12/09/2013 02:49 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Hijacking the Mandela Legacy

In the mid-1980s, students in my Participation in Government class at Franklin K. Lane High School in New York City decided to become anti-Apartheid activists. They were motivated by the inherent injustice of the Apartheid regime in South Africa where Black Africans, 85% of the population, were governed by a small White minority, and by the leadership high school students gave in the 1976 Soweto uprising. The Lane students met with Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens to discuss how they could support the struggle in South Africa, organized a political action club at the school, designed, made and distributed their own anti-Apartheid buttons, and participated in anti-Apartheid rallies and forums in New York City and Washington DC.

After about a year of activity, the students wanted to invite a representative from the African National Congress (ANC) United Nations delegation to speak at a student forum at Lane. School officials were very disturbed by the idea. They were concerned about the "radicalism" of the ANC and wanted the student forum to present different viewpoints about Apartheid in South Africa.

As the world celebrates the life of Nelson Mandela, it is easy to forget that for many years the United States government did not support Mandela, the ANC, and the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. The African National Congress was founded in 1912 and in 1946 allied with the South African Communist Party. The Freedom Charter adopted by the African National Congress in 1955 and still in effect today includes demands that were condemned as communist such as" The people shall share in the country`s wealth" and "The land shall be shared among those who work it."

The ANC initially embraced non-violent civil disobedience, but turned to revolutionary struggle during the 1950s when opposition political activity by Blacks was banned in Apartheid South Africa. ANC and other Black South African leaders were arrested, and Afrikaner authorities massacred peaceful Black protesters. In 1961, the ANC formed a military wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe or "Spear of the Nation" that was headed by Nelson Mandela. At the time Mandela was also a member of the South African Communist Party. Mandela the revolutionary who embraced the philosophy of Che Guevara was arrested in 1962, convicted of sabotage in 1964, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan declared the unending support of the United States to the White-controlled Apartheid regime in South Africa because it was "a country that has stood by us in every war we've ever fought, a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals." Reagan later vetoed a bill to impose economic sanctions against South Africa.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan charged Mandela and the ANC engaged in "calculated terror . . . the mining of roads, the bombings of public places, designed to bring about further repression" and in 1988 the State Department listed the ANC among "organizations that engage in terrorism" because civilians had "been victims of incidents claimed by or attributed to the ANC." In January 1989, the Defense Department included the ANC in a publication called "Terrorist Group Profiles," with a foreword by President-elect George H.W. Bush.

Because Mandela and the ANC were allied with communists in South Africa, willing to fight for their freedom, and willing to accept money and weapons from the Soviet Union, the United States branded them as terrorists and in an embarrassing move it is still trying to forget, embraced the Apartheid regime governing South Africa as an ally in the Cold War. Mandela's name even remained on the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008. The terrorist designation was finally dropped when a bill, proposed by Senator John Kerry, was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

In response to school officials who did not want to invite the ANC representatives, the Franklin K. Lane students and I argued that there were no legitimate arguments that could be made in favor of Apartheid any more than there were in favor of the European Holocaust or slavery in the Americas. We finally arrived at a "compromise" solution. The ANC representative was permitted to speak at the school and students in the political action club prepared and distributed their own "unbiased" Apartheid fact sheet.

In the days since his death at age ninety-five, Nelson Mandela has been hailed as a true hero of the twentieth century. He has been described as a man of peace and wisdom, who despite a youthful radical detour when he embraced communism and revolutionary violence, was able to forgive grave injustice and twenty-seven years of imprisonment to negotiate the end of Apartheid in South Africa. An editorial in The New York Times announced that "Nelson Mandela . . . fully deserved the legendary stature he enjoyed around the world for the last quarter-century of his life. He was one of the most extraordinary liberation leaders Africa, or any other continent, ever produced. Not only did he lead his people to triumph over the deeply entrenched system of apartheid that enforced racial segregation in every area of South African life; he achieved this victory without the blood bath so many had predicted and feared."

The Times editorial also credited F. W. de Klerk, the last White president of South Africa for the peaceful transition. In 1990 de Klerk ordered an end to Mandela's twenty-seven year imprisonment and opened negotiations to majority rule. Mandela and de Klerk ended up sharing the Nobel Peace Prize.

To end Apartheid in South Africa, Mandela embraced a grand compromise with de Klerk and the Afrikaners. In exchange for majority rule, Mandela and the ANC sacrificed demands for economic equity and restoration of the land and wealth of South Africa to African people. They also agreed not to prosecute White South Africans for crimes committed during the Apartheid regime if they confessed to their activities.

That Mandela and the ANC ultimately embraced this compromise does not negate the decades of struggle by the African people, the radicalism of Mandela and the ANC, and the worldwide campaign that forced the Afrikaners to negotiate. It also does not erase United States complicity with the Apartheid regime almost until its collapse. Forgetting the bitter and bloody struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa adds to the convenient historical fairy tale that radicalism is a mistake and non-violent peaceful change is inevitable.

It is also important to remember that while Nelson Mandela symbolized the anti-Apartheid campaign, he was not the entire movement. Millions of people in South Africa and around the world, including the students at Franklin K. Lane High School in New York City, organized, march, and protested to end Apartheid. Many in South Africa put their lives on the line and many died for their efforts,

The grand compromise has not come without a huge cost for the South African people. While it transformed the government of South Africa without a bloody civil war, it left the vast majority of Black South Africans mired in poverty. Some Black South Africans, including Mandela's former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, complain that while a few Black Africans have enriched themselves since the end of Apartheid, the ANC lead government has fail to narrow the economic gulf between a prosperous White minority and the impoverished Black majority.

By some economic and social measures the racial divide in South Africa remains strong or is even increasing. In 2001, the average White South African household earned approximately $17,000 more than the average Black household. However, by 2011 the disparity doubled to about $30,000. According to a survey of racial and social attitudes, today less than forty percent of South Africans socialize with people from a different race. Only one-fifth of White and Black South Africans live in racially integrated neighborhoods. Only eleven percent of White children go to racially integrated schools and only fifteen percent of Black children.

Fox News curmudgeon Bill O'Reilly is reported to have acknowledged that Mandela was a "great man," but at the same time dismissed him because "he was a communist." I think O'Reilly, as usual, had it wrong. People who embrace the achievements of Nelson Mandela need to recognize that he was both a great man and a communist. The young Mandela was not a Cold War agent of the Soviet Union, but a leader of his people who recognized that achieving political equality without economic equality was a shallow victory. The grand compromise engineered by Nelson Mandela brought political freedom to South Africa, but the revolution and Mandela's legacy remain incomplete. True justice will ultimately require economic reorganization so that the South African "people shall share in the country`s wealth" and the soil of South Africa is "shared among those who work it."