Since last week, news of the passing of anti-Apartheid revolutionary and former South African president Nelson Mandela has elicited a wave of sympathy and condolence from around the world. Rightly so; Mandela was a man of uncommon conviction and courage, a man who was prepared to sacrifice his own freedom for the advancement of his people. And importantly, he appreciated the crucial difference between legality and moral righteousness.
Overall, Mandela’s legacy is extraordinary, and unambiguously positive. But as is often the case when a legendary figure departs this world, eulogies in his honour have frequently wandered into the realms of hyperbole and revisionism. Though Mandela presided over the official disintegration of the apartheid system, the political and socioeconomic order that followed (due in part to factors beyond his control) was one in which the balance of power and ownership remained largely in the hands of transnational corporations, and South Africans of European extraction. The struggle for a more genuine racial and class equality in South Africa, along with enhanced labour rights and freedoms, continues to this day.
In contrast to many of the anodyne media portrayals of Mandela as a sort of cuddly pacifist, he was in fact a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) in 1961, a militant arm of the African National Congress that carried out acts of sabotage, destruction, and violence against the infrastructure of the apartheid state. It was due to his involvement in this guerilla force that Mandela was incarcerated by state authorities from 1962 to 1988; for the same reason, his name appeared on the U.S. terror watch list until 2008. Prominent Western leaders, among them Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, condemned Mandela as a terrorist in the 1980s.
The encomiums certain Western elected officials have heaped on Mandela have vexed me, for a couple of reasons. First, their tributes to Mandela have the appearance of a public relations manouevre; their soaring rhetoric strikes me as perfunctory, aimed mainly at observing the consensus among their respective electorates, in their own political interest. Second, and even more glaring, some of these political actors have evidently failed to grasp the principle behind Mandela’s efforts, rather than merely pay homage to his celebrity.
Apartheid replicated in the Middle East?
“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” Mandela once famously proclaimed. He viewed the divisions in the Holy Land as an analogue of the bantustans and repressive measures under apartheid, and his African National Congress allied itself consistently with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO, now the Palestinian Authority [PA]) under Yasser Arafat. Mandela also offered his services as a moderator between Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ezer Weizman in 1994, an offer he extended again in 1999, but one that Israel rebuffed.
In the years hence, increasingly nationalistic and hard-line elements have risen to authority in the Israeli government. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, perceived by some as a moderate relative to his more reactionary colleagues (like Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman), has nonetheless presided over a raft of discriminatory legislation aimed at preserving, or in some cases enhancing, the Jewish demographic majority in Israel, including campaigns of “Judaization” in the Galilee and the Negev Desert. As peace talks between the PA and Israel, moderated by the United States (obviously not a neutral third party), have carried on bootlessly, Netanyahu has continued to approve the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, activities that violate the Geneva Conventions, according to a U.N. panel’s ruling in January of 2013. In addition, Israel is continuing a protracted and sadistic siege of the Gaza Strip, with no end in sight, and has ordered several violent incursions into the benighted Arab conurbation—among them the devastating Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, and Operation Pillar of Cloud in 2012.
Israel justifies its military incursions on the basis of self-defence, although such a proposition naturally prompts the question of “Who started it?”, the answer to which varies depending on when one considers the Israel-Palestine conflict to have officially begun. Explosive rockets launched from Gazan territory into Israel constitute an act of belligerence whose perpetrators should be held accountable. But violence on a massive scale is only likely to beget more violence, and as long as Israel’s campaigns of expulsion, separation, annexation, siege and mass slaughter of civilians occur, in violation of international law, discord will continue to plague the region and imperil civilians.
Netanyahu, Harper, Obama praise Mandela while defending Israeli policies
When PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu both saluted Mandela, some members of the Western news media proclaimed it as a sign of the profound respect for Mandela that prevails, even among adversaries in conflict. This interpretation, though partly correct, is misleading; since the signing of the Oslo Accord, the PA has frequently served as a collaborator with Israeli authorities rather than an antagonist. Further, the words of staunch zionist Netanyahu are more than slightly disingenous; Israel was an ally of South Africa’s apartheid regime, and its current president, Shimon Peres (who also mourned Mandela’s passing mere days ago), was one of several Israeli officials who assisted the white supremacist state with the development of nuclear technology in the 1970s.
Suspiciously, but perhaps revealingly, Netanyahu, who lauded Mandela as “a man of vision,” the “father of his nation” and a “highly important moral leader” on his Facebook page last Thursday, has since announced that he will not make the trip to South Africa to attend Mandela’s funeral, citing concerns over travel costs.
Following his release from prison, Mandela maintained that he would never forget Israeli collaboration with the apartheid regime, but that he was willing to move forward. Indeed, there comes a time when we all must let bygones be bygones. But Israel has demonstrated, rather unequivocally, that its present actions and policies are inconsistent with the spirit of Mandela’s mission. The words of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and U.S. President Barack Obama, among other Mandela-mourners who implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) support the zionist state’s neo-apartheid policies, ring utterly hollow in light of this troubling moral inconsistency.
I’ll conclude with a thought experiment. Imagine a young Arab rebel who attempted to resist Israeli occupation by targeting state infrastructure with violent attacks. Now, imagine the reaction that would attend such a defiant individual from the aforementioned leaders who now praise Mandela so fervently.
How likely is it that Netanyahu, Peres, Harper or Obama would lavish a person fitting that description with praise—as a freedom fighter, a man of vision, and a moral exemplar?