Madiba in Palestine


Nelson Mandela’s death has produced both an outpouring of international solidarity, remembrance, and celebration commemorating Madiba’s leadership in defeating apartheid in South Africa. It has also generated a wave of historical revision and mythmaking—the sort of thing we’ve come to expect when radicals become icons. Mainstream media outlets and statesmen who had only a few years earlier heaped opprobrium on Mr. Mandela, eulogized him not for his commitment to the African National Congress’s unrelenting struggle against the apartheid system, but rather for forgiving his oppressors. In other words, Mandela was great because he transcended race – he chose not to “hate.” Of course, “hate” is far-removed from the politics of the ANC, a non-racial organization open to all committed to democracy.

The magic wand of mass media has transformed what was a potent international boycott of South African products and all firms doing with business with the apartheid regime into a slogan: Free Nelson Mandela. Yet again, a broader social movement to overthrow a racist, oppressive regime is individualized as being about one exceptional figure. The boycott, a global, non-violent movement conducted in solidarity with the disenfranchised, dispossessed, and subjugated people of South Africa, was organized to pressure the South African regime to abide by international law and dismantle apartheid. And it succeeded.

Rather than participate in this mythmaking and what Cornel West calls the “Santa Claus-ification” of the man who was only removed from the U.S. Terrorist Watch list in 2008, let us reflect on Mandela’s transition as an occasion to remember not only his understanding and advocacy of boycotts as a strategy of resistance, but also his unwavering support of the Palestinian right to self-determination.

Shortly after being released from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela met Yasser Arafat in Zambia. He embraced the Palestinian leader as a “fellow freedom fighter.” On a trip to Australia in October 1990, Mandela referred to Israel as a “terrorist state,” which is perhaps not surprising since Israel “provided expertise and technology that was central to [apartheid] South Africa’s development of its nuclear bombs.” Israel’s illegal occupation also made it something of a rogue state in Mandela’s view. In 1990 he told a Los Angeles Times reporter that “the boundaries of Israel should not include the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or the Golan heights,” and “we [the ANC] identify with the PLO because, just like us, they are fighting for the right to self-determination.” Not surprisingly, Mandela was roundly criticized for his support of the PLO and dismissed as a terrorist himself. A decade later he explained to Larry King, “I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists.”

While Mandela never publicly characterized Israel as an apartheid state and waxed enthusiastically about the Oslo peace accords, he always conceived of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood as a global movement, a struggle that demanded the kind of international solidarity the ANC and the United Democratic Front enjoyed in South Africa. In his address at the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, delivered in Pretoria on December 4, 1997, he cautioned just how easy it was to “fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others face. . . . But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” In an address delivered a year later, Mandela reminded the world that solidarity cut both ways: “South Africans drew courage and strength from the support so generously given by the Palestinian people even though they themselves lacked freedom…South Africans have a duty to lend a supportive hand to others seeking justice and equality.”


Palestinians against Apartheid poster circa 1980, by artist Abdul Hay Musallam.

The profound political ties between Palestinians and South Africans are quite strong—matched, perhaps, only by the deep connections to the black freedom movement in the U.S. Madiba’s death has generated an outpouring of mourning and remembrance from Palestinian activists. Marwan Barghouti, who has often been referred to as the “Palestinian Mandela,” wrote the following words about Madiba from his prison cell: “I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours. Apartheid did not prevail in South Africa, and Apartheid shall not prevail in Palestine.” Reflecting on his experience growing up in a refugee camp in Gaza, Ramzy Baroud wrote, “To be a Palestinian, especially a Palestinian refugee, was in many ways to be a black South African.” Magid Shihade, faculty member at the Institute for International Studies at Birzeit University in Ramallah, recalls an unforgettable experience of hearing Mandela speak in Seattle during the late 1990s. “American leaders,” Mandela told the crowd, “wanted me always to distance myself from my politics, from people who stood next to me and support me when we were struggling against Apartheid. They want me to distance myself from Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi. Well, these are the people who stood with us. It was not you, and who are you to tell who to be friends with.” Years later, Shihade recalls meeting the first Colored South African ambassador in Ramallah: “He told me that before arriving to his post, Mandela told him: ‘This is not any typical diplomatic post. The Palestinian cause is our cause. Arafat is a dear friend of mine. He helped my family financially for over 20 years while I was in prison. Please go to Palestine not just an ambassador, but as an ally.’”

Under Mandela’s presidency, the South African government tried to be an ally, maintaining full diplomatic relations with the “State of Palestine” and providing technical assistance in a variety of areas—from Disaster Management to “women’s empowerment.” But it was an exceedingly difficult position for Madiba since recognition of the occupied territories as a “state” without real sovereignty veered closely to a policy he staunchly rejected: recognition of the Bantustans or “black homelands” created to separate African “tribes” under apartheid regime. Through a combination of force and legislation, the South African government created these separate states with their own semi-governmental apparatus designating citizenship, not only for Bantustan residents but for those with “tribal” affiliations living in South Africa. The Bantustans had no power, no military, no sovereignty, no real economy, no control over its borders, and remained subordinate to South African authority. It is not uncommon for Palestinians to refer to the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem—the territories that will allegedly make up the Palestinian “state”—as a “Bantustan.”

The analogy is critical, because at no point in the ANC’s modern history was a “two-state“ or multiple state solution on the table. The idea of dividing South Africa on the basis of race or ethnicity was anathema to Mandela and the movement. They pushed for one secular, democratic state based on universal franchise, equality, and citizenship for all. As the late Edward Said and others have pointed out about Mandela’s principled stance, unlike Arafat he refused anything less than one democratic state—he would not accept leadership of a Jim Crow, economically and politically dependent “nation,” and indeed that refusal was partly the source of Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi’s deployment of Inkatha to wage war on the ANC and its allies. Mandela was clear: democracy was impossible under a racist state.

Palestinian activists and their allies who reject the “two-state” solution drew some of their inspiration from Mandela, even though his own politics backed a separate Palestinian state. Here is precisely where the apartheid analogy takes hold. Israel is governed by racial policies of exclusion, dispossession, and subjugation, defined by separation walls and paved settler-only roads in the occupied territories; that limits nationality to Jews-only and denies millions of displaced Palestinians the right to return; that denies Palestinian Muslims, Christians, and Bedouin people equal access to property, social and welfare services, and material resources administered by the state; that denies Palestinians forced out of their communities (in 1948, 1967, and still continuing today) the rights to lands, houses, bank accounts, bank safes, other property they once owned; that force Palestinian citizens of Israel to live in exclusively “Arab” communities that have been prohibited from expanding, attend underfunded schools, deny them government employment, and the right to live with their spouse if she or he is a Palestinian from the Occupied Territories.

What Mandela and the ANC offered was a vision of citizenship that was not based on race or religion. For Palestinians it is an old idea (the notion of a bi-national state) given new life (the demand for one democratic state). As writer/activist Ali Abunimah reminds us, Mandela accepted Afrikaner claims on a South African identity, and in so doing, “was able to accept his enemy’s narrative without compromising on the demand that Afrikaners relinquish their exclusive claim on power. Mandela urged South Africans to embrace any Afrikaner who abandoned apartheid, and thus Afrikaners gained a legitimacy in the eyes of other South Africans that they were unable to wrest through centuries of domination. It is an incredibly simple and powerful maneuver, yet one that so far has been beyond the ability of most Israelis and Palestinians.”

As many of us work to build the BDS movement and the academic and cultural boycott of Israel to end the occupation, guarantee the right of Palestinians to return, and dismantle the system of apartheid in Israel (including the separation wall), Madiba continues to be an inspiration. He and his comrades recognized the international boycott as a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle. Indeed, the case of South Africa may be the best example we have of how a principled international boycott can help change the conditions of struggle on the ground. Archbishop Tutu drew inspiration from Mandela’s warning against reading “reconciliation and fairness as meaning parity between justice and injustice” in defending his own support for BDS, in general, and the academic and cultural boycott, in particular: “It can never be business as usual. Israeli Universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice… Palestinians have chosen, like we did, the nonviolent tools of boycott, divestment and sanctions.”

After attending the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, Mandela’s long-time friend, colleague, and Robben Island prison mate, Ahmed Kathrada wrote, “I am deeply convinced that the Palestinians are experiencing life akin to – and in many respects far worse than – what we had under Apartheid in South Africa.” Kathrada goes on to say, “Some would have us believe that the South African story is only one of dialogue and reconciliation. It was indeed about these. However, it is also about a struggle against occupation and one for justice.” And South Africa continues to walk the talk. Besides being home to one of the largest BDS campaigns on the planet, South Africa’s own government has backed the boycott when it decided to ban products made in illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. South Africa also withdrew its ambassador from Israel to protest the IDF’s violent raid on the MV Marvi Marmara (part of the Free Gaza Flotilla) off the Gaza Coast in May 2011.

Finally, the experience of the anti-apartheid movement’s academic boycott has a great deal to teach us as we debate the decision on the part of the American Studies Association to support the boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions (not individuals). We are reminded that the role of the boycott movement wasn’t just economic or even primarily economic – it was educational. The public campaigns made the world aware of the brutal character of apartheid, challenging South African’s white minority representation of itself as an enlightened democracy. According to Salim Vally, director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg and veteran of the movement, the boycott radically altered the internal politics of the university in South Africa by eliminating the option of “neutrality” and opening up debate over inequality, repression, and redress.

As one of his white colleagues mused, “Academic associations (some more than others) examined the nature and conditions of research in their disciplines, and faculty unions became part of broader struggles for justice rather than bodies protecting narrow professional interests. Universities became sites of intense debate, and, indeed, intellectuals became critically involved in debates about the nature of current and future South African societies. In the wake of the boycott, there was not a curtailing of academic freedom, then, but a flourishing of intellectual thought that was rich, varied, and exciting.”

In the end, apartheid died on the sharp edge of principles, struggle and solidarity, not forgiveness, apologetics, and compromise. This was Madiba’s gift and the gift of the movement. South Africa is certainly not the country envisioned in the Freedom Charter, and the kind of neoliberal politics that has sadly prevailed has also found its proponents among Palestinian elites. But what remains deeply embedded in civil society—both in South Africa and Palestine—is a legacy of principled movement, driven by a vision of democracy free of domination or exclusion. To help bring this vision into being is the best way to commemorate Madiba’s life and work.

Robin D. G. Kelley, who teaches at UCLA, is the author of  Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009) and most recently Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (2012).

Erica Lorraine Williams is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Spelman College. She is the author of Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements (University of Illinois Press, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @ericalwilliams7

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