We must resist attempts to Mandela-wash Israel’s occupation of Palestine, writes Suraya Dadoo
In February 2018, I attended a panel discussion at Liliesleaf Farm that centred on the question: "Israel and Palestine: What lies ahead?" As the event was organised by a liberal Zionist group, the audience comprised mainly of pro-Israel supporters and lobbyists.
During the question and answer session, an audience member boldly declared that the problem in Palestine-Israel was that there wasn’t a Palestinian Mandela who wanted to make peace, neither was there an Israeli equivalent of FW De Klerk – who, according to the audience member, had "bravely" led South Africa out of apartheid and into negotiations and democracy. Almost everyone in the audience nodded their head enthusiastically in agreement.
In an instant, the man as well as those who agreed with him, had disempowered the people’s struggle - erasing decades of internal resistance, global solidarity, exile, torture, and assassinations, while feting De Klerk as a messiah of change.
As infuriating as the comments about De Klerk single-handedly ending apartheid were, even more tone deaf were the remarks that Mandela was simply a peace activist. The very place that we were sitting in was a monument to armed resistance - that Mandela himself led.
Did the largely pro-Israel audience in the auditorium at Liliesleaf think that Mandela was organising sit-ins and silent protests with Thabo Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Denis Goldberg and others when they regularly met at the farm for Umkhonto we Sizwe strategy meetings? As Accused Number 1, Mandela headed a group charged with 221 acts of sabotage that the apartheid state believed was designed to "ferment violent revolution". Mandela went to prison because he was angered by the injustice that he saw around him and he fought. Angrily. Sometimes violently.
Reconciliation and forgiveness
Yet, when Israel’s lobbyists talk about Mandela’s legacy and its relevance for Palestine-Israel, they focus almost exclusively on his message of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Dialogue, forgiveness and reconciliation had a place in Mandela’s political strategy, but it was never the main component of his life’s work. The centre of Mandela’s activism and the cause that he was prepared to die for was the attainment of justice and the liberation of black South Africans – not peace and reconciliation. Reconciliation and forgiveness only came after liberation had been achieved. It was a useful consequence and appropriate political tactic at a specific time.
Mandela the Peacemaker was only one of Madiba’s political personalities. When the anti-pass protests and stay-at-home campaigns of the late 1950s were met by the bullets of Sharpeville and Langa, Mandela adopted the armed struggle. When the apartheid government finally met the conditions for negotiated settlement in the early 1990s, Nelson Mandela became a principled, pragmatic negotiator unwilling to compromise dignity and liberation. Only once freedom was achieved, did President Mandela become an advocate for reconciliation. Mandela did not talk dialogue, forgiveness and reconciliation when non-violent protest was being met by the guns of apartheid. As acclaimed South African writer, Sisonke Msimang, plainly stated: "Mandela did not worship forgiveness…"
It is cruelly ironic that the majority of pro-Israel supporters - who were never a part of South Africa’s liberation struggle - now dishonestly reduce the entirety of Mandela’s revolutionary, radical, freedom-fighting life to that of a reconciler and pacifist in order to Mandela-wash Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
The Mandela that Israel’s apologists love and promote is always "reasonable" - never angry. This invented Mandela is nothing like the Palestinians. He would never have resorted to the Second Intifada. Except that the real Mandela, when speaking to Palestinians in Gaza in 1999, said that, "in cases where we cannot move forward, then if the only alternative is violence, then we will use violence".
Mandela's legacy weaponised
The Mandela that has been conjured up by pro-Israel lobbyists was never stubborn and always willing to surrender dignity and lives under the charade of negotiations. But in June 1992, Nelson Mandela walked out of negotiations in the wake of the Boipatong massacre where 46 people were killed in fighting instigated by the apartheid government. The real Mandela was also quick to call out Israel for land-grabbing while talking peace. "It is no use for Israel to talk of peace if they still hold on to Arab [Palestinian] territories which they conquered during the Six-Day War in 1967," he said in Gaza in 1999.
Israel’s propagandists – especially those in South Africa – have tried to weaponise Mandela’s legacy against the Palestine solidarity movement, fiercely arguing that comparisons of Israel’s policies and treatment of Palestinians to blacks under apartheid in South Africa was something Mandela avoided.
Writing in 2011 in the book Jewish Memories of Mandela, David Saks, a key Israel lobbyist in South Africa, conceded: "Mandela never seems to have progressed very far from his initial post-jail understanding that their [the Palestinians’] situation was essentially analogous to those of blacks in Apartheid South Africa." It is an observation that the pro-Israel lobby in South Africa has simply erased out of existence.
The Israel lobby’s manipulation of Mandela’s story from a revolutionary struggle for freedom to a sanitised tale of peacemaking is not innocuous. It is a deliberate distortion of Mandela’s legacy to serve the hasbara (propaganda) project of the Israeli government whose policies are centred on the belief that Palestinians simply do not deserve the same rights as Israelis. This is an injustice and insult to the memory of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
Unbanning of the ANC
The legacy that Israel’s lobbyists should be drawing from is FW De Klerk. On 2 February 1990, De Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and other liberation groups, the release of political prisoners including Nelson Mandela, and the inevitability of negotiations.
This did not happen because De Klerk had a sudden change of heart and wanted to restore dignity, justice and freedom to all South Africans. The apartheid government was left with little choice but to yield to both internal and external pressure. Intense internal resistance and protest, the armed struggle, and international sanctions that brought with it the crisis of the apartheid economy made February 2 both possible and necessary.
Israel has used a mythical 'peace process' to counter boycott and sanctions calls. Now that the annexation of Palestinian land is all but a formality, and the current government has discarded any pretence of a Palestinian state, the world can finally accept the reality that Israeli apartheid cannot be reformed, it needs to end. As its pariah status grows, Israel’s own February 2 moment won’t be too far off, and with it justice, freedom and dignity for everyone living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Peace and reconciliation, as Nelson Mandela showed, can then take its proper place.
-Suraya Dadoo is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. You can follow her on Twitter @Suraya_Dadoo.
You can read David Saks' response to this column here.
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