Over the next two weeks tributes to the life and struggle of Nelson Mandela will continue to cascade on every media platform. All will no doubt be united on the fact that he was unquestionably a global figure. Like the people of South Africa, Palestinians across the political divide will remember him for his support and exemplary conduct as a liberation fighter.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmud Abbas has already said that Mr Mandela was “a symbol of the liberation from colonialism and occupation”, adding that the Palestinian people will never forget his historic statement that the South African revolution will not have achieved its goals as long as the Palestinians are not free.
Calling Mandela a “great freedom fighter”, senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk also described the late South African president as “one of the world’s most important symbols of freedom and one of the biggest supporters of our cause.”
Toward the end of his illustrious life Mandala did not conceal his sadness over the maltreatment of the Palestinian people. His biographer Anthony Sampson recalled that Mandela “was increasingly opposed to Israeli policies towards Palestinians – like many of his Jewish colleagues in the ANC.”
Mandela was apparently appalled by the manner in which the US government of George W Bush had turned a blind eye to Israeli transgressions. He famously described Bush’s pro-Israel advisers Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as “dinosaurs who do not want him to belong to the modern age”.
In its tribute to the great man, the Embassy of the State of Palestine in Pretoria recalled his famous comment: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.
Mandela met the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on many occasions and when he received the news of his passing he said, “Yasser Arafat was one of the outstanding freedom fighters of this generation, one who gave his entire life to the cause of the Palestinian people.” He expressed his own “great sadness” that Arafat’s and his people’s “dream of a Palestinian state had not yet been realised.”
Nelson Mandela knew racism when he saw it and was never afraid to denounce it, whenever and wherever it occurred. He criticised both America and Britain for their racist attitudes towards Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion, pointing out that they did not criticise Israel for having weapons of mass destruction, because Israelis were seen as “white”, while Iraqis were seen as “black”.
With his sad passing there is universal consensus that in as much as he loved freedom and equal opportunity for all South Africans, regardless of race, he also loved the same for everyone else. He lived and died for a world free of oppression and racial domination. To him, it was equally reprehensible for Afrikaners to dress up their ideology of racial supremacy in the garb of religious Puritanism as the Zionists in Palestine, hiding behind every possible claim of “God-given right”. Mandela’s humanity instilled in him the conviction that no God and no religion could ever countenance injustice and racial domination.
If the tributes of affection and respect for Mandela are to have any real meaning on this sad occasion, those who express them must abandon their narrow prejudices and support for Israeli racism in Palestine. Just as apartheid was morally wrong and indefensible in South Africa, the Israeli version is equally unacceptable in Palestine. There is simply no place for apartheid in any shape or form in the 21st century.
That Palestinians are the victims of an apartheid system needs no explanation. The evidence of the South Africans who have visited Palestine is sufficient testimony. Writing under the title Apartheid in the Holy Land, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the long-time compatriot of Mandela said, “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; 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.”
Earlier this year Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada, who spent 26 years as a political prisoner – 18 of them on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and was awarded the African National Congress’s highest possible accolade, wrote in a letter to American actor Morgan Freeman, “Israel is indeed an apartheid state. And in certain respects it is worse than apartheid.”
Nelson Mandela has left many legacies for Palestine. Perhaps the greatest of all is that of national unity. He was never provoked or drawn into a bloody civil conflict with the Zulu leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi in the early 1990s. In the context of what is described as “negotiations” between the PLO/PA and Israel there is also a lesson; to the very end, Mandela held the position that only free men can negotiate. The PLO/PA leadership may not be behind bars but they have lost the ability to make free and independent political decisions and in this sense they are not free. Threatened, bullied and blackmailed at every turn by Western donors they have been rendered incapable of negotiating a dignified settlement for their people, as Mandela did for his. If we learn nothing else from the legacy of Nelson Mandela but this, perhaps there could be real progress towards peace, freedom and justice for the people of Palestine.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.