As the world mourns Nelson Mandela, many commentators and social-media users are lamenting the absence of a Middle Eastern equivalent, and how much the region needs one. This is understandable, given that the qualities that made him such a great leader are sorely absent among our own.
However, the Middle East did have its own Mandela: the man himself. Such was the love, respect and admiration among Arabs for the former South African president that we consider him one of us. These feelings were mutual and frequently expressed by the Nobel Peace Prize winner. This explains the tremendous outpouring of emotion and eloquence among Arabs in paying tribute to Mandela – at state and street levels – as the feeling of loss is deep and personal. They will forever remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the tragic news of his death. It was expected, as his health had been deteriorating for some time, but that did nothing to lessen the pain and grief.
Of course Mandela was adored worldwide, but Arabs feel a very special connection to him. Outside of South Africa, they were among those at the forefront of the anti- apartheid movement. Arabs saw in white-supremacist rule not only inherent cruelty, injustice and racism, but also a reflection of their own long struggles against colonialism and imperialism.
Support for the African National Congress, of which Mandela was a leader, was not just lip service. Arab states provided material and financial backing, as well as military training for ANC fighters, including Mandela. He never forgot this, and on many occasions expressed his heartfelt gratitude for such support, visiting several Arab countries after his release from prison to personally give thanks (as well as during and after his presidency).
Mandela strongly rejected Western pressure (particularly from the US, Britain and Israel) to distance himself from Arab allies that were considered pariahs, reminding the former that while they openly sustained the apartheid regime, the latter were his friends (the ANC remained on the US list of terrorist organisations until as recently as 2008). Mandela was a man of principle, not political expediency. He stood up for causes – some deemed ‘controversial’ – that gained far more from his endorsement than he gained from endorsing them. That never affected his global popularity – on the contrary, he was the voice of the voiceless.
Chief among those causes was that of the Palestinians, who he said were subject to “injustice and gross human rights violations” by Israel. Unlike so many world leaders, he did not mince words about the issue or obfuscate it. As such, there is a plethora of social media tributes to Mandela quoting him about their plight, particularly: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
He described Israel as a “terrorist state” that was “slaughtering defenceless and innocent Arabs in the Occupied Territories, and we don’t regard that as acceptable.” He said in 1997 that “all of us need to do more in supporting the struggle of the people of Palestine for self-determination.”
State visits are usually an occasion for diplomatic pleasantries, but two years later, on a trip to Israel, he said: “My view is that talk of peace remains hollow if Israel continues to occupy Arab lands. If there is going to be peace, there must be complete withdrawal from all of these areas.”
Contrast this with his statement during that same visit, in the Occupied Territories: “The histories of our two peoples, Palestinian and South African, correspond in such painful and poignant ways, that I intensely feel myself being at home amongst compatriots.”
Mandela said that when he was released from prison, he received invitations to visit “from almost every country in the world except Israel,” which was a staunch ally of the apartheid regime. While Israel vehemently rejects accusations that it practices apartheid in the Occupied Territories, black South Africans are among those who make such accusations. Who would know better than those who endured it themselves?
The Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Alon Liel, recalled that Mandela was “furious” about Israel’s cooperation with his people’s oppressors, and quoted him as saying: “We will never forget it.” However, Liel said Mandela offered to “open a new page with Israel” if it changed its “attitude towards the Palestinians.” As has been proven painfully obvious, that offer fell on deaf ears.
Mandela “was a fighter for human rights who left an indelible mark on the struggle against racism and discrimination,” said Shimon Peres, president of a country that ardently supported those abuses in South Africa, and is determined to erase that mark when it comes to the Palestinians, Mandela’s “compatriots.”
As defence minister in the 1970s, Peres himself signed military pacts with Pretoria that helped develop weapons used against black South Africans. Never underestimate the allure and convenience of a selective memory.
Mandela was a scathing critic of the invasion of Iraq, condemning George Bush and Tony Blair for “undermining the United Nations” by seeking military action without Security Council approval. He described Bush as a “small man” with “no foresight, who cannot think properly,” and who wanted “to plunge the world into a holocaust.” Blair was “the foreign minister of the United States… no longer the prime minister of Britain,” said Mandela.
“Why is the United States behaving so arrogantly?” he asked. “It is a tragedy what is happening, what Bush is doing. All that he wants is Iraqi oil.” The South African urged world leaders to oppose Bush, and called on Americans to take to the streets and vote out their president, who was “trying to bring about carnage.”
Neither Bush nor Blair provided any evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, said Mandela. “But what we know is that Israel has weapons of mass destruction,” he added. “Nobody talks about that. Why should there be one standard for one country… and another one for another country, Israel?”
Given that Bush and Blair ignored Mandela, with tragic consequences for Iraq and the wider region, their tributes to him are as nauseating as they are hypocritical. Mandela was “one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time,” said Bush. “Our world is better off because of his example.” It is a crying shame that neither the former US president nor his British foreign minister followed it.
“Listening to the leaders of the free world compete to extol South Africa’s first democratically elected president, there is a striking absence of acknowledgement not only of how little their countries did to get him out of prison but how much they supported the regime that kept him locked up for 27 years,” wrote The Guardian’s Washington correspondent Chris McGreal, who was previously posted in Johannesburg and Jerusalem.
However, leaders around the world, from East and West, are guilty of hypocrisy, singing Mandela’s praises while making a mockery of the principles he stood by. For example, it is truly perverse for Bashar Assad to describe Mandela as “an inspiration to all the vulnerable peoples of the world,” and a “symbol of liberation,” when just days prior the UN human rights chief said there was “massive evidence” implicating the Syrian dictator and his regime in war crimes and crimes against humanity against his own people.
Assad is certainly not alone in cynically trying to gain political capital from Mandela’s legacy. It is a brazen dishonour to such an honourable figure, but such is his stature that the most odious of people are clamouring to fabricate an image of personal and ideological camaraderie with him. Mandela has only just been buried, but he may already be turning in his grave at the crocodile tears shed by those behaving in ways he would have disavowed.
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