Dec
06
2013

NYT Takes Mandela's Death as a Chance to Mock His Fight to Free His Country

Bill Keller

Bill Keller

Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote his paper's obituary for Nelson Mandela (12/6/13). As you might have guessed, it glosses over the CIA's role in helping the apartheid government catch Mandela (Extra!, 3-4/90): "Upon his capture he was charged with inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport" is all the depth he goes into, although the Times (6/10/90) has in fact covered this little-known story in the past. You have to ask yourself: If the secret police of an ostensibly democratic society helped put someone viewed as one of the great heroes of the past century in prison, isn't that something the public ought to know about?

Keller did go into more detail about Mandela's armed efforts to overthrow the apartheid state, seemingly in an effort to belittle them:

Mr. Mandela's exploits in the "armed struggle" have been somewhat mythologized. During his months as a cloak-and-dagger outlaw, the press christened him "the Black Pimpernel." But while he trained for guerrilla fighting and sought weapons for Spear of the Nation, he saw no combat. The ANC's armed activities were mostly confined to planting land mines, blowing up electrical stations and committing occasional acts of terrorism against civilians.

Mandela, as it happens, went into great detail at his 1964 trial–where he was convicted of sabotage, not "acts of terrorism against civilians"–about the African National Congress' decision to abandon its commitment to nonviolent resistance and turn to armed struggle, a phrase that does not actually require scare quotes. This decision was made, Mandela explained, in order to prevent the opposition to white-minority rule from devolving into random acts of terrorism:

Nelson Mandela, 1961

Nelson Mandela, 1961

Firstly, we believed that as a result of government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalize and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence, there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law.

Mandela went on to recount that the ANC first turned to sabotage as the form of opposition least likely to result in lost lives, and then, after the apartheid regime made sabotage punishable by the death penalty, decided to begin preparation for a turn toward guerrilla warfare. Shortly after his return from leaving the country to get military training, Mandela was caught (with the help of the CIA)–too soon for him to have taken an active part in military activities. Aside from the part about the participation of the CIA, this was all laid out very clearly by Mandela at his trial 49 years ago. But including it in his obituary would have spoiled the chance to mock the pretensions of "the Black Pimpernel."

UPDATE: I should have noted that Keller's obituary, discussing Mandela's post-release relationship with the United States, includes this line: "There have been allegations, neither substantiated nor dispelled, that a CIA agent had tipped the police officers who arrested Mr. Mandela."

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.