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South Africans Bristle Over Alleged Trump Comments on Mandela

FILE - In this March 27, 1998 file photo, Nelson Mandela and former US president Bill Clinton look to the outside from Mandela's Robben Island prison cell in Cape Town, South Africa.
FILE - In this March 27, 1998 file photo, Nelson Mandela and former US president Bill Clinton look to the outside from Mandela's Robben Island prison cell in Cape Town, South Africa.

South Africans are angry about comments that U.S. President Donald Trump allegedly made in private about South African icon Nelson Mandela, the nation’s first black president and Nobel Peace laureate.

The alleged comments -- which Trump denies -- are full of profanity and include Trump saying of Mandela, “he was no leader,” and are part of a tell-all book by indicted former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.

President Trump’s alleged comments about South African icon Nelson Mandela are ruffling feathers in the Rainbow Nation, with the beloved leader’s grandson sharply criticizing Trump for his leadership and with ordinary South Africans clamoring to the defense of the leader many here simply call Tata, or father.

Trump’s comments, as put forward in a book by his former lawyer Michael Cohen, were reported by American media over the weekend and were strongly denied by the White House. Cohen was convicted in 2018 of a slew of charges including campaign-finance violations, tax crimes and making false statements.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany issued a statement over the weekend that said Cohen lacked credibility and noted he was a disgraced felon found guilty of lying to Congress.

According to the book, Trump said shortly after Mandela’s 2013 death that the former South African president was “no leader.” The other reported comments include an expletive Trump has allegedly used to describe African countries, plus slurs against Black people.

Mandela’s grandson Ndaba Mandela spoke exclusively to VOA on Google Hangouts shortly after the comments began to spread through South African news.

“Donald Trump is the last person to speak about Nelson Mandela, or about leadership. Because he needs to look at the failure of his own leadership, because America is currently burning right now. You know, there have been several Black Lives Matter movements across the country where people have been rioting, people have been burning, stores and you name it and protest after continuous killing of black people by their police,” he said.

The Mandela Foundation, in a statement this week, said, “we do not believe that leaders who conduct themselves in the way Mr. Trump does are in a position to offer authoritative commentary on (Mandela’s) life and work.”

The ruling African National Congress party also issued statement on the alleged comments, saying on Tuesday “All freedom-loving people of the world are appalled by these insults which come from a person who, himself, is not a model of competent leadership.”

Mandela received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the racist apartheid system and ushering South Africa into a peaceful new era. In South Africa, he is universally loved and ever-present: since 2012, his face has appeared on all of the nation’s money.

Mandela said that to his knowledge, his grandfather did not have a relationship with Trump, and did not speak of him.

“When you attack, Nelson Mandela, for me, that says that you clearly do not see or value the very same principles and values that the people that we see as progressive in this world, who are trying to create a much more united world -- that you are not really such a person who has those same values. You know, we see him as a person who has actually created disparity and even division, not only in America, but influenced the cohesion of the global community.”

Trump has publicly made comments about South Africa before, tweeting a week after Mandela’s death that the nation was a ‘crime-ridden mess ready to explode.’

VOA approached dozens of people in three locations in Johannesburg. Many did not want to speak about Trump, but those who did were invariably critical of the American president.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has not publicly responded to the alleged comments.

U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks, a Trump appointee, said in a statement that she had discussed South Africa numerous times with the president, and “he has only ever spoken positively about the country.”