FBI Kept Close Tabs on Nelson Mandela After His Release From Prison

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 10 2014 5:48 PM

FBI Kept Close Tabs on Nelson Mandela After His Release From Prison

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Nelson Mandela.

Photo by MICHEL CLEMENT,DANIEL JANIN/AFP/Getty Images

Newly declassified records show that the FBI monitored former South African president Nelson Mandela after his release from prison because of a perceived communist threat to U.S. national security.

Ryan Shapiro, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, extracted 36 pages on Mandela from the agency using freedom of information laws. “The documents reveal that, just as it did in the 1950s and '60s with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, the FBI aggressively investigated the US and South African anti-apartheid movements as communist plots imperiling American security,” Shapiro said. The recently released reports are the second batch of documents related to the FBI and Mandela that Shapiro has procured.

Federal agents monitored Mandela and the African National Congress before and after the leader's release from prison to international acclaim in February 1990, attempting, for example, to plant an informant at a Philadelphia meeting between Mandela and Puerto Rican activists. Even after the Berlin Wall came down and Mandela became a famed democratic leader, the FBI continued to see the ex-president through “paranoid cold war lens,” The Guardian writes—and some of the FBI's own agents began to doubt the bureau’s investigation:

In August 1990, the FBI’s Chicago field office wrote a secret memo that highlighted the historical ignorance of its sister branch in New York which had classed the ANC as a “known Soviet front group”. The memo complained that “our description of the ANC as a Soviet front is an over-simplification which fails to recognize the complex and paradoxical nature of that particular organization (which was, of course, founded before the Russian revolution).”
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Many of the documents have been severely redacted, and Shapiro intends to push for the release of the complete uncensored records.  

Irene Chidinma Nwoye is a writer and Slate intern in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.