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by Institute for Global Dialogue


Categories: [in] focus

by Institute for Global Dialogue


Former American presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and current American president Barack Obama are in South Africa this week to honour the late, great and iconic Mandela. They all had different relations with Madiba. Arguably none were as strong as that between Mandela and Bill Clinton.

Clinton was America’s president during Mandela’s entire South African presidency. This special relationship between leaders almost gave a sense of friendship between both countries and led to a good feeling of support. Insiders speak of the special bond between the two men, with frequent phone calls and meetings both during and after their presidential terms. Clinton and Mandela appeared to have almost a father-son relationship,and this positive relationship continued to affect former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in her interactions with South Africa.

Nevertheless, they did not always see eye to eye on issues, and this is why it is said that a personal friendship among leaders, or personal diplomacy, although important may only be a temporary advantage.

Mandela was seen as critical of America due to the perceived level of economic assistance offered to recover from apartheid. He was extremely unhappy when Clinton announced America’s initial assistance package of US$600 million to South Africa in 1994. Expectation were for a significantly larger amount, with Mandela quoting as saying: “It’s peanuts. We would have expected from the United States far more than that.”

One of the bigger issuesraised between the two countrieswerequestions around South Africa’s relations with Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and others.

When Iranian President Akbar Hasjemi Rafsanjani’s visited South Africa in September 1996, Mandela said that the enemies of the West are not necessarily the enemies of South Africa. He stressed that his country wanted to develop good relations with all countries, including the superpowers, but not at the cost of the ties that existed with good friends who supported the ANC against the apartheid regime when the superpowers supported the apartheid regime. This was followed by Mandela’s trip to Libya to award Colonel Qaddafi the Order of Good Hope Medal in October 1997 which made quite a stir from the West’s point of view. The Medal is the highest honor that South Africa can bestow upon a citizen of another country.

The White House pronounced itself ‘disappointed’ about Mandela’s trip, drawing an intense response from Mandela that he would not be dictated to about who he could visit. Mandela, who always spoke his mind said: “Those who say I should not be here are without morals…This man helped us at a time when we were all alone, when those who say we should not come here were helping the enemy.”

Mandela, like Clinton, was a great diplomat. In helping America with the Lockerbie bombing negotiations, it was Mandela that gained Qaddafi’s support. Mandela spoke out against the US and emphasised that he was acting independently of the West. When you combine this with Mandela’s loyalty to old friends, he was able to play a key role in the negotiations.

Mandela was smart. He realized that it would be better to engage Qaddafi then treat him as a terrorist like the US often did. This approach helped Mandela secure Libya’s agreement to a trial of those allegedly responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, which marked the end of Libyan diplomatic isolation. This, in turn, also led to an improvement in US-Libyan relations.

While the Mandela-Clinton relationship continued in the 2000s and beyond, the Mandela-George W Bush relationship was nowhere near the same level. Their relationship started off quite strong with Mandela supporting US action in Afghanistan after 9/11. When Bush met with Mandela at the White House in November 2001, he stated: “The United States of America lost 5,000 people, innocent people, and it is quite correct for the president to ensure that the terrorists, those masterminds, as well as those who have executed the action and survived, are to be punished heavily.”

This meeting also took place on the same day American Airlines flight bound for the Dominican Republic crashed on takeoff from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. “It’s unfortunate that that would happen at this time, when the United States lost so many people on the 11th of September…But I know that you have quite a strong leader, and the people of the United States of America can face disaster, and I’m sure that they will overcome this unfortunate incident,” Mandela proclaimed.

It was the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003 when Mandela began to become quite upset, first attacking then US Vice president Dick Cheney: “Quite clearly we are dealing with an arch-conservative in Dick Cheney . . . my impression of the president is that this is a man with whom you can do business. But it is the men around him who are dinosaurs, who do not want him to belong to the modern age.”Cheney had in 1986 voted against a US resolution calling for Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa because of Mandela’s alleged support for terrorism.

This anger and disappointment soon turned to Bush as well. At one point, Bush would not take Mandela’scalls, instead he spoke to Secretary of State Colin Powell. At one point leading up to the war, Mandela even spoke to the George Bush Sr., asking the latter to discourage his son from attacking Iraq.

Mandela made numerous comments against the US:

  • ‘We must condemn that very strongly. No country, however strong, is entitled to comment adversely in the way the US has done. They think they’re the only power in the world. They’re not and they’re following a dangerous policy. One country wants to bully the world.’
  • ‘If you look at these matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace.’

With this said, do all these negative remarks mean Bush and Mandela were enemies? Absolutely not, and they did see eye to eye on a number of issues, including the war against HIV/AIDS.

Mandela did say this in the context of his friendship with Bush in 2005: “Such disagreements are not uncommon among friends. In fact they are a mark of strong, candid and honest friendship,” highlighting his diplomatic skills even years after stepping down as South Africa’s president.

An Obama and Mandela personal diplomatic relationship was limited due for the most part to Madiba’s age, but both were very fond of each other. Theyfirst metin 2005 during a trip to Washington when Obama was a junior senator from Chicago. A few years later, after another historic election, Mandela wrote a letter congratulating Obama on his victory and being the son of an African immigrant and the first black president of the world’s most powerful country, demonstrating that every person had the potential to bring about change for a better world.

Obama had nothing but praise and well wishes for Mandela during his African tour earlier this year. Obama further recalled his involvement in the anti-apartheid movement with his maiden political speech being as a 19-year-old student at Occidental College in 1981 against the apartheid government.

The apartheid regime had supported America during the Cold War and had worked closely with both the Reagan and Nixon administrations to limit Soviet influence in the region. Many see the US as being late in joining the anti-apartheid struggle.And Mandela was left on the US terrorism watch listfor an absurd amount of time in the post-apartheid era (until 2008).

Mandela as the champion of reconciliation was able to look past this and forge a lasting bond with many American leaders and with the country itself and its people. Although Mandela is finally resting in peace, and the main pillars of diplomacycontinue to change due to digitalizationsince his time as South African president, it wasthe diplomatic ritual and his personal diplomacy with countries like America that helped bring about stability in bilateral relationships.


This article appeared in its original format in the Business Report: http://www.iol.co.za/business/opinion/personal-diplomacy-didn-t-prevent-straight-talking-1.1619621#.UqbxzXCno65 

Dr Scott Firsing is an adjunct research fellow at Monash University, South Africa; the director of the North American International School in Pretoria; and a former South African Institute of International Affairs Bradlow Fellow (2012). He is also the founder and president of Young People in International Affairs.


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