Fact Check: Was Nelson Mandela on US Terror Watchlist Until 2008?

White House Photograph Office/Wikimedia Commons
White House Photograph Office/Wikimedia Commons
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South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was on the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008.


Rating: True
Rating: True


The Reagan administration placed Mandela on the list due to the African National Congress’ ties to communist parties. Decades later, U.S. President George W. Bush signed a bill to remove him.


On Oct. 10, 2023, writer Fatima Bhutto shared a post on X stating, “Nelson Mandela was on the United States Terrorist Watch List until 2008, in case you’re wondering how neutral the U.S. is with regard to apartheid.”


The above post is accurate in that Mandela was indeed on the U.S. terror watch list until 2008.

The post was in response to the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine, and sought to criticize the United States for its support of Israeli policies, many of which human rights organizations say amount to “crimes of apartheid.” Many online expressed outrage over the crisis, with numerous posts online comparing Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation of Gaza to Mandela’s fight against apartheid in South Africa in the 1950s and onwards, pinpointing the historic ties between Black South African and Palestinian activists.

In the 1970s, during Mandela’s imprisonment, the African National Congress (ANC), in which Mandela was a prominent leader, was designated a terrorist group by the white South African apartheid government. And in 1988, the administration of then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan followed suit, when the State Department listed the ANC among "organizations that engage in terrorism,” while also saying the group “disavows a strategy that deliberately targets civilians” even though civilians had “been victims of incidents claimed by or attributed to the ANC.”

Reagan himself said in a 1986 address (emphasis, ours):

Night after night, week after week, television has brought us reports of violence by South African security forces, bringing injury and death to peaceful demonstrators and innocent bystanders. More recently, we read of violent attacks by blacks against blacks. Then there is the calculated terror by elements of the African National Congress: the mining of roads, the bombings of public places, designed to bring about further repression, the imposition of martial law, eventually creating the conditions for racial war. The most common method of terror is the so-called necklace. In this barbaric way of reprisal, a tire is filled with kerosene or gasoline, placed around the neck of an alleged collaborator, and ignited. The victim may be a black policeman, a teacher, a soldier, a civil servant. It makes no difference. The atrocity is designed to terrorize blacks into ending all racial cooperation and to polarize South Africa as prelude to a final, climactic struggle for power.

In defending their society and people, the South African Government has a right and responsibility to maintain order in the face of terrorists. But by its tactics, the Government is only accelerating the descent into bloodletting. Moderates are being trapped between the intimidation of radical youths and countergangs of vigilantes. And the Government's state of emergency, next, went beyond the law of necessity. It, too, went outside the law by sweeping up thousands of students, civic leaders, church leaders, and labor leaders; thereby contributing to further radicalization. Such repressive measures will bring South Africa neither peace nor security.

One of the biggest reasons for this terrorist designation was the ANC’s ties to communist groups. At the time, Reagan’s primary concern was battling the spread of communism and fighting the Cold War. In the 1980s, even as the U.S. imposed sanctions on South Africa due to its apartheid policies (after initially dragging its feet on imposing sanctions), anti-communists in the U.S. government were still promoting relations with the South African government, who defended their system as a bulwark against communism. By the end of World War II, South Africa had occupied Namibia, and in the 1970s used it as a base to fight the communist party in Angola, with support from the U.S.

A 1987 report by the U.S. State Department described how South African communists had "exercised considerable influence" through its ANC allies. The report described how South African communists viewed the ANC as "the main hope" in winning over South Africans and turning the country into a state loyal to the Soviet Union. They did note, however, that the South African Communist Party (SACP) "is only one element, although a very important one, of the coalition of interests represented in the ANC." The report said:

The A.N.C. is deeply beholden to the S.A.C.P. and the Soviet Union for the arms and training that made possible the upsurge in guerrilla activity that has boosted its prestige in South Africa in recent years. [...] Dependence on Moscow for military assistance will continue to entrench Party influence in the A.N.C. and its strong representation in the A.N.C. hierarchy.'

A 1988 report released by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush detailed more information about the ANC's operations, saying it started out as a forum "to express black African opinion, wherein protests against discriminatory practices could be voiced." But in 1960, after an incident in which police "fired upon demonstrators," the ANC was outlawed. After this, the report said, "The ANC decided in 1961 violence would be the only tool that could force the South African government to negotiate." Further, ANC members would "receive the majority of their training at camps in Angola."

The U.S. government also believed that Mandela, though imprisoned, was also a communist, according to accounts detailed by The Washington Post. When he was freed, Mandela was feted by U.S. presidents. But he also praised and met with leaders like Cuba's Fidel Castro, who was affiliated with communism, and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, who was a member of the Non-Aligned Movement in the Cold War era and labeled a pariah in the West.

In 2008, then-President George W. Bush signed a bill removing the ANC and Mandela from the terrorism watch list, giving the State Department authority to waive travel restrictions against members of the ANC coming to the U.S.

H.R. 5690 stated:

H.R. 5690 removes the ANC from treatment as a terrorist organization, and grants the Secretary of State and the  Secretary of Homeland Security the discretionary authority to  determine that certain criminal and security-related grounds of  inadmissibility do not apply to an alien with respect to activities undertaken in opposition to apartheid rule in South Africa. The bill also requires the Secretary of State, in  coordination with other agencies, to take all necessary steps  to ensure that databases used to determine admissibility to the  United States are updated so that they are consistent with the  exemptions provided in the bill.

Before the bill was signed, then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice had informed legislators that her department had to issue waivers for Mandela’s travel and found the situation “embarrassing.” She said: “This is a country with which we now have excellent relations, South Africa, but it's frankly a rather embarrassing matter that I still have to waive in my own counterpart, the foreign minister of South Africa, not to mention the great leader Nelson Mandela.”

We thus rate this claim as “True.”


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