Nelson Mandela, Palestine and the Fight against Apartheid

Mandela on his meeting with Arafat: He is 'fighting against a unique form of colonialism and we wish him success in his struggle.'

By Kim Bullimore

Nelson Mandela, a courageous resistance fighter is dead. Mandela died on December 5, aged 95. He devoted his entire life to the struggle for his people’s freedom, spending 27 years in prison for both his unarmed and armed resistance to South Africa’s brutal and racist apartheid regime.

With the death of this courageous resistance fighter, we are now greeted with a sickening spectacle which whitewashes his history and the fact that Mandela was first and foremost a freedom fighter. Politicians and commentators in Australia, the USA, the UK, Israel, Europe and elsewhere, many of whom who had previously labelled him a terrorist, supported his incarceration and the South African apartheid regime, are now pretending they did no such thing and are falling over themselves to laud him as a hero, a great man and a man of peace.

Their eulogies whitewash the South African anti-apartheid struggle and Mandela’s actions as a freedom fighter. They have rinsed clean, from their histories of him, that Mandela was a radical, who worked with and was inspired by communists both in South Africa and Latin America (Today, in the wake of Mandela’s death, the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) have issued a statement confirming that Mandela was a member of the SACP in 1962 when he was arrested and imprisoned – something which had been previously denied for political reasons). In order to create a whitewashed caricature of Mandela, these revisionists are attempting to rewrite history and the fact that Mandela’s resistance and struggle against apartheid encompassed all forms of disobedience and defiance, both violent and non-violent.

As a leader of the ANC Youth, which he helped found with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu in 1944, Mandela worked to convince the ANC to adopt mass militant non-violent tactics, which included boycotts and strikes. In the wake of the brutality of the 1960 Sharpville massacre which saw 69 unarmed Black South African’s gunned down by the regime, Mandela co-founded (with Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo) the Umkhonto we Sizwe or Spear of the Nation which carried out sabotage against both military and civilian infrastructure in South Africa. In founding Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961, Mandela took inspiration from the revolutionary struggle taking place in Cuba, in particular from Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s 26th of July Movement.

Mandela recognized the importance of all forms of struggle against the violent oppression being imposed on his people. In 1980, as the non-violent mass struggle once again began to flourish, both inside South Africa and internationally in the form of the boycott and sanctions anti-apartheid solidarity movement, he wrote in a smuggled message from his prison cell that “between the hammer of armed struggle and the anvil of united mass action, the enemy will be crushed.”

“Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”

And today, as the revisionist politicians and commentators eulogize Mandela, they also seek to scrub from Mandela’s history his lifelong and steadfast support for the Palestinian people and their struggle. Just as they were complicit in supporting South Africa’s apartheid regime, many of these same revisionist politicians and commentators are today complicit in supporting Israel’s apartheid regime.

In 1948, the same year as the Palestinian Nakba which saw Zionist militia ethnically cleanse more 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland and destroy more than 500 Palestinian villages, South Africa formally adopted the apartheid regime. Throughout the long years of Apartheid in South African, as Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s notes in The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa (2010), there were close military and trade ties between these two colonial oppressors. It is unsurprising therefore that there would be a close comradeship between the two struggles, viewing their struggles as one and the same: a struggle against colonialism, oppression and racism. For Mandela and the ANC, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians were “comrades in arms” and they supported their struggle against the Israeli state – both armed and unarmed.

The comradeship between the two struggles was highlighted by Mandela, just sixteen days after he was released from 27 long years in prison in 1990. In February 1990, Mandela met with Yasser Arafat in Lusaka in Zambia. At Lusaka airport, Mandela embraced Arafat and reiterated his support for the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian struggle telling the media that Arafat was “fighting against a unique form of colonialism and we wish him success in his struggle”. He went on to say, “I believe that there are many similarities between our struggle and that of the PLO” stating “We live under a unique form of colonialism in South Africa, as well as in Israel, and a lot flows from that.”

Eight months later, during his three day visit to Australia in October 1990, Mandela reiterated his support for the Palestinian struggle and the PLO saying: “We identify with them [the Palestinians] because we do not believe it is right for the Israeli government to suppress basic human rights in the conquered territories.”

Mandela told the Australian media, “We agree with the United Nations that international disputes should be settled by peaceful means. The belligerent attitude which is adopted by the Israeli government is to us unacceptable.”

He went on to tell the Australian media that the ANC did not consider the PLO a terrorist group, stating “If one has to refer to any of the parties as a terrorist state, one might refer to the Israeli government, because they are the people who are slaughtering defenseless and innocent Arabs in the occupied territories, and we don’t regard that as acceptable.”

In 1997, in a speech on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Mandela once again spoke in support of the Palestinian struggle stating “it behoves all South Africans, themselves erstwhile beneficiaries of generous international support, to stand up and be counted among those contributing actively to the cause of freedom and justice”. It was important, said Mandela, for South Africans “to add our own voice to the universal call for Palestinian self-determination and statehood” because “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians; without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world”.

Worse than Apartheid

Increasingly over the last decade, more and more South Africans who were active in the South African anti-Apartheid campaign have joined Mandela and have spoken out in support of the Palestinian struggle. In many cases, they have denounced Israel apartheid as being far worse than South African Apartheid.

Not only has Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu equated Israel’s policies and practices to Apartheid, in 2008 veteran South African anti-apartheid campaigners visited the Occupied West Bank and declared what they saw as worse than the apartheid they had experienced in their own country.

One of the participants who visited the West Bank as part of the trip, Mondli Makhanya, the editor-in-chief of the Sunday Times of South Africa, told veteran Israeli reporter, Gideon Levy, “When you observe from afar you know that things are bad, but you do not know how bad. Nothing can prepare you for the evil we have seen here. In a certain sense, it is worse, worse, worse than everything we endured. The level of the apartheid, the racism and the brutality are worse than the worst period of apartheid”.

Another participant in the trip, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, a member of the South African parliament, who had been imprisoned during the apartheid era for her opposition to the South African apartheid regime told Levy, “It is hard for me to describe what I am feeling. What I see here is worse than what we experienced”. When asked by Levy why she thought it was worse than South African apartheid, Madlala-Routledge explained, “The absolute control of people’s lives, the lack of freedom of movement, the army presence everywhere, the total separation and the extensive destruction we saw”.

In November 2011, the Reverend Allan Aubrey Boesak, a veteran of the South African anti-apartheid struggle reiterated the assertion that Israeli apartheid is far worse than South African apartheid. In an interview with Middle East Monitor, Boesak, explain that “It is worse, not in the sense that apartheid was not an absolutely terrifying system in South Africa, but in the ways in which the Israelis have taken the apartheid system and perfected it, so to speak; sharpened it”. Boesak went onto explain:

“For instance, we had the Bantustans and we had the Group Areas Act and we had the separate schools and all of that but I don’t think it ever even entered the mind of any apartheid planner to design a town in such a way that there is a physical wall that separates people and that that wall denotes your freedom of movement, your freedom of economic gain, of employment, and at the same time is a tool of intimidation and dehumanization. We carried passes as the Palestinians have their ID documents but that did not mean that we could not go from one place in the city to another place in the city. The judicial system was absolutely skewed of course, all the judges in their judgments sought to protect white privilege and power and so forth, and we had a series of what they called “hanging judges” in those days, but they did not go far as to openly, blatantly have two separate justice systems as they do for Palestinians [who are tried in Israeli military courts] and Israelis [who are tried in civil, not military courts]. So in many ways the Israeli system is worse”.

ANC and South Africa’s Support for Palestinian BDS Campaign

In 2012, Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC) which is also the ruling party of South Africa, formally endorsed and adopted as part of its official policy, the Palestinian call for Boycott,Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. In 2005 Palestinian civil society issued a call to the international community for a program and campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to be applied against Israel as a way to pressure Israel to end its violations of international law, respect Palestinian human rights and engage in fair negotiations for a just peace.

The ANC Conference not only formally endorsed the Palestinian BDS campaign but also adopted a resolution which specifically called for “all South Africans to support the programs and campaigns of the Palestinian civil society which seek to put pressure on Israel to engage with the Palestinian people to reach a just solution.”

The ANC conference also adopted two other resolutions relating to Palestine and Israel. One of the resolutions reiterated the ANC’s long held stance in support of the Palestinian struggle, stating “The ANC is unequivocal in its support for the Palestinian people in their struggle for self-determination, and unapologetic in its view that the Palestinians are the victims and the oppressed in the conflict with Israel.”

In addition, the conference also adopted a resolution condemning Israel’s treatment of African refugees stating “The ANC abhors the recent Israeli state-sponsored xenophobic attacks and deportation of Africans and request that this matter should be escalated to the African Union”

The adoption of the resolutions formalized the position already held by the ANC and the South African government. Two months before the conference, South Africa’s deputy foreign minister Ebrahim Ebrahim had noted that: “Because of the treatment and policies of Israel towards the Palestinian people, we strongly discourage South Africans from going there.”

In April 2013, the South Africa’s International Relations Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane reiterated the ruling ANC’s position, saying “the struggle of the people of Palestine is our struggle”.

Mandela’s Legacy

Today, Mandela is honored by both those in struggle and by those in power. Once, however, he and his struggle were demonized and hated by those in power, including many of those same people now praising him today. And while mealy mouthed politicians and hypocritical commentators sing Mandela’s praise today, attempting to whitewash his legacy, they will not succeed in rewriting history.

For those in struggle, Mandela’s legacy will always be one of a freedom fighter. It will always be one of a courageous resistance fighter who waged an uncompromising struggle against colonialism, racism and oppression. His legacy to those of us in struggle will be that he was an internationalist, who saw his people’s freedom tied up with the freedom of others – who saw his people’s struggle as being no different from the struggle of the Palestinian people and all those struggling against colonialism, oppression and tyranny.

South African apartheid may be over, but apartheid has not ended. Apartheid is still alive and flourishing today in Israel. And today, the best way to honor Mandela, his legacy and the courageous struggle that he and his people fought against South Africa’s apartheid is to take a stand in support of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli apartheid and occupation.

This is Mandela’s legacy, a legacy of actions and deeds – not just empty words – in support of the struggle against injustice, oppression and a brutalizing regime which oppresses and dehumanizes an entire nation of people. As Mandela knew: apartheid was wrong in South Africa and it is wrong in Israel. Honor Mandela by joining the struggle for a Free Palestine, by joining the struggle against Israeli apartheid and by supporting the Palestinian BDS campaign!

– Kim Bullimore is a volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service in Palestine ( and the co-convenor of the Melbourne Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. She writes regularly on the Palestine-Israel conflict for the Australian newspaper, Red Flag (  Kim also has a blog here, where this article first appeared. She contributed this article to

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  1. I am mesmerized by he honesty of this article and am in total support of everything it stands for. I hope this movement continues to acknowledge the freedom of the Palestinian people and the voice of those who call for it.

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