But long before U.S. leaders publically honored Mandela, the CIA propped up apartheid, and even laid the groundwork for Mandela's arrest.
Scene from a demonstration against apartheid in Johannesburg, 1961 Photo credit: © AFP
VOR correspondent Molly Seder reports:
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Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, will be remembered as the man who put an end to apartheid, South Africa's system of racial segregation and disenfranchisement.
Several civil rights leaders believe Mandela will find a place in history with Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi for his efforts in helping to bring about reconciliation in South Africa and making that country a more democratic and equal nation.
Speaking in D.C., President Obama praised Mandela.
“We’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth,” Obama said.
But as the world writes Mandela’s legacy, it’s important to remember that for a long time the United States saw Mandela as a terrorist and treated him like one.
Before his rise to power, a South African court convicted Mandela of treason and sentenced him to life behind bars.
William Worger, a history professor at UCLA, told VOR that South Africa cracked down on people like Mandela who fought to end the system of discrimination.
“Most of the opposition to apartheid, the people such as Mandela other leaders, were condemned as terrorists, as criminals, as murderers,” Worger said.
The South African government had a partner in its efforts to hold onto Apartheid.
During the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy labeled African nationalist movements as communist fellow travelers. At that time, the U.S. played a leading role in monitoring the activities of the African National Congress. Mandela was seen as a communist sympathizer.
That's why the U.S. helped the South African government gather information that led to his arrest in August 1962.
That state secret broke in 1990, when an intelligence reporter leaked the story to the Cox News Service. The Chicago Tribune reported a senior CIA agent behind Mandela's arrest, Paul Eckel, called it "one of our greatest coups."
But fifty years later, Washington has changed its tune. Now, among those recognizing Mandela's significance is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton said Mandela taught us, “How each of us can choose how we will respond to those injustices and grievances, those sorrows and tragedies that afflict all of human kind.”
And it's not just leaders remembering Mandela today. A large group gathered around the world to celebrate his memory including at the South African embassy in D.C.
In challenging a racist status quo, Mandela earned a victory not only against the white minority in his homeland, but also against international powers. And some believe in doing so he made the world a better place.