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Mandela and Snowden: Two Heroes With More In Common Than We Know


It’s been called “The Long Goodbye” with the world press updating their updates hourly on Nelson Mandela’s health status with lots of speculation about when he will pass on. Now that he has been diagnosed as “critical,” he may not have long. 

The massive media interest in Mandela is a remarkable tribute to a very special man who helped undo apartheid while thrilling the world with his courage as the prisoner who became a President. 

Its been said that Mandela has become, after Coca-Cola, the second best known brand in the world so perhaps the media focus is understandable given his high approval numbers and status in the pantheon of liberators. What other ailing political leader gets this kind of sustained attention? 

Widely accepted heroes in the world are in short supply these days as we can see also from the media treatment of whistleblower Edward Snowden who many also view as a hero –a majority of those surveyed — while, curiously, a majority of the media punditocracy takes a more cynical view. 

Many of our “thought leaders” ask if he isn’t really a traitor to be prosecuted rather than an information liberator to be hailed. The host of the “Meet The Press” program even asked Glenn Greenwald, who has been reporting on the story, “Why shouldn’t you be in jail.” 

Media insiders in high places tend to be deferential and protective of government officials and detest rebels. They are part of the establishment, not critics of it. 

Clearly these two stories are very different, but there are some parallels that almost no one in the media has commented on. 

Both men are heroes to those who believe in freedom—the right to be free from racist laws in one case, and onerous spying in another. 

Both men stood up against the powers to be. One was prosecuted and jailed; the other soon may be. 

One was a radical movement and political liberation fighter. The other is more the loner and electronic liberation guerrilla, but also seen as part of a loose anarchistic affinity network that includes Bradley Manning, Wikileaks, Anonymous and many politically-conscious hactivists. 

We can’t forget that Mandela was branded a terrorist for years, and hidden from media view. He was tried for treason, and acquitted in a widely condemned trial in an apartheid era Court that, in retrospect, may have been fairer than the ones Manning and his band of brothers faces. 

Snowden has now been denounced for treason and is now in the media eye but also the target of top politicians and the media sycophants that take them seriously and who question his motives and impact. 

In both cases, their two examples excite admirers who shower them with praise for a gutsy defense of liberty. 

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma—who has, in many ways, betrayed Mandela’s moral mandates–nevertheless says his country not only admires him but needs him: 

"We need him to be with us,” he said. "We are all feeling it, that our president, the real father of democracy in South Africa is in the hospital.” Snowden’s followers seem to be expressing a similar need for someone like the crafty Snowden to challenge Big Brother. 

What many in the media chose not to remind us is that South Africa’s “real father of democracy” was actually caught and imprisoned, thanks to a tip from the very forces Snowden is fighting. 

It was the CIA that had been tracking Mandela — with the less sophisticated surveillance technologies available then — and who tipped South Africa’s secret police as to his whereabouts. 

A June 10, 1990, New York Times report “quoted an unidentified retired official who said that a senior CIA officer told him shortly after Mr. Mandela’s arrest, ‘We have turned Mandela over to the South African security branch. We gave them every detail, what he would be wearing, the time of day, just where he would be.’” 

AP quoted Paul Eckel, then a senior CIA operative, as boasting that Mandela’s capture “was one of our greatest coups.” There were some earlier press reports in the 80’s about this CIA role too but they never triggered the scandal they should have. 

Somehow, it was considered acceptable then that a secret US agency was in collusion with a white racist state battling freedom fighters. 

This is a connection between Snowden and Mandela that may explain why American “intelligence” tends so often to be on the wrong side, or maybe just is the wrong side. Clearly our intelligence overlords had as their priority then what they do today: the protection of the global status quo. 

More recently, cables released by Wikileaks published by five leading newspapers worldwide exposed private conversations with Mandela about his desire to meet Margaret Thatcher and correct her attitudes towards the South African struggle. 

Another released cable exposed plans by then State President F.W. Deklerk to free Mandela—before those plans were made public.

Clearly we were spying on them but again, the US seems to have been protecting the guardians of white power. 

Now the tables seem to have turned — at least in some respects, because of the courage of whistleblowers who took on a government committed to massive spying.

Despite his many detractors in the intelligence ‘business,’ and its supporters in Congress and rationalizers in the press, Snowden’s actions seems to have turned him into a popular figure, writes Gary Stamper: 

“Edward Snowden…is coming across as the all-American hero according to a poll today that showed 70% support for him and his actions with the American public. Compare that with the popularity of Congress who is mostly calling for Snowden’s Bradley Manning moment. If he continues to elude the CIA and American Security Apparatus can’t catch him soon, his stock will soar as Americans pretty much love a heroic underdog. 

“One of the reporters from the Guardian newspaper who arranged with Snowden to meet in Hong Kong for interviews told the Associated Press that he had been contacted by “countless people” offering to pay for “anything [Snowden] might need.” 

The 94-year-old Mandela and the 29-year-old Snowden come from different parts of the world and fought differently in different eras. 

Already, Congressman Ron Paul, the libertarian who Snowden supported with a campaign donation is fearing for his life, saying, “I'm worried about, somebody in our government might kill him with a cruise missile or a drone missile… we live in a bad time where American citizens don't even have rights and that they can be killed, but the gentlemen is trying to tell the truth about what's going on." 

The while world is watching as Snowden so far eludes capture; Mandela, when underground, had been branded the “Black Pimpernel” when he avoided capture until the CIA turned him in. 

Today, millions of Mandela’s supporters are bracing for the end of his life because of his age and an infirmity he contracted in prison. 

He is a political genius, fortunately, with good genes that allowed him to live long enough to complete what he called his ‘long walk to freedom.’ He has written that that journey is not over for South Africa, even though it may be ending for him. 

Snowden knows his travails may just be starting as he becomes an international outlaw, but one with access to secrets that the powerful want to keep secret. He faces many challenges to stay one step ahead of his pursuers who are indignant because he has so far outmaneuvered them. 

Mandela not only has heath issues but also a family revolt on his hands with two daughters suing his lawyer and close friend who are administering a trust that he set up, looking for money for themselves. 

What is widely perceived as their greed is evidence of how the values Mandela fought fore are being corrupted in the new South Africa. When he was more politically active Mandela spoke out against this betrayal of the struggle that was his life. 

Snowden’s stance grew out of his sense that the public was being abused by the rise of a technocratic and out of control surveillance leviathan. 

In their own ways, and in their own times, both Mandela (whose exploits will be featured in a major motion picture, out this fall) and Snowden have seized the public imagination. 

Both are Rebels of Our Times. Both were denounced and denigrated for opposing governmental abuse, and yet remain widely respected and admired. 

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org and blogs at Newsdissector.net. He has made 7 documentaries about Mandela., and in the 1960’s was spied on by the FBI, CIA and NSA. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

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