Many countries praising Mandela, weren't there for him in the past

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Worman: I'm Marco Worman and this is the World. They say hindsight is 20/20. Today world leaders gathered in South Africa to praise the late Nelson Mandela. He was called a giant of history, a hero and one of the greatest leaders of out time; but many of the countries represented at that memorial service didn't always praise Mandela. Some supported the regime that imprisoned him, or did little to push for Mandela's release. Chris McGrill is a foreign correspondent for London's Guardian newspaper and he's been writing about this subject. McGrill describes the reaction of world leaders when Mandela was first released from prison in 1990.

Chris McGrill: Internationally of course, he was immediately embraced, but right up until that point he had been a deeply divisive figure in the West. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher, who was till Prime Minister, had made a pretty firm stand against sanctions and stood against a lot of pressure, particularly from African countries inside the British Commonwealth for sanctions against Africa, and then of course we had Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. He had sided perhaps even more firmly with South Africa. He, in the 1970s, made pretty clear that he regarded South Africa as democratic, even though only white people could vote. The essential view in the West was that South Africa was a bastion of anti-communism and whatever the shortcomings of the government and system of South Africa it had to be backed up as a counter to growing communist influence in Africa.

Worman: I mean, you mentioned the UK under Thatcher and the US under Reagan, did you mention those because they were the worst in terms of revisionist history?

McGrill: They were the most influential countries in terms of protecting the apartheid regime. Obviously there was plenty of hypocrisy to go around and there were other countries that were quite closely allied with the South Africans. Israel in particular springs to mind. Partly because after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, African nations broke with Israel. There had been fairly close ties with African states and the Israeli government. They broke and the Israeli government looked around for new allies and found one in SOuth Africa, both of the countries saw themselves as pariah states, they developed military weapons together, they worked together on atomic issues and South Africa's development of a nuclear weapon.

Worman: So, how do you think this revisionist history was on display today at the memorial service for Mandela?

McGrill: What you see essentially is an obscuring of the past, you would get the impression from the statements made that without Mandela, Western countries had all along been at the forefront of pressing the apartheid regime to reform and release him. And while there was lip service paid towards reform by 1985, Margaret Thatcher was calling for Mandela's release and actually that was done in the context of that would be good for the South African regime internationally and politically, not that it would be the right thing to do and I think that all of that has been erased. It's clear that those Western nations that were at the forefront, or at least helping to prop up the apartheid system until its later stages, its display today really represented an erasure of that history and we were left with the impression I think that those countries had been at the forefront of opposing apartheid, which is far from the case.

Worman: What about white South Africa and what do you make about the outpouring of grief from the white South African minority?

McGrill: I think there'a a significant proportion of the white population in SOuth Africa that has embraced Mandela and had integrated change but not wholly embraced the consequences. While South Africans have taken Mandela's message on board of forgiveness and taken it as an absolution for their past crimes, the crime of apartheid and they seem to feel many of them, that that erases the past, there's no need to discuss the past and also, in some cases, there's quite a strong vocal opposition to the necessity to make recompense to the past or at least address the past, for instance, through affirmative action. I think there's a feeling in some quarters of the white community to wipe clean and simply move on. We don't need to really address the past and I think most black South Africans would take a different view of that.

Worman: Do you think it's entirely fair to summarize this all as revisionist history? Because people after all do evolve. I mean, F. W. Clark evolved from his original thinking of apartheid.

McGrill: Oh I think so. It's clear, I don't think it's entirely revisionist history at all. I think that there's a range of history really in the sense that it's simply not discussed. I think if we see reactions from the Western leaders and we see the reaction from the Israelis and others, the impression was certainly left that they had been supportive of SOuth Africa's liberation struggle all along. It's not that people haven't evolved, they clearly have, but I think that in evolving it's not necessary to erase the past, to ignore past history and to revise it.

Worman: Foreign correspondent Chris McGrill with London's Guardian newspaper. Thanks a lot.

McGrill: It's a pleasure.

Do you enjoy our audio? Please help support it with a donation.