Lobbyist tied to group supporting apartheid South Africa; Spokesman
Picture the scene.
It was a quiet night in June 1985 in the equatorial heat of Jamba, a small
town in the heartland of Angola, the oil and diamond-rich African nation that
was divided by a bloody civil war for 30 years. Jamba at the time was a base
for Jonas Savimbi's UNITA movement, a tribal secessionist army bizarrely funded
by Communist China and the CIA at the same time.
A top-secret meeting was then underway between Savimbi and his boosters, led by
a young American Republican activist named Jack Abramoff. He was there representing
an organization he founded, the International Freedom Foundation. The group was
Also present, a South African newspaper
reports, "Leaders of the Afghan mujahedin, Nicaraguan contras, Laotian
guerrillas and members of the Oliver North American right."
UNITA's strongman, the late Jonas Savimbi, who fancied calling himself Dr.
Savimbi, was a masterful guerilla fighter who became the darling of the American
right wing as it rallied to the cause of UNITA's main ally, racist South Africa.
Conservatives dubbed him a freedom fighter, heralding him as their Che Guevara.
In the end 600,000 people, mostly civilians would die in this bloody conflict,
many as a result of atrocities perpetuated by UNITA.
Abramoff's trip to Angola had been paid for by right-wing New York financier
Lewis Lehrman as part of an effort to create a global anti-communist alliance.
(Lehrman later fired Abramoff, who would go on to become the most notorious
lobbyist in America, for inflating his expense reports, a portent of practices
Abramoff, an ultra-orthodox Jew recalled an incident when he left the meeting
to pray in the bush. "When I went out to pray," he would later write,
they thought he was a "mystic."
There was nothing mystical about the U.S. policies Abramoff was then covertly
Savimbi was invited by President Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1986,
where Reagan spoke
of UNITA winning "a victory that electrifies the world." The African
strongman was also supported by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which
sent analysts to to visit with Savimbi in his clandestine Angolan camps. They
also offered the rebel leader political and military guidance
in his war against the Marxist Angolan government.
Savimbi's U.S.-based supporters ultimately convinced the CIA to covertly channel
weapons to Savimbi's war, which kindled the conflict.
This early period in Abramoff's career has been largely ignored in most of
the American media. It was the period in which he began building relations with
tribal people, a practice he would parlay into serving as a very well-compensated
lobbyist for American Indian tribes in the lucrative gambling industry.
His fascination with Africa would lead to a lobbying contract for the Congo's
Mobutu Seso Seko, a Savimbi supporter and then the richest and most corrupt
dictator on the continent. Mobutu's critics charged he ran a "kleptocracy"
-- government by thieves -- based on the violent suppression of human rights
while Abramoff represented him.
Abramoff would later be accused of becoming a kleptocrat in his own right.
South African training ground
Apartheid South Africa offered Abramoff the chance to make a big name and big
money. At that time, the country was rocked by uprisings in the townships and
challenged by the artists who backed a cultural boycott of South Africa's "Sun
City," the top gambling resort and entertainment venue. South Africa's
apartheid's rulers decided to fight back against the likes of activists like
singer Little Steven Van Zandt by channeling state funds into media projects
they could later deny they were linked with.
Jack Abramoff had first visited South Africa in 1983, as head of the College
Republican National Committee (CRNC). South Africa's Mail and Guardian reported
on the International Freedom Foundation on February 10, 2006: "The IFF
was officially headquartered in Washington, where the South Africans were given
entrance into the American political establishment by Abramoff and the Young
Republicans. But, it was effectively run from Johannesburg. Newsday reported
that the Johannesburg office was "the nerve centre of IFF operations worldwide."
In 1995, South Africa's Truth Commission revealed that the apartheid regime
helped launch the IFF, funneling it $1.5 million a year to allay "image
problems" and to smear Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.
Abramoff enlisted in South Africa's cultural war and suddenly found himself
sitting pretty as the head of a Hollywood movie studio called Regency Enterprises.
The idea was to make anti-communist films that could denigrate the anti-apartheid
movement. Jack became a credited screenwriter.
The movie was "Red Scorpion" starring the very Aryan-looking Dolph
Lundgren. It pictured African liberation fighters as surrogates for Soviet totalitarians.
The plot: "A Russian KGB agent is sent to Africa to kill an anti-Communist
black revolutionary." The tagline: "He's a human killing machine.
Taught to stalk. Trained to kill. Programmed to destroy. He's played by their
rules... Until now."
Abramoff's African work was now on the big screen.
The movie, made in South African-occupied Namibia, was denounced by Hollywood
supporters of the cultural boycott like Martin Scorcese, Spike Lee and Robert
DeNiro for supporting apartheid. Other critics called it "homoerotic"
and overpatriotic." Abramoff later was executive producer of a sequel,
Red Scorpion 2.
Anti-communist movie 'got apartheid funds'
For years, Abramoff publicly
denied South African financing, but on January 24, 2006, the Mail &
Guardian quoted one-time apartheid spy Craig Williamson as now admitting that
the money came directly from the South African military.
Wrote the Mail & Guardian, "Among Abramoff's South African projects
was the anti-communist film Red Scorpion, made in South African-occupied Namibia
and, according to Williamson, funded by the South African military."
Why the military? The newspaper reveals:
"The IFF was ostensibly founded as a conservative think-tank, but was in
reality part of an elaborate South African military intelligence operation,
code-named Operation Babushka. Established to combat sanctions and undermine
the African National Congress, it also supported Jonas Savimbi and his rebel
Angolan movement, Unita."
The movie was modeled romantically on Savimbi's "War for Freedom"
but was also riddled with stereotypes and crude propaganda.
Sample exchange: "Colonel Zayas: Are you out of your mind?"
"Lt. Nikolai: No. Just out of bullets. [Burps]."
Through his connections, Abramoff procured a Soviet-made WWII-era T-34 tank
with a 76mm cannon for the final battle sequence.
An amateur reviewer posted an insightful comment
on a film website which may have foreseen the off-screen drama that Abramoff
himself is now starring in. "Looking beyond the mindless action scenes
(which, despite the countless guns and explosions), there is a good fable about
the possibility of manipulating truth, and how appearance is not always truth."
Spokesman calls claims of apartheid support 'defamatory'
IFF sought to destabilize the African National Congress and took up the cause
of discrediting Nelson Mandela. The African National Congress leader's freedom
was demanded by millions at the time, with the exception of politicians like
then-Congressman Dick Cheney, who voted against a Congressional resolution calling
for Mandela's release from prison. (Cheney also opposed overturning Ronald Reagan's
ban on sanctions against South Africa, a ban Jack Abramoff personally worked
in Hollywood to support as a Pretoria-funded agent.)
Andrew Blum, a spokesman for Abramoff, denied that Abramoff had ever supported
apartheid and called any such implications "false and defamatory."
"It is untrue that Jack Abramoff ever supported apartheid," Blum
said in an email to RAW STORY. "As the
media at the time reflected, Mr. Abramoff's involvement in the Washington office
of IFF occured in the mid-1980s, was short-lived, and was when IFF came out
against apartheid and for the release of Nelson Mandella. In fact, Mr. Abramoff
was criticized at the time in pro-South African governmentcircles for these
positions. Mr. Abramoff did no work to advance the agenda of the South African
He added, "Mr. Abramoff's anti-apartheid positions were clear and never
contradicted in any forum. Any suggestion, implication or reporting that Mr.
Abramoff was ever pro-apartheid or working for the interests of the South African
government are false and defamatory."
Abramoff's spokesman and a second individual at the lobbyist's lawyer's office
did not reply to a second inquiry seeking examples of Abramoff's anti-apartheid