Before lobbying scandals, Abramoff group had hand in apartheid wars

Danny Schechter
Published: February 15, 2006

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Lobbyist tied to group supporting apartheid South Africa; Spokesman vehemently denies

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 codenamed "Pacman."

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 to come.)

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 advancing.

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 $2.5 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 apartheid government.

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 positions.


"News Dissector" Danny Schechter edits He was the Executive Producer of the public television series "South Africa Now" and helped produce the Sun City album with 54 top musicians. Comments to [email protected].


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