This article was last modified on October 20, 2010.

Empire Strikes First: South Africa Rising

Today, South Africa is becoming a modern and respected country with a cultural impact and influence on the world stage. But not long ago, it was something of a pariah for its draconian racial policies, and violent crime was an inevitable outcome. Unfortunately, America has helped in the suppression of minorities in South Africa for many decades, regardless of political party in power, and they are only starting to recover now.

Our nation had been suppressing South African democracy as early as the Kennedy years, though apartheid had already began in 1948 as a colonial leftover without our influence. The CIA was instrumental in capturing dissident Nelson Mandela in 1962, and funneled arms into the country in 1975 through 1978, at a time when United States publicly supported a UN ban. To his credit, President Jimmy Carter banned the sharing of intelligence with South Africa in 1977, but the intelligence agencies ignored his request.

Dr. Wouter Basson testified in 1998 that the chemical and biological warfare program he headed since 1981 was suggested to him by US Major General William Augerson. Augerson felt such a program was ideal for exterminating the black population because it focused on living things, kept infrastructure intact, and would spread quickly in a warm climate. The program also used black soldiers as guinea pigs for experimental medicine.

Also in 1981, South Africa had sent an assassination squad into Mozambique to wipe out African National Congress members, acting on CIA intelligence. The two actively conspired in November 1983 to disrupt Angola, apparently seen by America as a Communist threat, riling up anti-government forces there.

On October 28, 1981, the United States was the only country, out of 146, to oppose condemning apartheid at the United Nations. They again stood alone for multiple votes in December which would have condemned South African aggression, ordered sanctions and ended loans to that nation.

Ironically, when Mandela was released from prison February 1990, after nearly 28 years, President George H. W. Bush called him to say that Americans were “rejoicing at his release.” This is the same George Bush who had once served as CIA Director, and helped kill or capture a number of Mandela’s associates. He may have played a role as vice president under Reagan, as well.

Boycott movements put pressure on South Africa to change its racial policies, and slowly it began to do so. The end of apartheid in the early 1990s did not mean the end of racial discrimination or struggle for the black population. Even the election of Mandela in 1994, the first black president, did not stifle the turbulence. As shown in the poorly-named film “Gangster’s Paradise” from director Ralph Ziman, the next stage was rampant crime. After years of being unable to own property, the blacks did not have any property to speak of when they were finally able. This lead to what we might call looting but they felt was taking back what was traditionally and historically theirs.

Ziman told me an amazing story about a friend of his “who manages buildings in downtown Johannesburg had this situation where a gang had arrived and tried to hijack a building — tried to steal it. On a Friday afternoon, they came and said they were the new owners, and began cutting their way into the building. It had shops at street level, and from the second floor up it had been closed off. There had been offices some ten or fifteen years before. Behind them came five or ten busloads of people who were moved in by 6:30. The building was then, for all intents and purposes, lost to the owner. It was done through a mixture of cunning, gangsterism, legal maneuvers and basically forcing them into debt.”

In fact, Ziman is just one of many directors giving South Africa a broader recognition on the world stage. In recent years, films portraying the country have put it in a favorable light and while few Americans may have known or cared about their culture five years ago, now that interest is on the rise. “District 9” showcased racial tension with a science fiction twist, while “Invictus” made us examine not just Africa, but rugby with the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Films made in or about South Africa were popping up at the Academy Awards and taking home a few Oscars in the process.

The crowning achievement in South Africa’s rise was the 2010 World Cup. Not only a major event for world sports with millions, perhaps billions, of people watching the action, but a chance to clean up the country as well. “There were a lot of concerns about crime,” says Ziman, “but the security situation was good and it made the country look good. A lot of people had a great time. And apparently the crime rates fell during the World Cup and haven’t come back up after it.”

Twenty years since the release of Nelson Mandela and the fall of apartheid, and South Africa continues to grow stronger. If they are not already considered a global player, they likely will be soon.

Gavin Schmitt ( resides in a hidden bunker in Kaukauna, but welcomes your correspondence.

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