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Rest in power, comrade Mandela

Last update - Sunday, December 15, 2013, 18:27 By Ronit Lentin

The moment Nelson Mandela died at 95, together with the mourning and celebrations across South Africa, much hypocritical ink has been spilled by commentators and politicians, some of whom – like former British PM Margaret Thatcher – had painted him as a ‘terrorist’ during the apartheid years.

I have been struggling to organise my thoughts about Mandela. After the first tears and sadness came outrage – outrage at the way he has been presented by obituary writers and opportunistic politicians as a ‘peace maker’, a man who forgave his erstwhile prison guards, working above all for reconciliation in constructing what newscasts didn’t tire of calling South Africa’s ‘rainbow nation’. And outrage at how his story is another building block in constructing present day societies in Europe, America and indeed South Africa as ‘post racial’.
Mandela indeed led to ending apartheid and constructing a new South Africa. But he was also involved in armed insurgence against the regime. Like other iconic leaders such as Martin Luther King, his struggle was political, not merely ‘humanistic’, and the ceaseless images of his beautiful smiling face should not erase his radicalism.
While never a revolutionary, as Gary Younge writes in the Guardian, Mandela was always a radical. Unlike other African leaders who embraced panafricanism or socialism, Mandela was mostly an astute political leader guiding his country through a transitional move to democracy.
He was comfortable with Communism, refusing to ditch his comrades in the name of pragmatism or negotiate with the government as long as he was still in jail. In his recent condemnation of the Iraq war he said the US was “a threat to world peace”. And like Franz Fanon, whose death occurred 52 years ago last week, he became a galvanising icon for resistance and for international solidarity with colonised and oppressed peoples – although Fanon, of course, didn’t live long enough to be appropriated as a post-racialism symbol as was Mandela.
One group of people whose resistance to colonisation and occupation takes inspiration from Mandela is the Palestinian people. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres hail Mandela as peace builder, and Naomi Hazan, Israeli professor of political science and former deputy speaker of the Knesset, claims him as “an Israeli hero, whose persona, values and actions have continuously enthralled the Israeli public.” Meanwhile, Israeli apartheid continues to segregate the Palestinians and brutally put down their resistance. On 6 December, Palestinian demonstrators against what has become known as the ‘apartheid wall’, carrying photographs of Nelson Mandela – who had said ‘our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians’ – were met with particular brutality by the Israeli military.
Perhaps the soldiers opposed the Mandela photographs in memory of Israel’s long-standing collaboration with the apartheid regime, many of whose leaders had supported Nazi Germany. A new book documents how, between 1974 and the fall of apartheid in 1994, Israel sold to South Africa significant amounts of Reshef missiles, Kfir aircraft and spare parts, tank engines, armament, cannon and intelligence equipment worth billions of dollars, and negotiated (with a younger Shimon Peres) the sale of Israeli nuclear missiles to South Africa. The sanctions against arms sales to South Africa and the boycott by the UN and the international community made Israel the main arms provider for Pretoria.
As the tear gas canisters rained on Palestinian and Israeli protestors holding photographs of Madiba during the Friday demonstrations against the apartheid wall, they remembered that boycotts and sanctions do work, and that there is at least one more apartheid regime that needs to fall, and wishing Nelson Mandela – as do I – to ‘rest in power, comrade’.

Ronit Lentin is associate professor of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Her column appears fortnightly in Metro Éireann.

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