Nelson Mandela visits Yankee Stadium in New York City in 1990. ©New York Daily News


In the spring of 2008, the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, set to planning his 90th birthday celebrations. For a global icon like Mandela, a man who just 15 years earlier had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his “work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa”, the plans were humble considering the man’s history; a three-hour tribute concert was held in London, and an “intimate” birthday party – attended by 500 celebrities and state diplomats – was later held at his home in Johannesburg. But, despite his influence and stature, as a 90-year-old man Mandela still could not do one simple thing that almost any South African citizen could; that is, apply for a tourist visa to the U.S.

To understand the state of modern South African politics and the ruling party, the ANC (African National Congress), you must first understand it’s complicated formation. What’s interesting about the party, which has come to be synonymous with Nelson Mandela, is that it was once a banned party in South Africa. In fact, the leader of said party, Mandela, now a global icon for peace and liberation was once on a terrorist watch list in the U.S. He was not removed from this list until 2008, making all of his visits to the U.S. prior to this a rather awkward one as he was forced to receive special state clearance to enter the country.

Communism and the Formation of the ANC

Nelson Mandela wasn’t the only one from the ANC who had been labeled a terrorist by the U.S. State Department. In fact, the entire organization was on the list until 2008, including members like the South African ambassador to the U.S. from 2002 to 2006, Barbara Masekela. Masekela was even denied a tourist visa to visit a sick relative in 2007. She did not receive a waiver in time before her cousin passed away.

It is important to first understand the historical context in which Nelson Mandela and the ANC were labelled as terrorists before exploring how and why they were labelled by both the national and international communities as such.

The ANC was formed in 1911 as an anti-apartheid group. They were, and have always stood by the motto that they are South Africa’s National Liberation Movement. They really began to gain traction, however, in 1913 when they became an official challenge to injustice against black South Africans. During this year, the white supremacy passed a law called the Land Act, which essentially stated that all non-whites (blacks, coloreds, asians and Indians) no longer had a right to be tenants on white farmers lands. With a large portion of the black South African population subsisting on only 13 percent of the land, as they were no longer permitted to work on white land, many blacks were forced into labour jobs (e.g. mining, welding, factory jobs). This naturally led to the ANC, which was dormant up until 1923, to join forces with the ICU (Industrial and Commercial Workers Union) and the controversial South African Communist Party (SACP).

The reaction to the ANC’s partnering with the SACP was a strategic one for the pro-apartheid government, as they were able to disguise their anxieties about the anti-apartheid movement by aligning them with the West’s rejection of communism.

In an excerpt from a New York Times article written in the 1980s by foreign correspondent Alan Cowell, he captures both South Africa’s and the world’s reaction to the ANC and the SACP:

“The apparent growth of support – or at least sympathy – for the Communist Party is interpreted by some political commentators not so much as the embrace of detailed ideology, but as a gesture of defiance directed at the white authorities. And those authorities like to depict their conflict with black nationalism as a battle against the encroachment of Soviet-steered Communism.”

He later cautiously gestures to the potential influence that the Communist party could have on the ANC, calling them the “most prominent guerrilla movements” against the apartheid in South Africa. This labelling of the ANC as a guerrilla movement is an important distinction as just a few years later, Reagan would make a speech where he would accuse the ANC of conspiring to encourage communism in the country. Thereafter, the ANC would be viewed by the most powerful Western powers, Thatcher’s U.K and Reagan’s U.S, as a terrorist organization.

With majority of black Africans now working in underpaid and overworked labour jobs, it is not surprising to learn that some of the ANC’s most effective forms of protest in the 1950s and 1960s was their ability to mobilize workers to strike and boycott their factory and mining jobs. This came to be known as the Defiance Campaign. These protests, however, did not come without their repercussions.

On March 21, 1960 a group of 7,000 to 10,000 black protestors from Sharpeville took to a South African Police station to protest the country’s racist pass laws. These laws made it illegal for any non-white to be caught without a passbook. These books contained personal information like your employer’s name, work history and, most importantly, your race. The protesters marched down to the station from their mining and factory jobs, only to be met by the police who opened fire on them. The death toll for that day was 69 with over 180 being injured from bullets entering their backs as they turned to flee.

It was after this massacre of black South Africans that the ANC’s then chairman, Nelson Mandela, conceded that the colonial brutality had exhausted all forms of nonviolent protest, leaving the oppressed with what he deduced was little to no options:

“The people’s patience is not endless. The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come in South Africa,” Mandela is quoted as saying in an excerpt from the manifesto of the ANC’s armed wing.

From this moment on, Mandela and the ANC’s armed resistance, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), translated as Spear of the Nation, began to engage in violent forms of sabotage and guerilla warfare. The group made themselves known to the South African government in June of 1961, warning that they would not stop attacks until an equal and fair constitution was brought forward. After their first attack in December of 1961, they were registered in South Africa and the United States as a terrorist organization.

From Communism, to Terrorism

In their active years, until 1986, MK killed a total of 130 people through planting bombs in public spaces (such as the infamous bombing of the Johannesburg Magistrate Court) and private executions of political prisoners.

The U.S. and ANC “Terrorism”

You may wonder why the U.S. felt obliged to step in and label the strongest and oldest opponent of the apartheid as a terrorist organization, especially during a time when Western powers from around the world were doing their part of placing sanctions on the South African government. But if you look back at the history of the ANC, in addition to the foreign policy of the U.S. government in the 1960s, you’ll understand exactly why they felt it necessary to weigh in on a group that was peppered with what they considered to be too many members from the South African Communist Party.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the U.S. was engaged in the Cold War and saw almost every foreign country as a potential decider between East/West influence. Having just lost Angola, Ethiopia and Nicaragua to communism, they perceived that southern Africa, more specifically South Africa, was their last Western stronghold against Soviet influence.

This perception led many Conservative members of Congress to lobby to put less intensive economic pressures on South Africa. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative reign in the U.K. was quick to follow suit in this action as well. Instead of putting sanctions on South Africa, the U.S. decided to engage in what they called, “constructive engagement”.

During meetings held in the late 1980s, the Conservative members of Congress would bring forward cases that essentially painted the ANC as a communist-inspired terrorist organization. This labelling of the ANC as a terrorist organization was entirely grounded in the U.S. government’s anxieties towards communism and Soviet expansionism. They did little to recognize the oppressed circumstances that had led to the ANC and Mandela’s movement towards incremental violence and revolution. Even in the US Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (1986) you can hear how closely aligned Congress viewed communism and terrorism, particularly as it related to the ANC.

In section 102, subsection 2, the act states that the ANC must “make known their commitment to a free and democratic post-apartheid South Africa”, which is something that the ANC had made expressly clear from their outset in 1911.

You can further see how misunderstood the ANC was by their affiliation with the SACP in this act, as the U.S. calls on them to “suspend terrorist activities” in the same subsection where they call on them to cut ties with communists.



Mandela and the ANC were eventually removed from the U.S.’s terrorist watch list, but as the then Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, would reflect at the time of Mandela’s removal, the issue “raises a troubling and difficult debate about what groups are considered terrorists and which are not.”

As shown from the case of South Africa, the U.S.’s involvement in labeling countries and organizations a terrorist or terrorist organization has always been motivated by some deeper anxiety. In the 1980s, the U.S.’s biggest battle was the fight against communism, which allowed them to stand on the wrong side of history for a few years when South Africans were fighting against the racist and immoral apartheid government. If there’s a lesson in here, it is perhaps that the U.S. should be more cautious in their use of the word “terrorist” when it concerns foreign countries with complicated histories, particularly where their influence could have major influence in the outcome.

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