“Remember John F Kennedy in Dallas??” The letter is written in spidery capitals. “Bring this black murderer to Houston and we will give him a welcome that the world will not forget.”
Nelson Mandela arrived in the USA in June 1990 with wife Winnie to a hero’s welcome: a tickertape parade in New York City and packed speaking engagements all over the country. But reports and cables collected by the FBI from that time tell another story – of official concerns for Mandela’s safety as he travelled the country, and numerous threats of assassination.
The FBI documents were obtained by Ryan Shapiro, a doctoral candidate at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who has launched a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain American security records on Mandela. Two batches of documents have been released so far: the first in late May, and the second last week. They are far from exhaustive.
Ryan Shapiro told Al Jazeera: “Not only did the FBI heavily redact and withhold documents, but there’s virtually no discussion of US intelligence community involvement prior to Mandela’s 1990 release from prison”.
That’s significant in itself. But despite the documents’ incomplete form, there’s still much that makes for interesting reading. The first batch of documents show the FBI’s preoccupation with Mandela’s safety during his first trip to the USA, and with good reason: threats were seemingly received in all the major US cities to which Mandela travelled.
The chilling letter received in Houston referencing the assassination of JFK was accompanied by a clipping of a Houston Chronicle article, published in May 1990, detailing a possible visit by Nelson Mandela to the city.
Other submissions collected by the FBI were phrased in a more civilised fashion. The documents include a letter dated 6 June, 1990, to the host of a $5,000 per plate dinner for Mandela in Boston, Jim Daley. “I want to believe that your attitude towards Mandela is based on misinformation,” the letter begins. “Contrary to what the managed media has been reporting, Mandela is little more than a terrorist”. The letter ends by inviting Daley to a rival event which would boast a black South African speaker to “shed some light on the true Mandela”, or at least a speaker from a black conservative think tank in Washington.
“Numerous threat calls have been received by 911 operators”, another FBI report notes of Mandela’s visit, including from rightwing groups like the “Aryan Knights”. A number of other reports show attempts to research the Aryan Knights group, with little success. Another telephonic threat – that “a hit squad will kill Mandela today or tomorrow” – appears to have been attributed to “Mossad and white South Africans”.
The day before Mandela was scheduled to address a public rally at Georgia Tech on 27 June, “a threat against the life of Nelson Mandela was received” via telephone by the president of the institute. The author of the FBI report on the matter noted that there seemed to be a delay on the phone line which might have suggested a long-distance call. “The caller stated that he and his two companions had spent their lives trying to stop Mandela. He stated that they had various weapons and means with which to accomplish this task and had received military training”.
Other phone calls were more to-the-point. “When Nelson Mandela comes, I’m going to kill him,” one male caller stated baldly. Another caller, identified as “Igor”, said that he had heard that Mandela would be blown up in Atlanta by the “Cuba Liberation Front”.
No planned events appear to have been cancelled as a result of these threats, and the visit went off without incident, with Mandela and Winnie fundraising for the ANC and urging international business to maintain sanctions against Apartheid until the system had been fully dismantled.
In December 1991, Mandela returned to the States, and there were threats in advance once again. An anonymous female called 911 three times, leaving messages like “Kill Mandela at the UN”. Threatening calls persisted throughout Mandela’s stay, though again there were no reported incidents.
A full ten years later, it seemed that little had changed. In 2000, Mandela travelled to Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot dead, and it seemed that there was particular trepidation in the air due to the symbolic significance of the location – as well as a number of other factors.
“In view of Mr. Mandela’s high profile, the tumultuous events currently transpiring in the Middle East, and the tragic history associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN, a potential threat exists for discord/violence throughout Mandela’s stay in the area”, notes one report. In the end, the chief of police for Memphis reported that Mandela’s visit went “smooth as glass”.
Who did they think would be targeting Mandela, a decade after his release from prison, when he had already stepped down as president of South Africa?
“The primary threat to Mr. Mandela emanates from right-wing extremist groups or emotionally disturbed persons present in this country,” suggests one document. “While we are aware of no information indicating that these elements are planning to target the former president; the possibility should not be ruled out particularly given Mr. Mandela’s role in South Africa’s history”.
At least one document spells Mandela’s surname as “Mandala”. In another he is “Mendela”.
But FBI surveillance of Mandela was not solely aimed at keeping him safe on American soil. Reports also cover Mandela’s movements while in the States in 1990, and arrangements for the trip beforehand. It appears that Mandela’s Rivonia Trial comrade Andrew Mlangeni was a useful source of information to American diplomatic officials in Pretoria.
They were interested in Mandela’s health before his trip, for instance. When it was reported in the media that Mandela had had a non-malignant cyst from his bladder removed, it was Andrew Mlangeni who tipped off “mission officers” that Mandela had actually undergone a prostate procedure. Mlangeni also seems to have passed on information about the members of Mandela’s travel delegation and their planned itinerary.
“No doubt about who’s in charge”, reads one cable from Pretoria. “We are struck by the thin composition of Mandela’s delegation abroad…This suggests to us Mandela’s dominance in the organisation.”
The second batch of FBI documents also reveals that the FBI kept the ANC’s Makhenkesi Stofile under surveillance when Stofile visited New York in 1984 as part of the ‘Free Mandela’ campaign.
They show, too, that as late as 1990 there were elements in the FBI which suspected that the ANC might be serving as a “Soviet Front”. A memo from the Chicago office attempting to assuage these suspicions reminds the bureau that the ANC “was, of course, founded before the Russian Revolution”.
The FBI also kept a beady eye on Mandela’s 1990 meeting with Yugoslavia’s President Janez Drnovsek and a potential discussion with members of the Puerto Rican liberation movement, which the bureau wanted to listen in on. The memo in which this is laid out warns the recipient that the information it contains “must not be disseminated outside the FBI or existing terrorism task forces”.
While the FBI may have only partially complied with Shapiro’s Freedom of Access to Information Act requests, they are still proving more cooperative than other agencies. The National Security Agency (NSA), CIA and Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) have yet to release any of their Mandela-related documents. There are many who would be curious to see what those records would reveal about US intelligence’s attitude to Mandela prior to his release from prison. DM
- Mandela release triggered FBI anti-communist paranoia, say new documents, on Al Jazeera
Photo: Nelson Mandela is all smiles as he is greeted by tens of thousands of people in Harlem, New York’s famous black district, during the second day of his U.S. tour. Mandela told reporters “I am feeling on top of the world.” on June 21, 1990. Reuters/McNimee