On Nelson Mandela Day Ronan Burtenshaw examines the anti-apartheid hero’s connections with Palestine and asks what his legacy would demand of us as Israel steps up its assault on Gaza.
The sight of world leaders whose governments had enthusiastically supported apartheid South Africa at December’s funeral services should caution us to prepare for a day evacuated of any real meaning. In death Mandela was recuperated by the powerful – stripped of radicalism and transformed into apple pie for right-wing politicians. As Connolly said of Wolfe Tone, “he was crucified in life, now he is idolised in death, and the men who push forward most arrogantly to burn incense at the altar of his fame are drawn from the very class who, were he alive to-day, would hasten to repudiate him as a dangerous malcontent.”
Nelson Mandela was, after all, not removed from the US’terrorism list until 2008. He was imprisoned in 1963 because of his involvement with the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and led a prolonged struggle against colonialism in Africa.
On the day we are encouraged to follow in Madiba’s footsteps to “change the world for the better”, Israel has launched a major escalation of its assault on Gaza – with tanks and troops joining a ground invasion overnight. So, we should ask the questions political leaders across the west will be studiously avoiding – what did Nelson Mandela say about the situation in the Middle East? And what would living up to his legacy on this issue mean?
Nelson Mandela was, during his life, a firm supporter of the Palestinian cause, allying his African National Congress (ANC) with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and saying they were“like us, fighting against a unique form of colonialism.”
In 1990, during his first trip to America after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela appeared on ABC with Ted Koppel to conduct a townhall-style interview. It took place a full four years before the election that propelled him to the presidency of South Africa, when the apartheid government remained in power.
In the interview Mandela was confronted with questions about his support for the Palestinian liberation struggle by the host and two other pro-Israeli audience members. He was labelled a “hypocrite” and “amoral”. Koppel warned him that this support jeopardised the anti-apartheid struggle, saying: “if you were more political you might have been more concerned about alienating some people in this country who have it within their hands, within their power, either to continue sanctions against South Africa or to raise those sanctions”.
Despite this pressure, Nelson Mandela remained unequivocal. The ANC “identify with the PLO because, just like us, they are fighting for the right to self determination.” Yasser Arafat was a “comrade in arms”. He concluded that “anyone who changes his principles depending on who he is facing… is not a man who can lead a nation.”
Seven years later, after his election to the South African presidency, Mandela spoke in Pretoria on the occasion of a different UN celebration – the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Speaking of the “injustice and gross human rights violations being perpetrated in Palestine, he added that “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
As recently as 1999 Mandela stood in Gaza and addressed Palestinians, expressing solidarity with their liberation struggle and demanding that Israel return the land it has occupied since 1967. “The histories of our two peoples, Palestinian and South African, correspond in such painful and poignant ways,” he said, “that I intensely feel myself being at home amongst compatriots.”
Unsurprisingly, Israel has a deeply nasty record in South Africa. In the 1970s, when the global movement against white supremacy was building, the Israelis brokered a deal to sell the apartheid regime nuclear weapons. Although this deal eventually collapsed it is very likely that Israel did collaborate with South Africa in the construction of nuclear weapons some years later and it extensively supported the apartheid regime throughout its existence. The man who conducted much of these affairs for the Israelis was Shimon Peres, the current President.
Despite this, Mandela was supportive of a two-state solution, the prospects of which are dwindling as Israel colonises ever-greater expanses of the West Bank and east Jerusalem. He never described Israel as an apartheid state, although he did not explicitly reject this description. In his later years his words were measured as he threw his support behind the only peace settlement he felt was available.
Many of his comrades in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa went further. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been drawing comparisons between the situation in Israel/Palestine and apartheid South Africa for the past decade, famously saying that it “reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about. Many South Africans are beginning to recognise the parallels to what we went through.”
Farid Esack, Mandela’s gender equity commissioner, Ronnie Kasrils, a member of the ANC’s executive for twenty years, Denis Golberg, a Jewish-South African sentenced to life imprisonment with Mandela, and Nelson’s former wife Winnie all endorse the use of the term apartheid and direct comparisons between the two struggles. Willie Madisha, the President of the South African Congress of Trade Unions, articulated this most clearly, “as someone who lived in apartheid South Africa and who has visited Palestine I say with confidence that Israel is an apartheid state. In fact, I believe that some of the atrocities committed against the South Africans by the erstwhile apartheid regime in South Africa pale in comparison to those committed against the Palestinians.”
Palestinians in the West Bank continue to live under occupation, with their lands being stolen and their everyday lives controlled by separation walls, checkpoints and hostile security forces. In Israel itself Palestinians are denied equal rights to land and housing, discriminated against in employment and education and even subject to disparities in marriage rights. In Gaza they have been blockaded for seven years, impoverished, their economy destroyed and are periodically subject to massacres. And many of Palestine’s six million refugees continue to live in camps – such as Yarmouk Camp in Syria where 112,000 people live in a state the UN describes as “complete deprivation”.
On Mandela Day, if we were to take the injunction to follow in Madiba’s footsteps seriously, if we were to heed the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the ANC, and if we were to commit to achieving justice for oppressed peoples, we would join the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Such are the odds stacked against the Palestinians that they cannot win their battle for liberation alone. They need decisive international solidarity with their cause – of the kind the Palestinians consistently gave the ANC. And, as the South African struggle proved, supporting a boycott campaign is the best way to do this.
Fifteen years ago Nelson Mandela stood in Gaza and proclaimed his solidarity with the struggle of a people he regarded as “brothers and sisters”. It is long past time that a state that massacres more than fifty of their children today for the crime of being Palestinian is isolated by the international community.