While George H.W. Bush’s administration was cultivating a relationship with Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC), the FBI still viewed the former political prisoner and his group as possible communist threats to U.S. national security, according to newly declassified FBI documents the agency held on the late South African president.
By 1990, the Berlin Wall had been torn down and other Soviet-controlled institutions in Eastern Europe had been demolished, signaling an end to the Cold War. But the FBI remained stuck in a Cold War mentality, the documents obtained by Al Jazeera suggest.
The agency appeared concerned that growing support for Mandela and anti-apartheid movements was coming from communist groups in the U.S. and members of Congress with ties to communist organizations, presenting the FBI with a possible national security threat it would be forced to confront. So the FBI monitored Mandela’s movements, cultivated a confidential informant to infiltrate his meetings with political groups, and spied on his get-togethers with world leaders, the documents reveal.
A partially classified July 1984 “teletype” noted that supporters of a “Freedom for Nelson and Winnie Mandela” House resolution sponsored by African-American congressman George Crockett had ties to communist groups. The FBI also saw activities by the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), which circulated a petition demanding that President Ronald Reagan condemn Mandela’s incarceration, as subversive, according to a January 1985 FBI document previously classified as “secret.”
The heavily redacted FBI documents on Mandela total about 36 pages and were turned over to Ryan Shapiro in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit he filed against the FBI. Shapiro, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a FOIA specialist and a historian of the political functioning of national security and the policing of dissent.
The documents date back to the mid-1980s and 1990s and are part of the FBI’s ongoing release to Shapiro of classified records the agency has held for decades on the South African president, who died last December at the age of 95.
Shapiro has also filed FOIA lawsuits against the National Security Agency, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency for all their documents on Mandela. These government agencies likely maintain the most important records on Mandela, including documents that, if released, could shed light on the alleged role the CIA played in his 1962 arrest.
In May, the FBI released the first set of documents on the beloved South African president — hundreds of pages of internal records showing that, in addition to protecting Mandela during his multi-city tour of the U.S. following his release from prison in 1990, the FBI cultivated a confidential informant who provided the agency with intelligence on Mandela’s political activities and meetings with prominent civil rights activists.
Shapiro said the new batch of FBI records go even further in bringing to light “additional politically motivated FBI spying on Mandela” and also expose “something even darker.”
“The documents reveal that, just as it did in the 1950s and 1960s with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, the FBI aggressively investigated the U.S. and South African anti-apartheid movements as communist plots imperiling American security,” Shapiro said. “Ultimately, what the documents reveal is the FBI’s unflagging conflation of social justice efforts with security threats, and the FBI’s cartoonish obsession with Communist Party subversion in the United States even as the Cold War itself crumbled into obsolescence.”
Of course, there were strong links between the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP). The organizations have worked closely since the 1950s in the struggle against apartheid and formed an alliance in 1990 with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) after South Africa lifted the prohibition on the ANC, SACP and other political groups that year.
When Mandela died, the SACP issued a statement saying that he had been a member.
The FBI withheld some records on Mandela in their entirety in the latest release, citing exemptions to FOIA pertaining to national security, the use of confidential informants, and — in a move likely to intrigue researchers — ongoing investigations.
For example, a still largely classified “secret” 1993 New York FBI foreign counterintelligence memo about Mandela involved a confidential informant who explicitly “provided [the FBI with] political information.” But the document does not contain additional information.
The FBI classified news clippings, including two from 1989 that were translated by an FBI language specialist, about Mandela’s possible early release from prison and forwarded them to the FBI counterintelligence supervisors. Some of the three dozen pages of FBI records have Foreign Counterintelligence classification markings, and others were classified as being part of a “domestic security” investigation, the primary classification designations the FBI used during its decades-long surveillance of Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro) campaigns against civil rights and Vietnam War movements.
One such document, declassified in response to the FOIA lawsuit, is an August 1990 internal FBI memo stating that communists were behind a House resolution that called on Congress to establish a Nelson Mandela/African National Congress Day. The FBI memo highlighted that the sponsor of the resolution, Democratic Rep. Charles Hayes, a civil rights activist, was a “former member of CPUSA.”
The documents reveal that, just as it did in the 1950s and 1960s with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, the FBI aggressively investigated the U.S. and South African anti-apartheid movements as communist plots imperiling American security.
The alleged threat that FBI headquarters believed the ANC and the anti-apartheid movement posed to U.S. national security is laid bare in a previously secret internal memo from the agency’s Chicago field office, which was critical of headquarters’ characterization of the ANC being a “known Soviet front group” as too simplistic. The memo showed that significant parts of the FBI were at odds with its senior-level thinking on the issue of the ANC, Mandela and links to communists.
The Chicago field office’s nine-page response memo states that the FBI’s “description of the ANC as a Soviet Front is an over-simplification which fails to recognize the complex and paradoxical nature of that particular organization […] which was, of course, founded before the Russian Revolution.”
Moreover, the Chicago field office, in what appears to be an attempt to educate FBI headquarters and the agency’s director about the ANC’s history and mission, said the ANC was committed to “non-violent activism,” before the South African government — whose policies were defined by “official racism” — banned it in 1960 and jailed leaders like Mandela.
The memo went on to point out the importance of the ANC and Mandela. “It is, at this point in time, clear that any lasting settlement of South Africa’s future will involve Nelson Mandela and the ANC,” the document said.
Bush too was mindful that Mandela and his ANC would lead South Africa’s first democratically elected government, which is partially the reason he and his administration began to nurture a relationship with Mandela immediately after his release from prison.
Still, the U.S. designated the ANC as a terrorist organization, a designation that would remain in place until 2008. Mandela, who was also placed on the U.S. terrorist watch list, was removed the same year.
Following Mandela’s release from prison, the FBI began to closely monitor his meetings with world leaders. In one heavily redacted March 1990 document, the FBI took interest in a meeting held in Namibia between Mandela — released from prison a month earlier — and Yugoslavia’s President Janez Drnovsek, who was also the leader of the Non-Aligned Countries, a movement that staunchly supported Mandela and the ANC.
A few months later, in June 1990, Mandela was scheduled to meet in New York City with members of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement. Surveillance of the meeting, according to the FBI documents, was considered a “necessity,” and the FBI approved the travel of a Philadelphia FBI agent or a confidential informant to New York City to infiltrate it.
Author’s note: This reporter is a co-plaintiff with Shapiro in several FOIA lawsuits filed against government agencies.