Palestinian Mandela


The Tenth International Israeli Apartheid Week was significant for several reasons. The first and perhaps most significant aspect of the 2014 campaign was that it was first year Israel hosted its own Apartheid Week events.  Another significant development was the ANC’s official endorsement of South Africa’s Israeli Apartheid Week. Furthermore, the death of Nelson Mandela provoked many lateral comparisons between South Africa’s Apartheid regime and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Activists instrumentalized  Mandela and the ANC’s history of solidarity with the Palestinian liberation movement to promote the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, and advocate for the end of Israel’s apartheid policies towards the Palestinians (For more on this, visit  Activists around the world used social media to cast the struggle of the Palestinian people as a struggle against an apartheid state.


Activists with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, (BDS) retweeted, “@apartheidweek RIP Nelson Mandela Israeli #ApartheidWeek End the Occupation and Apartheid!”  The tweet contained the banner photo of this blog entry. It is worth noting that the  international BDS campaign is not the only political movement drawing on Madiba to garner support.  Users also tweeted “Pls RT @BarackObama #FreePeltier #ClemencyNow Madiba believed he should be free – please do what @billclinton should have done!,” demanding clemency for Native American Activist Leonard Peltier.  Other users invoked Mandela while criticizing the death of Trayvon Martin and the state of Florida’s stand your ground law. Retweets quoted Madiba stating, “RIP #TrayvonMartin – There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children. – Nelson Mandela”


Yet Madiba himself remained a supporter of the struggle for Palestinian liberation. His support for Yassar Arafat is clear in this 1992 town hall meeting with Ted Koppel. I cannot do justice to Mandela through my prose. However, I will point out that he owned Koppel in this talk.

Robin D. G. Kelly and Erica Lorraine Williams’ article “Madiba in Palestine” in the online journal Counterpunch discussed Mandela’s longstanding solidarity with the Palestinian liberation movement. The authors also described the principled stance Mandela took towards Palestine during his presidency:

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.”


For their part the ANC has ardently encouraged the comparison between Israeli and South African Apartheid.  As questions loom about the direction the party of Mandela and vociferous critiques of President Jacob Zuma on social media spread across twitter, IAW offered the party a chance to take a principled stance that reflected its history. The party issued an official declaration of support and key members of the party participated in IAW events at the University of Witwatersrand.


Perhaps the most interesting comparison is the ‘branding’ the Palestinian leader Marawan Barghouti as the ‘Palestinian Mandela’.  Barghouti’s lawyer encouraged the comparison shortly after his client was sentenced to five life sentences for his involvement in five murders linked to al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.  According to a MERMI report Barghouti’s lawyer, Gisele Halimi, wrote a letter of support that compared him to Nelson Mandela and called him as a “symbol of the fight against occupation.”  The letter was posted to the municipality of Stain’s website, this link is currently broarwan Barghouti.  The municipality gave Barghouti honorary citizenship, an honor it had previously bestowed on Nelson Mandela.

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Stains is part of a network of municipalities that launched a campaign to free Mandela while he was imprisoned on Robben Island . A 2009 article by Khaled Abu Toameh in the Jerusalem Post argued that the characterization of Marwan Barghouti as Palestine’s Mandela was exclusively a Western phenomenon. Yet it appears that this juxtaposition is gaining ground following Madiba’s death.  Symbolic allegories also surrounded the 2008 visit of Barghouti’s son, Qassem, to Robben Island.  The foundation of senior ANC member Ahmed Kathrada, who shared a cell with Nelson Mandela, sponsored the event.  Qassem Bargouti signed the Robben Island Declaration for the Freedom of Marwan Barghouti & All Palestinian Political Prisoners in Madiba’s cell.



The declarations states:

People around the globe and throughout history have risen to defend their freedom and dignity against colonial rule, oppression, apartheid and segregation. Generations of men and women have made great sacrifices to forge universal values, uphold fundamental freedoms and advance international law and human rights. There is no greater risk to our civilization than to relinquish these principles and to allow for their breach and denial without accountability.

The reference to “people throughout history” and “generations of men and women who have made sacrifices” draws clear parallels between South Africa’s liberation struggle and the international movement to end Apartheid. The Kathrada foundation also sponsored Qassem Barghouti’s 2013 visit to South Africa during Israeli Apartheid week.  Barghouti attended a speech at the University of Witwatersrand where Shaka Sisulu explicitly compared Marwan Barghouti to Madiba.

Sisulu reminded the audience that Mandela was a terrorist arrested and sentenced for terrorism.  He told the crowd that he remembered in his youth the South African struggle for liberation was linked to the Palestinian struggle.  According to Sisulu this historical linkage was forgotten by many South Africans. He claimed that the Israeli fear that criticism of the Israeli state threatens the existence of the Israeli people sounded like Afrikaner fears that liberated blacks would “drive them into the sea.”  His comparison with South Africa’s Afrikaner population suggested that Israeli’s should also be liberated from fear and tyranny. At the end of the speech he addressed Qassem Barghuti directly stating, “All the years that Madiba spent in jail, like your father, he was an inspiration to many generations. We know similarly Marwan is going to be an inspiration to many generations here and across the world.”

Even if Palestinians are not making lateral comparisons between Nelson Mandela and Qassem Barghouti, South Africans are.  More importantly critical ANC leaders like Kathrada and Sisulu have blatantly drawn the connection which is now percolating through Twitter and Facebook.  The allusion will likely be renewed every year as South Africans continue to back the Palestinian struggle and promote the international BDS campaign.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dennis Goldberg, a long time ANC member active in the South Africa’s BDS movement, who was imprisoned for his involvement in Umkhonto we Sizwe. Goldberg did not compare Barghouti to Mandela, but he did compare the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian lands to South African Apartheid.


When I asked about his criticism of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians Goldberg said, “I’ve never hesitated in condemning their treatment of the Palestinian people.” According to Goldberg the ANC’s support of the BDS campaign takes a moral position on a worldwide issue of racism and intolerance.  While Sisulu called on South African’s to act as the worlds’ conscious Denis Goldberg placed the onus on the American public.  He told my graduate seminar, “What I feel about Palestine Israel is that the response is going to be the attitude in the United States and that without bipartisan support in the states there will be no way to deal with Israel’s illegality.”  He also criticized the “single culture single race position of Arab states this contradicts the UN charter and Edward Said. What is progressive is about humanity and tolerance.”

I also used Twitter to contact an activist I noticed was tweeting quite a bit on #freepalestine.  I sent Sarah Robinson a tweet and included my email address. I asked her rather obliquely how South African activists were instrumentalizing Mandela to draw get support for Israeli Aparthied week. It took awhile to receive her response but it was quite thoughtful and deserves to be posted in its entirety. Sarah wrote:

I believe Mandela was the ultimate activist. He believed in non-violence but was not resistant to a violent struggle if necessary. He did not compromise his values and core beliefs of equality, freedom, and justice. Mandela made significant sacrifices to follow the life of an activist. His family and career took the back seat in his fight for a democratic South Africa. In a speech around 1994 he declared “I have fought against white domination. And I have fought against black domination.” For me that sums up his life; it was not about one race being over the other, it was about complete equality, and isn’t that what every activist ultimately hopes for.

There are several connections between Mandela and the Palestinian people. In Palestine Mandela is generally considered on the same level as Arafat although personally don’t agree with that comparison. Mandela was also a vocal critic of the occupation and said “our freedom is not complete without the freedom of the Palestinian people.”

In preparing to go to Palestine I felt I knew a lot about the occupation and the similarities with South African Apartheid but I was not prepared for what I experienced. The occupation has far more than just similarities with South African Apartheid; the system of apartheid has been adapted, modified, and improved upon in the most cruel way. It’s as if the Israelis looked at SA apartheid and said “yes, we like this system, now let’s make it better.” One has to recognize their brilliance in developing this occupation. There are no accidents, no mistakes; every single decision or move, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, adds to this oppressive and discriminative system.

I grew up in apartheid South Africa. I didn’t experience it on the oppressed side and I won’t pretend to understand the experience of the oppressed, but I know enough and have experienced enough to recognize apartheid when I see it. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Israel is an apartheid state and more and more people are recognizing that.

I was in Palestine when Mandela died. The Palestinian people reacted as if he was one of their own. Unfortunately I don’t think that people outside of Palestine connect Mandela with the struggle of the Palestinian people. Mandela was known for so much it is hard to use his legacy in one specific situation.

What I do know is that Palestine and Israel need better leaders. They need leaders who are willing to concede and compromise on certain issues. They need leaders who are above reproach and fearless. They need leaders who the people respect. SA apartheid ended because two concessions were made between the business leaders of SA and the leadership of the ANC. The ANC agreed to denounce communism as its economic policy and the business leaders agreed to release Mandela. These were not popular decisions but they were made by leaders who saw the bigger picture and realized that making a concession was not a sign of weakness but actually a sign of strength.


Between passionate activism like Sarah’s and the support of top ANC leadership South Africa will have little trouble becoming the world’s conscience on this issue. It is also quite likely that South Africa’s support for Barghouti will move activists elsewhere to call for his release. Should that happen one might hope that he shares more with Madiba than the time served for his cause.



One thought on “Palestinian Mandela

  1. Pingback: The Classroom and the Cloud | Digital Southern African Studies

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