Mandela’s South Africa and the Middle East

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Commentary by Henry Srebrnik


Former South African president Nelson Mandela waves to the crowd during a ceremony in Hull, Quebec, where he was presented with an Honourary Canadian Citizenship Monday November 19, 2001. South African's president says Mandela has died. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

As the world mourns the death of a truly great man, Nelson Mandela, it is interesting to look back on his, and South Africa’s, relationship with Israel and the Arab world.

A disproportionate number of white South Africans who opposed apartheid and aided the African National Congress during the years of white-minority rule were Jewish, and Nelson Mandela always made sure the world knew it.

In his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela said “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

But he also sometimes viewed Israel as a colonial power, and Jewish groups criticized Mandela for praising the Palestine Liberation Organization just a month after he was freed in 1990. The PLO had built a close relationship with the ANC and for some years had helped train members of its military wing. One of Mandela’s first acts as a free man was to visit Yasser Arafat. After all, following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, an increasingly isolated Israel developed close ties with the apartheid regime in Pretoria. By the mid-1970s, an economic and military alliance between Israel and South Africa was on the ascendancy.

In April 1976 South African Prime Minister John Vorster paid a state visit, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The two countries even co-operated in the development of nuclear technology. By the late 1980s Israel was virtually alone among countries that still maintained strong, even strategic relations with apartheid South Africa. Obviously, it would have been asking too much of even a Nelson Mandela to ignore all this.

Libya had also provided funding and support, as well as military training, to the ANC. Mandela, in turn, said he considered Moammar Gadhafi a friend and made two official visits to the country as president of South Africa, in 1994 and 1997.

Mandela chided those who expressed opposition to these ties by declaring that they made the mistake of assuming that “their enemies should be our enemies.”

However in October 1999, after he had stepped down as president, Mandela came to Israel, visited  the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, and met with newly elected prime minister Ehud Barak. But he reiterated his unwavering opposition to Israeli control of Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon.

In recent years, under presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s relationship with Israel has been decidedly cool, as Pretoria sees itself as sharing an affinity with the Palestinians and other Third World peoples. Just last month, South Africa’s Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said that South African ministers are not visiting Israel out of solidarity with the Palestinians.

“The struggle of the people of Palestine is our struggle,” she told an audience of trade unionists. “The last time I saw a map of Palestine, I couldn’t sleep,” Nkoana-Mashabane added, explaining that the map “is just dots, smaller than those of the homelands, and that broke my heart.” The “homelands,” also called Bantustans, were territories set aside for Black South Africans in apartheid-era South Africa.

Iran’s nuclear quest, however, did not bother her when she met with Iran’s visiting Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and praised Iran for its “respect” for human rights. None of this bodes well as the country faces a future without the stabilizing inspiration of Nelson Mandela.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Organizations: African National Congress, Palestine Liberation Organization, Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: South Africa, Israel, Middle East Pretoria Palestine Libya Iran Gaza West Bank Golan Heights Southern Lebanon.In

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