The death of South African liberation icon Nelson Mandela last night has brought in floods of well-deserved tributes. But the hypocrisy of many of these, often from the very same politicians who formerly denounced him a “terrorist,” seems to know no bounds.
The mythology that has grown up around Mandela over the decades in the west has sought to de-politicise and disarm him and his history of struggle.
It is too easy to forget now that Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1963 precisely because he helped form the armed wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe. In fact, he was not removed from the US “terror” watch list until 2008, and had to be granted special exceptions when he travelled to there.
In his June 1961 Letter From Underground, Mandela wrote: “Only through hardship, sacrifice, and militant action can freedom be won. The struggle is my life.”
Margaret Thatcher, who Mandela thankfully outlived, denounced Mandela’s ANC as a “typical terrorist organization”. The British and American governments backed apartheid South Africa until the end.
Although Mandela is famous for pursuing peaceful negotiations with the white supremacist regime, he never renounced the right to use violence. Crucially, he only entered negotiations with the white regime when it was already being defeated. These are two crucial differences with the Oslo accords: Israel’s apartheid system was never dealt a deadly blow, and Arafat renounced the use of “terrorism”.
Another aspect of Mandela’s legacy often buried by the mainstream press is his support for the Palestinian struggle.
The ANC was a national liberation movement. In that era, revolutionary freedom fighters looked not to placating the west, but to each other as they built not only rhetorical, but very real material links.
Mandela visited the revolutionary leaders of Algeria in 1962, he built links with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
A video copy of a 1990 televised town hall meeting with Mandela in New York was uploaded to YouTube earlier this year and was being shared on social networks last night, as the news of Mandela’s death broke. There are many interesting aspects of this historical footage.
It took place only a few months after Mandela’s release from prison. Democratic elections were still four years away, and the apartheid regime was still very much in power.
Although the audience is clearly loaded with Mandela’s supporters and fans, a large part of the conversation was taken up by supporters of Israel who challenge Mandela: mainly on his support for the Palestine Liberation Organization leader. This is then manufactured as a “controversial” aspect of ANC policy.
There are references to private meetings that Mandela held with “Jewish leaders”. It is clear from the programme that Mandela was coming under massive amounts of pressure to cut ties to Arafat and denounce him.
Pro-Israel lobbyists were clearly making veiled and not-so-veiled threats about using their claimed influence to pressure Congress to end sanctions on the then-still-existing South African apartheid regime. Indeed the anchor of the show, ABC’s Ted Koppel pressed just this point: “If you were very political you might have been more concerned about not alienating some people in this country who have it in their hands, within their power, either to continue sanctions against South Africa or to raise them.”
But Mandela stood firm: “We identify with the PLO, because just like ourselves they are fighting for the right of self determination.”
His position was not particularly radical: he also expressed support for a two state solution, while being adamant that Israel must leave the West Bank, Gaza and Syria’s Golan Heights. Despite several challenges he concluded: “Arafat is a comrade in arms, and we treat him as such.”
Remember that at this time, Arafat had not yet made the grave mistake of signing the sell-out Oslo accords and was still regarded in the west, particularly in America as an arch-terrorist. Mandela was in a tough position in the US, Israel’s number-one supporter, but stood firm.
In 1999, he toured the Middle East, visiting Palestine. In Gaza he closely identified the South African struggle for freedom with the Palestinian struggle: “The histories of our two peoples, Palestinian and South African, correspond in such painful and poignant ways, that I intensely feel myself being at home amongst compatriots … The long-standing fraternal bonds between our two liberation movements are now translating into the relations between two governments.”
It’s clear that Mandela was over-optimistic to hope the Palestinian Authority would develop into a genuine free or democratic government. There are also genuine criticisms to be made of his legacy in South Africa: structural economic apartheid still exists for the vast majority of the black population.
But looking back on Mandela’s revolutionary past now is a reminder of another era. Of a time when the Palestinian struggle inspired and was inspired by revolutionary liberation movements around the world.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.