What would Nelson Mandela do?
A panel discussion on the legacy of the late South African leader gains new relevance amid falling Hamas rockets and Israeli air strikes.
When they began planning a mid-July evening program to discuss Nelson Mandela’s legacy and its relevance to Israel, its organizers could not have known that it would be held during the first days of Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip.
The event, which took place on July 10 at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, was sponsored by Telfed, the South African Zionist Federation (Israel); the South African Embassy in Israel and the Israeli Wits (University of the Witwatersrand) alumni group, together with Forum Tzora, an association of South African immigrants calling for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinian people that will end “any form of occupation regime” and opposition to “forces … that label Zionists who uphold views that differ from theirs as traitors.”
The program was intended to highlight the inspirational personality and achievements of Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary and member of the African National Congress who became South Africa’s first black president after being imprisoned by the minority white apartheid government for 27 years. Mandela died on December 5, 2013, aged 95.
Addressing an audience composed largely of Jewish immigrants from South Africa, from teenagers on up, was a panel of South African, Israeli and Palestinian figures.
The program was prefaced by instructions to the audience in the event the now-familiar Color Red rocket siren sounded in the course of the evening. The directives highlighted a painfully loud subtext that called for comparing Nelson Mandela’s leadership to the leadership in our own region and, more broadly, the transformation of South Africa compared to the yet-another-round of fighting in the Gaza Strip.
Smiling and crying
After screening a short film on Mandela’s life, prepared for the evening, moderator Tova Herzl, a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, said it made her “want to both smile and cry. I feel sweet nostalgia for the man he was, and I cry now for all of us.”
MK Rabbi Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid), who participated in the official Israeli delegation to Mandela’s funeral in South Africa, began the program by reading quotes by Mandela. “Mandela said that ‘resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,’” Lipman read. “Mandela had many opportunities to spark violence. As a leader, he chose peace.”
Referring, as many South Africans do, to Mandela by his Xhosa clan name, a woman in the audience, willing to be identified only as Barbara, called out loudly, “Madiba knew how to lead, how to make the right choices. Our leaders do not know how to lead and care only for themselves.”
Sisa Ngombane, South Africa’s Ambassador to Israel, rose through the ranks of the ANC. In 1990, when the ANC was unbanned, Ngombane was the party’s deputy chief representative to Zambia. He spoke fondly and with sincere humor about Mandela who, he said, had been his mentor and guide. He mentioned Mandela’s love of children and, with a knowing smile, added that Mandela had always had “an eye for beautiful women.”
He was, Ngombane said, “a full human being. He was humble and had a sense of humor and great wit. He was an icon of leadership that was crafted by charisma, dignity and understated genius.”
Nicholas Wolpe is the founder and CEO of the Liliesleaf Trust. The organization preserves the farm where many of the ANC activists who were forced to go underground, including Mandela, hid and were subsequently arrested, tried and sent to jail.
Wolpe was one of many of the panelists who spoke about the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani, one of the anti-apartheid movement’s most charismatic leaders and a probable heir to Mandela, by white extremists who opposed the dismantling of apartheid. His murder sparked rioting in South Africa.
The country’s blacks, Wolpe said, felt they “wanted to rampage through the country with machetes, while whites braced for attacks.”
It was then, Ngombane said, that Mandela called on the entire nation, white and black, to reject violence and hatred, and thus saved South Africa from the convulsive violence that could have destroyed it.
Netanyahu vs. Mandela
Wolpe pointedly compared Mandela’s response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the kidnap and murder of the three Israeli teens in the West Bank last month, that sparked the latest round of violence.
“Why didn’t the Israeli PM speak to the people of Israel?” Wolpe demanded. “He knew that the anger would build up. Mandela knew that too, so he harnessed and controlled the feelings of his people. Mandela was the voice of the liberation struggle and also the voice of reason. That is true leadership.”
Several panelists addressed Mandela’s difficult decision to take the ANC underground and adopt violent resistance.
“He believed he had no other choice,” said the long-time South African anti-apartheid journalist and author Benjamin Pogrund, who now lives in Israel.
“But the ANC was based on the principles of Mahatma Gandhi, and because of their principles, the ANC almost never targeted civilians. This was a moral stand, but it was also an effective strategy. Mandela knew that the whites were terrified that the blacks would massacre them and that as long as they were terrified, there could be no change.”
Wolpe noted, “Mandela branded the ANC as terrorists, yet Mandela became the revered leader of peace. He never forgot who he was and what his motives were. He never forgot that he hated white supremacy, not whites.”
The implication for the Palestinian leadership was clear.
When the microphones were turned to the audience for questions, several questioned Mandela’s support for the Palestine Liberation Organization and argued that had been anti-Israel.
Pogrund explained that Mandela had always supported Israel’s right to exist, adding, “But Israel had stood back or supported the white regime while Cuba and Libya had offered support. The ANC had trained with the Palestinians. And Mandela would never forget that.”
Another audience member confronted Ngombane, who had noted that he still belonged to the ANC, with the most recent statement issued by the ANC comparing Operation Protective Edge with Nazi operations.
“Jews helped craft the liberation of South Africa,” Ngombane responded, “but the younger generation of Jewish people has gone away, and Jews are no longer in the trenches that we face now — the poverty, the lack of jobs, the lack of education. But the government does remember and recognizes your contributions. You can be assured that the formal statement by my government will not say these false things.”
Mandela would cry for us all, in Gaza and in Sderot
Surprisingly, only a few audience questions addressed the boycott against apartheid-era South Africa and its relevance to Israel-Palestine.
Pogrund contended that the contribution of the boycott towards the dismantling of apartheid was less profound than commonly assumed, and placed the events of South Africa in the context of the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, which, he said, were what really led to the end of the white regime.
Most of the questions, the majority of which were actually closer to comments, revealed a yearning for leadership: How does a society produce leaders like Mandela? What happens when two leaders don’t want to change, even if the people do? And how do we create reconciliation while the occupation continues?
“Peace happened in South Africa when we realized that we all had nowhere else to go on the globe,” Ngombane said, adding, “We accepted as a baseline that we had to share our piece of land. When your peoples will all accept this — and when, like Mandela, you realize that the past must be put aside — then you, too, will find peace.”
Eid concluded by saying that the lesson of Mandela’s life is the lesson of leadership and the role of the people.
“If Nelson Mandela were to come back today, he would cry for us all, in Gaza and Sderot,” Eid said. “The South African people deserved Mandela. We, the peoples on both sides, must also make ourselves worthy of great leaders.”
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