When South Africa considered selling tanks worth around $650 million to Syria, Mandela said, “The enemies of countries in the West are not ours.” This principle guided South Africa’s alliances with the most unlikely of countries and his friendship with the most vilified of leaders like Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. In his own words, Mandela said, “My foreign policy is determined by the past…The relations I have had with (a) country, the contributions they have made to our struggle.” He knew where his loyalties lied and no one could change that.
In 1997, Mandela decided to go to Libya for an official state visit. The United States of America State Department said it would be “disappointed” if he went to the country which was believed by the West to be sponsoring terrorism. Mandela’s reply was simple and straightforward. He said, “How can they have the arrogance to dictate to us who our friends should be?” Though the West would love to portray Mandela as having always struck a conciliatory tone, this loyal icon who knew who supported him is rarely ever spoken off. If anything, according to the Washington Post, that side of Mandela was an irritation to the United States of America thus explaining why it is not so often included in his list of heroics.
Mandela went ahead with his visit to Libya on the 23rd of October 1997 despite the opposition. When played out by the media, “it was a case of a saint visiting a mad dog” but the reality is, two friends met in Tripoli that October. Mandela’s movement had counted on Libyan support during its anti-apartheid drive while the West supported the oppressive white regime. Mandela was always aware of this fact as when he was shown Gaddafi’s compound which had been bombed by United States operatives in 1986, he said of the USA’s interventionist approach, “No country can claim to be the policeman of the world and no state can dictate to another what it should do. Those that yesterday were friends of our enemies have the gall today to tell me not to visit my brother Gaddafi. They are advising us to be ungrateful and forget our friends of the past.” In a further speech delivered in Tripoli, the South African icon said his delegation was overjoyed with Gaddafi’s invitation to visit Libya and had been waiting impatiently for the occasion. These were true friends who had met to the behest of the West.
A little later, in the March of 1998, Bill Clinton (then President of the USA) visited South Africa and got lessons on friendship from the veteran South African statesman. He was told at a news conference, “I have also invited Brother Leader Gaddafi to this country. And I do that because our moral authority dictates that we should not abandon those who helped us in the darkest hour in the history of this country. Not only did the Libyans support us in return, they gave us the resources for us to conduct our struggle, and to win. And those South Africans who have berated me for being loyal to our friends, can literally go and jump into a pool.” In a 1998 article by the LA Times, an unnamed South African official was reported to have said of the conference, “That was quite a poignant moment: Here we are little South Africa in the middle of nowhere, talking that way to Bill Clinton, with him standing right next to him.” Clinton is said to have remained smiling throughout the event “despite Mandela’s admonitions”.
South Africa under Mandela was not a pacifist state. It had its own ideology which was in line with the greater pan-Africanist movement. Mandela did not forget his true friends when he came into power and was not afraid of telling the West off for its hypocrisy. That Mandela who was friends with Colonel Gaddafi and would not have the West tell him who to be friends with is the Mandela Africans need to know not the recreation of Western imaginations meant to stultify pan-Africanism. Africa’s Mandela was a strong-willed man who had a revolutionary but progressive mind.