In the days following Nelson Mandela’s passing the news has been saturated with a multitude of accolades and celebratory obituaries in honour of the man who helped bring to an end South African apartheid. Looking back on this achievement we should not forget that a remarkably similar system of domination is still in operation today: the apartheid analogy between South Africa and Israel shouldn’t be dismissed lightly if we are really to honour Madiba’s legacy.
As per usual in the event of a beloved icon’s passing, obituaries in the news were mostly celebratory. However, with the figure of Nelson Mandela, his beatification already started in the last couple of decades of his lifetime. While praise is undoubtedly deserved, the tendency to represent Mandela as an iconic, near saintly figure obscures the fact that the man who brought down the apartheid system was also responsible for the radicalisation of the ANC (African National Congress) and set the roadmap for some of the more violent episodes of the struggle -which admittedly mostly happened when he was already detained at Robbeneiland. Indeed, many noted that up until 2008, Mandela was still on the USA terrorism watch list.
In his speech at the Mandela memorial ceremony last week, president Obama was eager to draw explicit comparisons between South African apartheid and Dr. King’s fight against racial segregation in the United States. One can wonder why this comparison is more acceptable than parallels with the leader of that other anti-apartheid struggle, Yasser Arafat? Indeed, certain voices have pointed out the double standard, according to which many dismiss the apartheid analogy between South Africa and occupied Palestine. While many wouldn’t be entirely comfortable with a comparison between Mandela and Arafat, the similarities between the South-African apartheid system and certain aspects of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank are undeniable.
Interestingly, the analogy goes back to South Africa’s prime minister and architect of apartheid policy, Hendrik Verwoerd, who in 1961 pointed out that Israel’s UN vote against South African apartheid was hypocrite. He argued that “Israel is not consistent in its new anti-apartheid attitude… they took Israel away from the Arabs after the Arabs lived there for a thousand years. In that, I agree with them. Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.” Much like the Boer population of South Africa saw themselves as natives, Zionist ideology holds that Jewish settlers return to their native land. Furthermore, this claim to territory is often legitimized by a belief which is often called “the myth of the empty land” which holds that no legitimate people or nation resided in presently Israeli settled territories.
The analogy is not only used by human rights activists but also increasingly by UN personnel, simply because, as time goes by, a factual appraisal of the Israeli policies as systematically discriminatory becomes increasingly convincing. One of the most iconic examples would be the West Bank Barrier but other examples include Jewish-only settlements, the ID-system, a segregated road system for Israeli and Palestinian citizens respectively, military checkpoints, discriminatory marriage law, the use of cheap Palestinian labour and differential access to land, resources and services.
Interestingly, president Obama’s speech – perhaps because of Washington’s aforementioned attitude towards Mandela – contained nuances which transcended praise. The president painted a picture of a more human, flawed Mandela, quoting the man himself: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” This quote suggests Mandela admitted to some failures.
In his latest contribution to the Guardian, Salvoj Zizek – the world’s hippest philosopher, cultural theorist and the man behind the Perverts Guide to Cinema – couldn’t resist throwing in that in 2009′s Invictus Mandela was portrayed by Morgan Freeman, who also frequently plays characters corresponding to the so-called magical negro trope and even played God at some point. On a more serious note Zizek goes on the say that this realization is crucial to understanding Mandela’s beatification in comparison to attitudes towards figures like Arafat. He notes that it is exactly Mandela’s failures that allowed for his iconic status to be supported by the political establishment. Zizek says that “his universal glory is also a sign that he really didn’t disturb the global order of power.”
While fears over a communist ANC led South Africa have subsided since the fall of the Soviet Union and the country’s insertion into a global neo-liberal economy, anxieties pertaining to the Middle East are still very much in the public consciousness. Also, in contrast to Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Mandela’s willingness for reconciliation and compromise also entailed what former ANC and SACP (South African Communist Party) member Ronnie Kasrills calls a Faustian bargain.
Compromise meant that the ANC’s socialist direction had to be foregone for a neo-liberal one. Kasrills mentions that a “Wealth tax on the super-rich to fund developmental projects was set aside, and domestic and international corporations, enriched by apartheid, were excused from any financial reparations. Extremely tight budgetary obligations were instituted that would tie the hands of any future governments; obligations to implement a free-trade policy and abolish all forms of tariff protection in keeping with neo-liberal free trade fundamentals were accepted.” While black South-Africans can now participate in the political sphere, there is still widespread poverty. The inadequate delivery of services to black populations is testament to the reality that the majority of black South-Africans are still second-class citizens.
This compromise allowed Mandela to end apartheid without upsetting global vested interests in his country. The question remains what form of compromise would allow the international community to truly support a solution for the Palestinian people. Regardless, particularizing the South-African apartheid experience does global justice a great disservice. Negating the similarities in South African and Israeli apartheid reinforces the status quo and moreover precludes the suggestion that a South African model – a bi-national one-state solution – could also be a viable solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.