At the dawn of the Nelson Mandela administration, I had the extraordinary privilege to sit at the table with the new African National Congress leadership as the Environmental Protection Agency-White House liaison to the South African government. My job was to work with the new ANC leadership to design and provide US technical environmental expertise to assist the majority population’s recovery from the environmental and public health disaster the apartheid system imposed on it. This process took place through the flagship foreign policy vehicle, the US-South African BiNational Commission, commonly called the Gore-Mbeki Commission, or the BNC. All bilateral foreign policy activities between the United States and South Africa took place through this commission. A detailed account of these events can be found in my book, No FEAR: A Whistleblower’s Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA.
As a graduate student and professor, I had been an anti-apartheid activist who marched with my colleagues in the Southern Africa Support Project and TransAfrica in front of the South African Embassy to “Free Mandela” and to express our solidarity with the South African revolution. When I was offered the position of executive secretary to the BNC in 1995, I made it clear to the EPA – citing racist US foreign policy in other African countries – that I would not be a part of any diabolical scheme against the South African people. I was a supporter of the South African Freedom Charter and excited about helping the Mandela government implement environmental policies that would reverse decades of harmful and, at times, fatal policies toward the black majority. Soon after assuming my position, I realized that something had gone terribly wrong. In a 1996 letter to my mentor, professor Noam Chomsky, I wrote: “The Freedom Charter is not on the table. I’m heart broken to report that despite the blood sacrifice of so many activists, South Africa is entering a neo-colonial phase.”
Vice President Al Gore said of the BNC: “I affirm that the people of the United States of America are committed to the strongest possible partnership with the citizens of South Africa.” His counterpart, Thabo Mbeki, then deputy president of South Africa, proclaimed that he appreciated “this relationship of support and engagement for creating a better life for the people of this country.”
At the time, CNN’s description of aspects of the BNC’s mission was closer to the truth: A further goal of the BNC was to hold regular trade talks and cooperate in the fight against international terrorism.
There was a stark difference between the stated goals of the BNC and US political strategy. It would become evident that the functional goal of the environment committee of the BiNational Commission was to provide cover for the same US multinational corporations that had participated in the repression of South Africa during apartheid. Under a green banner, they were seeking to continue the previous relationship with Afrikaner leaders they had enjoyed while Nelson Mandela languished in prison for three decades.
I was the US official to whom the first reports of illness and death relating to vanadium mining were given by black South African union leaders and later by the new environmental leadership in the Nelson Mandela government. The United States ignored these reports, choosing to protect American-owned multinational corporations that were operating in South Africa. The reports included symptomology of miners whose tongues were turning green; bronchitis; asthma; bleeding from bodily orifices; impotence in young, healthy male workers; cancers; and, ultimately, death.
Despite the BNC agreeing to send a team of experts from the United States to investigate these horrible reports, no serious investigation ever occurred. Every attempt to convene an independent team of medical doctors was thwarted by EPA management. Instead, the EPA dispatched a single veterinarian to care for its new black African partners, as the United States focused its serious efforts and resources on developing private-sector projects.
The United States had been a faithful ally of the racist apartheid regime. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher considered the ANC a terrorist organization and called Nelson Mandela a terrorist. However, the saturated media coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela has missed another important relationship between the United States and Mandela – the fact that, according to The New York Times, there was a “CIA Tie Reported in Mandela Arrest:”
“The Central Intelligence Agency played an important role in the arrest in 1962 of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress leader who was jailed for nearly 28 years before his release four months ago. … The intelligence service, using an agent inside the African National Congress, provided South African security officials with precise information about Mr. Mandela’s activities that enabled the police to arrest him, said the account by the Cox News Service.”
The report quoted an unidentified retired official who said that a senior CIA officer told him shortly after Mandela’s arrest: “We have turned Mandela over to the South African Security branch. We gave them every detail, what he would be wearing, the time of day, just where he would be.”
By 1996, US policy had not changed from the Reagan administration’s – but the PR and public statements did – in response to growing US public outcries from the anti-apartheid movement and international human rights groups. Still, behind the scenes and in agencies like the EPA, the US role was business as usual.
As flowers adorn the front of the statue of Mandela at the South African Embassy, it is worth noting that the statue was paid for by the same corporate concerns that supported Mandela’s incarceration, including the Anglo American Corp., the South African Mining Group, South Africa’s Synthetic Fuels, chemicals giant Sasol, the South African Gold Coin Exchange and Standard Bank. These corporate co-conspirators think they can fool us with plaques, devotionals and crocodile tears.