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Rev. Jesse Jackson on the Life of Nelson Mandela & the Movement that Backed His Anti-Apartheid Fight

StoryDecember 09, 2013
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South Africa has begun a week of remembrance for Nelson Mandela, who died last week at the age of 95. International leaders, global figures and celebrities will join 95,000 ordinary South Africans for a memorial service at FNB Stadium in Soweto, where Mandela made his final major public appearance during the 2010 soccer World Cup. President Obama is among 60 heads of state planning to attend. On Sunday, South Africans held a day of prayer for Mandela in congregations across the country. The commemorations will end with Mandela’s burial Sunday in his home village of Qunu. We look back on Mandela’s life with Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader who was at the head of the American anti-apartheid solidarity movement and was among the first to greet Mandela when he was freed from prison.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Asimbonanga,” sung by Johnny Clegg and joined on stage by South African President Nelson Mandela. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as the world continues to mourn the death of the former South African president and freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela. He died Thursday at the age of 95 of a lung infection he contracted when he was in prison. In South Africa, millions of mourners have visited places of worship and community halls to pay their respects to South Africa’s first black and first democratically elected leader. President Jacob Zuma designated Sunday as a day of prayer and reflection on Mandela’s life.

PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA: We thought it was absolutely important that as we as a nation and in the world are mourning and remembering Udada, that we should have a day where all of us, the nation and the friends of South Africa, of Madiba in particular, come together to pray for him.

AMY GOODMAN: The day of prayers comes ahead of the funeral for Nelson Mandela, who became South Africa’s first post-apartheid president in 1994, after 27 years in prison. South Africa has announced some 60 heads of state and government plan to attend the memorial service or state funeral of Mandela. President Barack Obama, François Hollande of France, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain will all be among those attending Tuesday’s memorial service at the Soweto soccer stadium. Three former U.S. presidents—George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter—also plan to attend. International leaders, global figures, celebrities will join 95,000 South Africans at the memorial service at FNB Stadium in Soweto, where Nelson Mandela made his final major public appearance during the 2010 football World Cup.

Well, for more right now, we go to Chicago, Illinois, where we’re joined by a civil rights leader who was at the head of the American anti-apartheid solidarity movement, among the first to greet Nelson Mandela when he was freed from prison, the first African American to greet him. We’re joined by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

Reverend Jackson, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about that moment—

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Thank you for allowing us to share today.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to be with you. Talk about that moment in 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from jail. Talk about where you were.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: You know, we were in Cape Town. I had met with Mrs. Thatcher earlier in the week, making one last appeal for her to—for Britain to break with apartheid, and she had not even known America had done so finally. I went and spoke for Reverend Allan Boesak that Sunday morning. We then left, thinking that his release was imminent, went straight to the city hall at Cape Town. And after he was released from Robben Island and came down the road with Winnie by his side, holding hands, he came in the back door of the city hall. And there, I was able to greet him. And he said, “Jesse Jackson, freedom fighter,” and we embraced.

He was following our struggle all along. He saw the ’84, ’88 campaigns, for example. He had a very sense of appreciation of the freedom fighters versus our government policy. People like Roger Wilkins and Randall Robinson and Marion Barry and people like Bill Lucy and Eleanor Holmes Norton, who had led the struggle in our own country, and Harry Belafonte, he was acutely aware. And so he just began to talk about those persons because he had a sense that the impact of the American anti-apartheid struggle, as we fought apartheid in our own country, was a big factor in his release.

AMY GOODMAN: That was 1990. And he left jail, and he immediately made a world tour, thanking people for supporting the sanctions against the apartheid regime. But this wasn’t a victory tour. He was trying to intensify the pressure. Talk about Mandela in America in 1990.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: You know, Mr. Mandela, Madiba, was graceful because he was winning. He was not speaking of forgiveness and the like while he was in jail. But as coming out, he was the one that said, “Lest the whites fear retribution and revenge, we choose reconciliation. They want retaliation; we want democracy.” He was able to ride that wave to a new level. And he came in really as the guest of the anti-apartheid host, people like Randall Robinson in TransAfrica, people like Maxine Waters and people like Barbara Lee and the students who had led the divestment campaigns, because it was not 'til 1994 ’til he had the right to vote. That's when he voted for the first time. And Gail was right by citing when he voted for the first time. I think it’s fair to say that the American anti-apartheid or anti-segregation movement in the South, led by Dr. King, triggered the movement in a big way in South Africa. We got the right to vote in ’65. They got the right to vote in 1994, almost 30 years later. Our strength in America was maybe the biggest factor in the strength of that movement succeeding in South Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the myths about Nelson Mandela and why it’s important to understand who he was and what he stood for to the end of his life, Reverend Jackson?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, he had been a persecuted political prisoner, in effect, fighting U.S. foreign policy and fighting British foreign policy. And in the end, his side of history, Dr. King’s side of history, is prevailing, however more difficult, and for him to emerge from that situation choosing to go forward by hope and not backwards by fear, saying that our future lies in non-racist, inclusive, democratic South Africa; our future lies in all of us having the right to vote, having the right to an education, or having the right to be advocates for peace in the world. And, to me, as I look at people celebrating him today, there are those who fought gallantly against him who now celebrate him as a martyr in death. One distinction between him and [inaudible] Dr. King, him and Dr. King, was that Dr. King died a very hated man, became a resistant martyr, but a [inaudible] martyr. Mandela became really a martyr for 51 years. He was a martyr—martyred in jail 27 years, and 24 more years after jail. He was a walking, living martyr. So he had 51 years of martyrdom, which gives him, in today’s media, a global impact like no other person ever in American and world history.

AMY GOODMAN: It was the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that picked up, or, I should say, that provided the information to the South African apartheid forces, where Mandela was, what he would be wearing, that he was going to be dressed as a chauffeur in a car. This was 1962 when they finally picked him up. The U.S. was devoting more resources to finding Mandela than even the apartheid regime was. What about the significance of that?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: You know, it’s interesting to me. In our last conversation about two years, I asked him about his being picked up. In some sense—in some senses, he said, he was glad. I didn’t understand that. He said that when—they tried the legal route, and they were rejected. They tried mass marches, they met Sharpeville massacre, and that was rejected. And they tried internal propaganda; that didn’t work. He finally became commander, along with Oliver Tambo, of the military forces. And they had been blowing up some railroads and some strategic infrastructure targets. They were about to escalate, move toward the hospitals and schools and the like. It was a really bloody warfare. And they caught him just a week before that was about to happen. He said he would rather have spent 27 years in jail than to have blown up those innocent people and have that blood on his hand. He was—he gave all that he had—his mind, his body and soul. But he is—in some sense, was glad he did not have on his hands the blood of those who would have been blown up had he not been stopped at that time. So, in some sense, maybe the implement of evil, but God meant it for good.

AMY GOODMAN: But with the Sharpeville massacre that killed, what, 69 people, while Nelson Mandela had talked about nonviolent struggle before, he was one of the founders of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Can you talk about the significance of this armed movement against the violent apartheid regime?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: You know, America had a constitutional foundation and some history of change to a legal process. South Africa did not have that. It was the most heinous government that actually was a minority white government propped up by the U.S. and British interests, and some other European interests, and it was overwhelmingly brutal and murderous. When I went there in 1979, Amy, blacks had to walk down the street with pass books on other side of the street. It was Southern segregation-plus. No white flight—no black flight attendants or pilots are working at the airport. Blacks only had the most menial jobs. Illegal to go to school for them, or schools that were so inferior until they really could not learn. It was a very complex system, very much like the South of our own country. But it seems to me that the spirit to fight that system and to gain world opinion—and that’s where we kind of came in, I think, Amy, against our own foreign policy, because people like Kissinger were saying the British, South Africa and Israel arc of security was too great to lose to, quote-unquote, “communists and radicals,” like black South Africans, because at the end you have the Pacific, Indian—the Atlantic, Pacific—the Atlantic, Indian Oceans kissing maybe the greatest trade route in the world. We could not lose that to them. Well, we did lose that to them, and we’re the better off for it. I think with people like yourself, progressives, it’s a great victory to the civil rights, human rights struggle that, no matter what the odds are, that if you’re pursue international law and human rights and self-determination and transparency, that’s the best foreign policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Nelson Mandela in his own words, speaking at his inauguration. It was May 10th, 1994.

PRESIDENT NELSON MANDELA: The for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divides us has come. The time to build is upon us. We have at last achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continued bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination. We succeeded to take our last steps to freedom in conditions of relative peace. We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace. We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity, a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Nelson Mandela giving his inauguration address. Reverend Jackson, you attended that address, May 10, 1994, that transformative moment in South African history. But I want to turn to an exchange between Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson and conservative strategist, one of George H.W. Bush’s major advisers and a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. They were speaking on ABC’s This Week. Dyson criticized Dick Cheney for branding Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” in the ’80s. Matalin defended her one-time boss.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: I think conservatives get a little bit of amnesia here when they forget that Dick Cheney wanted to put him on the terrorist list and insisted he stay there, that Ronald Reagan resisted. He said, on the one hand, Nelson Mandela should be released, but he depended upon a white supremacist government to reform itself from within. I think Nelson Mandela challenged that. Also, though, he challenged people on the left, as well. He was a man who was—yeah.


MARY MATALIN: When will you ever get tired of beating up on Darth Vader, who said Nelson Mandela is a good man. As we’ve seen in your earlier segment, it was a complicated situation. The ANC was a terrorist organization at one point. He has since said wonderful things about Nelson Mandela. What I want to say about Nelson Mandela is that it’s not—I like that his—what’s been said about him was said in the same way that the pope said what he did. It’s forgiveness and redemption—the pope’s widely misinterpreted and mischaracterized statements. But it’s active engagement. It’s taking care of each other in a—

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: But [inaudible]—

MARY MATALIN: —with solidarity and subsidiarity.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: But, look, when you say about excusing Darth Vader, so to speak, this is not just about rhetoric; this is about public policy that prevented the flourishing of ANC, and, look, when they had their feet on the neck of Nelson Mandela and millions of black people in South Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson debating Mary Matalin, who’s a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. If you could comment on both—of course, Nelson Mandela not taken off the terrorist watch list until 2008, 14 years after he was president of South Africa.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: I might add, Barbara Lee talked with Archbishop Tutu in South Africa, and he reminded her that Mandela was still on the terrorist list, and she came back and initiated legislation with people like Maxine Waters, and that was—George Bush signed the legislation put forth by Barbara Lee, and, of course, urged on by Condoleezza Rice. But don’t be—you would not call Jewish people fighting against Nazi terror “terrorists.” They were freedom fighters, fighting against terror. Mandela was a freedom fighter fighting against state-sponsored terrorism. He then—when he came out, there was a fear because the South African government had been so mean and so violent that he might engage in retribution. He might do to them what they had done to him. He might engage in revenge. He said, “No, it’s time for us now to go to a higher plane. We won that battle. Now it’s time for redemption and reconciliation over retaliation and revenge.” Winners can speak with grace. He spoke gracefully. He’s about to govern the nation. You can’t govern a nation there if you’re going to engage in terror or going to engage in bloodshed. He was on the step now about to govern. I was there sitting. It was just such a joy to hear and to watch people respond, because many whites were relieved of their fears. Millions of blacks had a sense of celebration, but with all that reason to feel that they were winners.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Jackson, you’ve talked about how people focus on Mandela’s forgiveness rather than those who persecuted him. And you also talk about apartheid as not so foreign to what we and other countries experience, which is separateness.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Yes, Sister. Well, the 1896 law here, the post-slavery legislation here, Supreme Court decision was separate but equal, which was apartheid or segregation. We did it in 1896; apartheid in South Africa, 1948. We moved faster. We had the ’54 Supreme Court decision to outlaw it, as they were just coming into it. Dr. King was successful leading our coalition to a public accommodations bill.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: And then, so, by 1965, our right to vote in 1965; they got it in '94. Our struggle here led to the freedom there. So it's a cogenerative struggle. We can all celebrate a new day in South Africa, hopefully a new day in America, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, first African American to greet President Mandela when he came out of jail in l990, now headed to South Africa for the funeral.

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