Trump’s Politics of Whiteness and the CIA tip that Jailed Nelson Mandela

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The revelation that the Central Intelligence Agency provided the tip to the Apartheid South African government that led to Nelson Mandela’s arrest should come as no great shock, though the public confirmation is perhaps surprising.

Nor is it unconnected to the popularity of Donald Trump, who is proposing a new Apartheid regime with regard to American Muslims.

Mandela went on to lead South Africa in the 1990s toward a racially inclusive new model of democracy.

Although the allegation is that the CIA was worried Mandela was a Communist controlled by the Soviet Union, the actual subtext was that white, racially-segregated South Africa was seen by many in Washington as a good thing. The US firmly supported the Apartheid regime despite its massive human rights abuses, right into the 1980s under Reagan. That it was an ally against Communism was all to the good. But part of what defeating Communism entailed was repressing economically exploited, working class groups like Black South Africans.

Until 1964, much of the US (and not just the Deep South) was itself governed by Apartheid laws that demeaned African-Americans and often denied them the vote, so there was fellow-feeling between elements in Washington and those in Pretoria.

Americans have a fairy tale that they tell themselves, that they have been a force for democracy and human rights. But in fact, sometimes they haven’t. A lot of the time they haven’t. The US has made coups against elected governments (1953 in Iran) and supported dictators instead, when it suited Washington elites. The US has supported the repression and statelessness of the Palestinians. And often fears about uppity working classes are racialized in American discourse.

Donald Trump’s politics are to a degree about racial hierarchies and the restoration of the pecking order that obtained before the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In other words, they hearken back to the days of American Apartheid.

He has questioned the US citizenship of our first African-American president, attempting to paint his eight years in office as illegitimate. Birtherism is a little bit like those Rambo movies of Sylvester Stallone, which relitigated the Vietnam War. If white America was in fact defeated by Asian Vietnam, at least the former could have its victory in the fantasyland of Hollywood. Likewise, Birtherism was a way of imagining that McCain and Romney were the rightful presidents, because the Black guy was actually from Africa and not American at all.

Likewise, Trump’s intimation that Latino Americans are for the most part criminals (this is not true), his allegation that China is walking all over the US with regard to trade, and his proposal to exclude Muslims from coming to the US, are all reasertions of the primacy of white America. They are ways of denying that the US is on the way to becoming a majority non-white country (Asians, Latinos, African-Americans are already the majority in California, the most populous state). They are ways of denying that China is a rising world power or that the Muslims world is flexing its muscles in the aftermath of decolonization.

Political Scientist Robert Vitalis has argued that racial hierarchy was at the core of International Relations theory in the US academy in the first half of the 20th century:

” Racism and imperialism are the twin forces that propelled the course of the United States in the world in the early twentieth century and in turn affected the way that diplomatic history and international relations were taught and understood in the American academy. Evolutionary theory, social Darwinism, and racial anthropology had been dominant doctrines in international relations from its beginnings; racist attitudes informed research priorities and were embedded in newly formed professional organizations . . . Within the rigidly segregated profession, the “Howard School of International Relations” represented the most important center of opposition to racism and the focal point for theorizing feasible alternatives to dependency and domination for Africans and African Americans through the early 1960s.”

The jailing of Mandela for much of his adult life came about because he took direct action against a regime that deprived him and his people of their right to vote, of their right to be equal to other citizens, and even in the case of the Bantustans, of their citizenship rights. These actions were taken by people who thought of themselves as “white” against people they categorized as “Black.” They were taken on the grounds of racial prejudice and discrimination. The United States of America sided with the operators of the Apartheid state. There isn’t any doubt where Trump would have stood in those days, either.

But those days are over, and Trumpism is not the wave of the future; it is a pitiful nostalgia for a shameful imagined past.


Related video:

Nelson Mandela on Oprah Winfrey’s show from 2000

15 Responses

  1. I lived in South Africa for about three and a half years, and have now recently returned home to the states. When I first arrived in South Africa, I was worried about racial politics in South Africa and the apartheid legacy. South Africa has a way to go to fulfill Mandela’s promise of a country that can provide for all of it’s citizens and provide justice for what was done to it’s majority citizens. That said, I now realize that in some ways, South Africa today is far head of United States in terms of fulfilling it’s promises to it’s citizenry and humanity in general. Truth is most of our neighborhoods and school systems in the United States are de facto segregated: not by strict laws separating racial groups, but through economic disenfranchisement of minority groups that effectively delineate geographic areas by race. In terms of how both of these countries behave at the international stage, the contrast is even starker.

    The jailing of Nelson Mandela is horrific, and the apartheid regime was ghastly. What has happened for the past 15 years in the United States has been a complete evisceration of our constitution. Rendition of American suspects to Syria that underwent torture under US auspices was horrific, and now under the ostensible cover of Syrian human rights abuses, we are letting and abetting Turkey and Saudi Arabia funnel munitions to Syria that are destroying the country. The entire thing reeks of hypocrisy. On this website, I have seen Saudi Arabia referred to as an apartheid state for women. It’s true–it’s impossible to deny that Saudi Arabia is the most awful state in terms of medieval law for women. Yet, just as we abetted and supported the apartheid regime in South Africa, we continue with the same spirit by abetting and supporting the House of Saud. We also duplicate the same racist and imperialist policies nearly everywhere: in most of the middle east, South and Central America, and Asia. You write the same thing when you write:

    “Americans have a fairy tale that they tell themselves, that they have been a force for democracy and human rights. But in fact, sometimes they haven’t. A lot of the time they haven’t. The US has made coups against elected governments (1953 in Iran) and supported dictators instead, when it suited Washington elites…”

  2. The field of international relations itself was heavily racialized since its inception. The journal Foreign Affairs originally went under the title Journal of Race Development.

  3. The “revelation” that the CIA provided the tip to the Apartheid South African government that led to Nelson Mandela’s arrest is old news for anyone who read Tim Weiner’s book ‘Legacy of Ashes’, a History of the CIA (2007). The agency had worked in the closest harmony with the South African BOSS, the Bureau of State Security. Gerry Gossens, CIA station chief in Pretoria at that time, declared, “they had fingered Mandela”.

  4. “Donald Trump’s politics are to a degree about racial hierarchies and the restoration of the pecking order that obtained before the Civil Rights movement . . . . . “

    By loudly denigrating minorities and women with flaccid-machismo, Trump implies the interests of white American men will be protected above all – if elected.

    Carried in corporate-controlled media every chance they get.

    Unfortunately, the odious, regurgitated 1920s implication tactic is working. Trump’s tactic had also worked to gain power in any number of horribly failed and catastrophic national movements throughout modern history.

  5. Re: Criminality of Immigrants. In my neighborhood (Oceanview, California, part of Berkeley), we have a community of Guatemalan refugees, mostly young men, who stand on the street corners hoping for work. Since they moved in, the incidence of petty crime, such as smashed car windows and theft, purse snatching, mugging, even aggressive panhandling, has gone way down. It is almost non-existent. Women do not get harrassed on the streets. The immigrants do not seem to talk to the police, or vice versa, but just having all those eyes on street activities leads opportunistic criminals to move to a different neighborhood. It is so great to know that we will not have to worry about our parked car, or our accidentally unlocked door or window, much less our teenagers returning late from an activity, being the victim of criminal activity. If you want your neighborhood to become low crime without a massive police presence, encourage immigrants to look for work on the streets.

  6. Well, I guess I’d like to point out that US foreign policy has often changed according to the administration. For example, in the 20’s in Latin America, it was all about dollar diplomacy, intervention and banana republics. FDR tried to change things with his good neighbor policy and he was largely successful. Then in the 50’s and afterward, everything was focused on the anti-communist struggle, as we perceived it. You could have mentioned many other times when the US intervened because of concerns about communism, or even without that concern (Dominican Republic, 1965). However, historically, the US has also been very anti-colonial and that was a major disagreement between FDR and Churchill. As regards South Africa, it was a very conservative/liberal split as to what US policy should be. I remember arguing with a conservative back in the mid-60’s about whether Mandela was a communist and in one of Thomas Frank’s books he has a section on how the belief that the ANC was communist was a major tenet of conservative doctrine, which was opposed by liberals. In sum, there have been a number of zigs and zags in US foreign policy, so I tend to hesitate to use broad generalizations. As for the teaching of international relations, I was taught in the mid-60’s by a European who focused on realism vs. idealism in foreign policy, so I don’t think the charge of racism applied to my course work. The other major professor in the subject at my school was a Korean, so I doubt he was racist. I can’t think of any professor in the field I ran into who would come close to fitting that bill and that includes professors in comparative government and area studies. Also, an interesting side note is that in the book Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein relates how while Mandela was negotiating a turn over of the political reins from the Apartheid government, one of his chief lieutenants was basically giving away the store regarding the economy because he was unwittingly out manoeuvered.

    • “…historically, the US has also been very anti-colonial”? You don’t go far enough back from the 20s to include the forcible takeover of the Philippines in the 1890s, relinquished only after WWII.

      • The Phillipines had been a colony of Spain since the 1500’s. Although ceded to us in 1898 by 1935 they were made an independent commonwealth and slated for full indepedence in 10 years. Quite a remarkable achievement in a very short period of time given how long such transitions usually take if done correctly.

      • You correctly note the one colonial possession of the U.S.: The Philippines. That’s pretty small beer compared to the European powers carving up Africa, the Near East, and Southeast Asia. And the U.S. granted the Philippines independence in 1946, long before the European powers divested themselves of their imperial/colonial possessions.

        Gary Page is correct. Historically, the U.S. has been anti-colonial.

  7. “Might is right” is the timeless philosophy of imperial expansion. The only real difference today is the presumed need to conceal it under a cloak of hypocrisy. In its earliest manifestations no such need existed as is clear from The Iliad, and Thucydides’ graphic account of the Athenian arguments for overthrowing the neutral island of Melos in 416 BC, which led to the slaughter of every male and the slavery of all women and children; a bit like Libya and Afghanistan in a way. The problem is that it becomes increasingly difficult for the leaders to maintain benevolent behaviour at home while exercising themselves so ferociously abroad, particularly when the economic rewards of expansion dwindle and even maintaining a status quo ceases to be cost effective. At that point irreparable fractures begin the appear. It’s a cyclical pattern, it happened to Rome, Spain in the 16th century, and Britain after WWII.

  8. Not that it will do any good to bring this up, but is there anybody here who is bashing people for rebelling against Assad or Gadafi who thinks that people had the right to rebel against Apartheid? Because Mandela’s whole negotiating leverage was the knowledge that an all-out Black revolution was possible.

    I mean, as angry as I am about all the hypocrisy, I really want to know if I’m disagreeing with people who believe that you only have the right of revolution against right-wing dictators, or you don’t have the right of revolution against anyone at all, because Violence Bad. See, we might need an armed revolution in this country next year against a massive wave of racist oppression and I want to know whom I can safely discount as being of any use.

    • Mandela came to the conclusion that non-violence wouldn’t work in South Africa. The ANC was involved in sabotage and guerilla warfare. Mandela supported this violence, to his credit.
      If The Donald tries to deport half of Los Angeles, he may be in for a surprise.

  9. The CIA has two souls: One is the sane/reasonable CIA that analyzes and judges according to reasonable if always opportunistic assessment of conditions. The other is filled with Donald Trumps intent on having wild adventures/escapades, anything they can get away with in secret and with malice and vindictiveness foremost, hiding behind the lawlessness they have been granted by our elected officials.

    • I once applied for a job with the CIA, so I can explain the division you discerned. As an analyst, I was trying to be hired right out of Michigan grad school to look at data and, well, opine to an audience of clueless but prejudiced officials. The covert side of the CIA was not only completely separate, but it wasn’t originally a part of the CIA, it was appended on. Different hiring criteria, different culture, different values. It’s like a high school divided between nerds and jocks.

      The question is, can this actually produce responsible behavior?

Comments are closed.