by August Nimtz, Jr.
December 9, 2013
Silences, erasures and reinvention — the pitfalls that often come with remembering history. All have been on display in the mainstream-media coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death, including that of the Star Tribune.
First, the editorial “A legacy of compassion” (Dec. 6), in which Mandela became “eventually a freedom fighter who embraced self-defense as a way to combat” apartheid.
“Self-defense” is the sanitized characterization the editors gave to the armed-struggle campaign Mandela headed from 1961 until his jailing in 1962 (and why he was sentenced to life in prison in 1964). He could have been released long before 1990 had he renounced armed struggle — it’s why Amnesty International never considered him a “prisoner of conscience” nor demanded his release. Only when it became possible for Mandela’s organization, the African National Congress, to employ legal mass protests could he convince the cadre to shelve their arms at the end of 1990.
Indeed, the masses in the streets forced the regime to bargain in good faith to hold the first free elections in South Africa in April 1994.
If the Editorial Board is in denial about the role of armed struggle in the birth of the new South Africa, Bill Keller’s New York Times article that the Star Tribune reprinted (“Voice of freedom and reconciliation,” Dec. 6) suffered from the same myopia. In an otherwise informative overview of Mandela’s life — his prolonged decline gave Keller and others sufficient time to do their homework — there is a glaring omission.
When Mandela traveled to Cuba in July 1991, seventeen months after his release from prison, and told hundreds of thousands at a rally that “the defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today,” he acknowledged what neither Keller nor any of the mainstream media wants to admit. “What other country,” he challenged, “can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations with Africa?”
No government contributed as much as revolutionary Cuba did in bringing about the downfall of apartheid. The defeat that South African forces suffered at the hands of largely Cuban volunteer troops in the spring of 1988 in a small southern Angola town is what paved the way for the release of Mandela and other anti-apartheid fighters from prison and, thus, the end of the apartheid regime — a fact Mandela repeatedly acknowledged. More than 300,000 Cubans served in Angola between 1975 and 1991; more than 2,000 gave their lives there — commemorated in a monument in South Africa.
Keller is smart enough to know these facts. But all that the Times editors were willing to do in recognition was to pair his article with a photo of Mandela with Fidel Castro, with Mandela wagging his index finger at him; according to the caption, “in Geneva in 1998.” The uninformed viewer is given the impression, as the Times editors no doubt intended, that Castro is being reprimanded by Mandela. In fact, he did reprimand Castro in their Geneva encounter — for not having made a special visit to South Africa so that its citizens could express their gratitude for Cuba’s assistance to their liberation struggle (Castro did attend Mandela’s inauguration in 1994).
A few months later, Castro heeded his friend’s demand. When he entered the parliament of the new South Africa, Castro was greeted with tumultuous and rapturous applause. After a big hug, Mandela wagged his index finger at him and said, “See, I told you that you had to come to South Africa!”
In his speech, Castro raised, even before Mandela did, the problem of AIDS in South Africa. Cuban health personnel serving in some of the most impoverished areas of the country informed him beforehand of the gravity of the scourge.
The Star Tribune editors didn’t run the Mandela-Castro photo. Evidently they couldn’t take the chance that some of their readers might want to know why the two men were in the same picture, despite the spin the Times editors sought to give to it. In its place were images of Mandela with such luminaries as Princess Diana, Bono, Michael Jackson (and one misnamed South African) — but no Fidel. The erasure is glaring. It speaks volumes about media objectivity when it comes to Cuba.
Historical accuracy is of no little importance. Humanity, especially its toilers, advances by knowing the real lessons of history.
August Nimtz Jr. is a professor of political science and African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota, and co-coordinator of the Minnesota Cuba Committee.