason why "America's enemies" should be the ANC's enemies since these countries help the liberation struggle.

Many Americans may have wondered how the ANC's friends can help liberate South Africa if they deny basic rights to their own people. Does the company the ANC keeps call into question its democratic credentials?

Mandela's comments are consistent with the ANC's long-standing views on foreign policy. The report of the ANC's national executive in 1954 stated, "The cardinal points of foreign policy are opposition to war and an uncompromising stand for world peace, and opposition to colonialism and white domination ... (we) must look for allies ... (and) we must ask ... the following regarding any prospective ally: (1) Is this country or group in the imperialist camp or in the anti-imperialist camp? (2) Is this country or group for equality or for racial discrimination? (3) Is this group pro-African or anti-African freedom? (4) Is this country or group anti-colonialist?"

These basic principles still determine the ANC's foreign policy because they are directly related to its struggle. If Americans are surprised by Mandela's views it is because they misunderstand South African politics.

Nelson Mandela is not like Martin Luther King. King was a Christian minister committed to nonviolence. Mandela was commander of the ANC's military wing. It is the ANC's former president-general, Albert Luthull, also a committed Christian who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to nonviolence, who is similar to King.

South African politics is distorted when the struggle against apartheid is too closely identified with the US struggle for civil rights. South Africa is not Jim Crow writ large, nor are the Afrikaners like Southern racists. The appropriate background for understanding South African politics and the ANC is not the American struggle for civil rights, but the struggle for independence and national liberation in colonial territories. The struggle in South Africa against racism and segregation, and for black political rights, is part of the broader struggle between African and Afrikaner nationalism. …