Mandela’s pro-Palestinian legacy alive and well
Many South Africans see parallels between apartheid and Palestinian resistance, notwithstanding Israel’s disputing the comparison as a lie motivated by anti-Semitism
Days after his release from 27 years in prison in February 1990, Nelson Mandela gave Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a bear hug, symbolising his embrace of a cause the governing ANC continues to champion.
It was a gesture as controversial then as SA’s support for the Palestinian cause is today, but Mandela brushed off criticism. Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation had been an unwavering supporter of Mandela’s struggle against white minority rule and many South Africans saw parallels between it and the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.
“We were fortunate that with their support, we were able to achieve our freedom. My grandfather said our freedom is incomplete without the Palestinian struggle,” his grandson Mandla Mandela recalled in an interview ahead of the 10th commemoration of Madiba’s death.
Mandla Mandela, who is also an ANC lawmaker, hosted a solidarity conference in Johannesburg for the Palestinians from December 3-5. It was attended by members of Hamas, an organisation Israel has vowed to annihilate in retaliation for its October 7 attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people and saw about 240 taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies.
Israeli bombing of Gaza since then has killed more than 15,500 people, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run government, and displaced more than three-quarters of the Gaza Strip’s 2.3-million population.
Last month, the ANC backed a motion in parliament to suspend diplomatic ties with Israel until it agreed to a ceasefire in Gaza.
“Palestinians still do not fully enjoy their freedom on their land. Instead their land has been annexed more and more, something we also faced in SA,” said Obed Bapela, the ANC’s deputy chair of international relations.
Israel has disputed the comparison with apartheid as a lie motivated by anti-Semitism, but many South Africans follow Mandela’s lead.
“That’s something Mandela never compromised on and nor should we,” poet and author Lebogang Mashile said.
Some members of SA’s Jewish community criticise the ANC’s stance, pointing out that Mandela himself eventually tried to build bridges with Israel.
Historian and author of Jewish Memories of Mandela, David Saks, noted Mandela was the only SA president to have visited Israel since 1994 — albeit after he left office — and that “he received a rapturous welcome from the Israeli public”, addressing then-prime minister Ehud Barak and then-president Ezer Weisman as “my friends”.
“He pointed the way which things should have gone [diplomatically with Israel], but [they] didn’t go that way.”