Nelson Mandela, boycotts, and the right side of history
"How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?”
Following Nelson Mandela's release from jail in 1990, Terry Dicks MP of Hayes and Harlington shared the above perspective on the African National Congress (ANC) choice to decline a meeting between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Mandela.
We'd like to believe that the days of openly racist remarks from politicians are gone but with the sentiments of xenophobia ever growing in Europe are such behaviours truly behind us?
"As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of his passing, it's worth examining whether the same political leaders who once lauded him still stand behind global efforts to oppose apartheid"
In 1987, Thatcher famously referred to Mandela's organisation, the ANC, as “A typical terrorist organisation… Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.” The pair did end up meeting at 10 Downing Street in July 1990, revealing how the tides turned on apartheid.
As the world celebrates Nelson Mandela Day, we pay tribute to a leader whose life served as an example of justice and freedom, even when incarcerated. In the eyes of world rulers, Mandela's transformation from demonization to deification is ironic given his life work was a crucial contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of his passing, it's worth examining whether the same political leaders who once lauded him still stand behind global efforts to oppose apartheid. This is particularly relevant given the ongoing apartheid-like treatment of Palestinians, a cause that was close to Mandela's heart.
Mandela often experienced unfavourable publicity throughout his life. A quick peek at the British Conservative Party's collection of statements about him provides a striking example of how he was portrayed in the UK's mainstream media at the time.
The Federation of Conservative Students, which was headed by former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, was notorious for wearing stickers that read "Hang Nelson Mandela" in 1986, before being banned by the party's leadership. While being MP for Rochford and Southend East, Teddy Taylor said that Mandela "should be shot.”
David Cameron, former Conservative Prime Minister, tried to seek forgiveness for his party’s dark past by admitting in 2006, “The mistakes my party made in the past with respect to relations with the African National Congress and sanctions on South Africa make it all the more important to listen now.”
To make matters worse, Cameron travelled to South Africa on an all-expenses paid trip while Mandela was incarcerated. A group founded particularly to oppose the implementation of sanctions on South Africa organised the visit. It was described by critics at the time as a “sanctions-busting jolly.” Were his attempts at seeking forgiveness genuine?
In Cameron’s own words, the Conservatives made a mistake in regard to sanctions on the regime in South Africa. But now, the subject of Israel's occupation of Palestine and apartheid receives utterly different treatment from the political establishment. In the context of Mandela's legacy, this is worth considering.
"The imposition of sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s led to the dismantling of the apartheid regime, inspiring Palestinians to dream that their own freedom was on the horizon"
The treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli state and authority has been categorically referred to be apartheid by Amnesty International. The system established in the occupied territories functions under an unjust and discriminatory framework, perpetuating inequity, injustice and racism.
Nelson Mandela famously proclaimed on November 29, 1997, International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians." He repeatedly emphasised that it was the greatest moral issue of our time. These remarks were given at the height of Mandela's presidency as the country's first post-apartheid President.
When Mandela visited Palestine in 1999, Palestinians welcomed him with open arms. Over the course of his journey, he spoke with lawmakers and local authorities and paid a moving visit to the Al-Shati Refugee Camp in northern Gaza, where he spent his time meeting those who had been displaced within their own land.
People of all ages gathered to greet him, with many waving South African flags, symbolising their support for his positions and highlighting the parallels between the challenges faced by both nations. It was particularly sweet to see the young women from the refugee camp’s school welcome him, while adorned in Palestinian Tatreez dresses.
Mandela consistently advocated for a two-state solution for the region, repeatedly emphasising home the need for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. He was frequently criticised for maintaining this position, but it was one that was unwavering. This stance remained firm throughout his life, and his commitment to this cause has been carried forward by his bloodline.
His grandson, Zwelivelile "Mandla" Mandela, a Member of Parliament in the African National Congress, is renowned for his vocal expressions of views on the issue, thereby upholding the familial legacy of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
Less than six months after Nelson Mandela’s death, David Cameron claimed that Britain would “steadfastly oppose any boycott of Israel,” during a joint press conference with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. In stark contrast to his past views, he had previously stated his firm conviction that “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp” upon taking office as Prime Minister in 2010, openly referencing the blockade imposed by Israel on the besieged strip.
While fully aware of Britain's historical role in the division of their country, Palestinians and activists sensed a fleeting ray of optimism in hearing any Prime Minister of the United Kingdom make such a statement. This was not to last.
The subsequent abstaining of Prime Minister Cameron from a parliamentary vote on whether the British government should recognise Palestine as a state shortly after he gave his address in the Knesset in 2014 added to the sadness and disillusionment among Palestinians and campaigners. The hope that had been initially sparked by his remarks was destroyed by his act of retracting from his earlier statements, which solidified a feeling of betrayal.
Cameron's stance showed a slight reversal in 2016. He publicly stated his genuine shock at witnessing the illegal settlements during a visit to East Jerusalem. However, his tenure as Prime Minister was cut short, as he resigned less than six months later. Unfortunately, many felt that this was too little, too late.
Beyond merely our current government, the opposition is also guilty of hypocrisy. For instance, Labour Leader Keir Starmer said in 2020 that Nelson Mandela “fought for social justice, against racism and led a movement which ended Apartheid.”
In an interview in April 2022, when asked about Amnesty International's classification of Israel as an "apartheid state," Keir Starmer stated that it did not align with the position of the Labour Party. In response, Amnesty International clarified its stance, stating that while they do believe apartheid is indeed a crime against humanity, the phrase "apartheid state" is a slogan that they have not employed. Nevertheless, despite the framing inconsistency, the essence of Starmer's response was crystal clear.
Ahead of London's local elections that same month, Starmer invited representatives of the Israeli Labour Party to observe his canvassing activities in Barnet, north London. This gesture demonstrates the direction in which the British Labour Party is moving, making it clear that anyone hoping for significant support for the Palestinian people from the current opposition shouldn't hold their breath.
Starmer’s own words in 2020 stated “He [Mandela] continues to inspire us today and reminds us that we must come together to defeat racism and inequality in our society and across the world,” in regard to Nelson Mandela’s legacy. Does Keir Starmer's view on this issue fit within the many other situations where he has changed his mind?
These examples of hypocrisy are particularly pertinent right now because this month also marks the 18th anniversary of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement's founding. The BDS campaign was established on July 9th, 2005, to adhere to “Palestinian civil society calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.”
The imposition of sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s led to the dismantling of the apartheid regime, inspiring Palestinians to dream that their own freedom was on the horizon. This significant accomplishment has served as a guiding objective for Palestinians and the various advocacy groups dedicated to their cause, thus leading to the founding of the BDS campaign.
This month has seen a number of overt political attacks on it. The recent passage of the 'Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill' has prompted various human rights groups and organisations to call on MPs to oppose the legislation.
The long title reads “A bill to make provision to prevent public bodies from being influenced by political or oral disapproval of foreign states when taking certain economic decisions, subject to certain exceptions; and for connected purposes.” In short, the legislation offers Israel special safeguards from governmental bodies that seek to take a moral and ethical stance against the racist and discriminatory policies of the Israeli government.
In a letter to Michael Gove MP and Lisa Nandy MP, the Secretary and Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities in the UK, respectively, Dr Aimee Shalan, Chair of the British Palestinian Committee, expressed her fierce opposition to both the government's position and the opposition to the proposed legislation.
In the letter she writes, “By launching this attack on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns at this moment of extreme Israeli violence towards Palestinians, the Government has chosen to ally with one of Israel’s most radical right-wing governments and assist in its efforts to negate our existence and crush any resistance to their colonial project.”
Dr Shalan refers to the most recent Israeli military action in the Jenin Refugee Camp, commencing on July 3rd and ending on July 5th, marking the worst incursion of violence in the camp in two decades. This raid, which UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned as an "excessive use of military force," resulted in the deaths of 12 Palestinians, hundreds of injuries, thousands of people being displaced, extensive damage to hospitals and schools, as well as vital water and electricity infrastructure, which has resulted in irreparable damage.
“Our local democracy, freedom of expression and the right of public bodies to freely decide how they invest their funds are all at stake. For breaches of Palestinian rights and the basic civil liberties that belong to all of us as British citizens, this bill should be clearly opposed at every stage,” Dr Shalan concluded.
The position taken by the UK government and opposition is entirely consistent with the concerns voiced by the British Palestinian Committee and the 60+ trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, human rights, and solidarity organisations that have formed a broad civil society coalition in protest. On a day when speeches, testimonials, and tweets honouring his extraordinary legacy are being shared, it will be distressing to see the same politicians supporting legislation that goes against the fundamental ideas and ideals demonstrated by the late and great Nelson Mandela.
Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. He has showcased documentaries at prestigious institutions including the Universities of Oxford and Westminster, as well as the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week
Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_