Can South Africa follow through on its anti-apartheid solidarity with Palestine?

Can South Africa follow through on its anti-apartheid solidarity with Palestine?
Comment: On Mandela Day, South Africa is reminded of the commitments it made to helping Palestinians fight apartheid. The sooner that happens, the better, writes Janet Smith.
6 min read
18 Jul, 2019
Pro-Palestinian groups demonstrate in Durban, South Africa against the killing of Palestinians in Gaza [AFP]
In the week of what would have been his 101st birthday, Nelson Mandela made an emotionally unexpected return to South African, and world, TV screens.

His memory had already been briefly revived in the Middle East and Europe on July 7 when his grandson, Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela, a South African MP, slammed Israel apartheid at the Palestine Expo at the Olympia London.

The young Mandela, a traditional leader, is married to a Muslim woman, Nosekeni Raabia Clarke, and they have three children. 

Mandla Mandela drew headlines out of the UK for his public outrage at Israel's Nation State Law, which he stated was statutory discrimination rendering non-Jews foreigners in the land of their birth.

This is indeed the same depraved policy adopted by apartheid South Africa's National Party government to legitimate white supremacy over 45 years.

That Mandela was a guest of Palestine Expo organisers Friends of Al-Aqsa, was significant in that the NGO champions BDS. And BDS has a growing support base in South Africa where it has political access to the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

But it's an ongoing battle for the 45-year-old chief and increasing numbers of new ANC MPs, MPs belonging to the third-largest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and the country's two biggest trade union federations.

The EFF, led by a former ANC youth leader, Julius Malema, is an African nationalist party whose ideology is a blend of African Socialism and revolutionary rhetoric. Its grassroots membership is expanding slowly as the ANC's neoliberal economic policies fail to produce change for a poor and working-class majority.

Although all these MPs are vocal protagonists for a free and united Palestine, they have yet to see their buttressing of that struggle reach its final stage: South Africa downgrading its embassy in Tel Aviv.

BDS and the international movement against Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine are finally beginning to make fresh gains in Africa

Nonetheless, BDS and the international movement against Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine and fortification of Gaza are finally beginning to make fresh gains in Africa, and Mandla Mandela and this new generation of South African politicians are not letting up the pressure on their elders. 

As has been the case within its government for 25 years, South Africa condemns Israel for "prejudging final status issues" on its borders. It demands Israel withdraw from the territories it occupied in 1967, and the clock is ticking.

It's been 18 months since the ANC announced its intention to implement an official downgrade as a result of Israel's non-compliance and its war on Gaza, and that it has not yet reached a conclusion on this matter, is frustrating Mandela and the other MPs.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, elected into power after the country went to the polls in May, has appointed a new international relations minister, Naledi Pandor, but she has not taken this policy to its next stage.

Nonetheless, Pretoria's positioning has remained steady since the recall of its ambassador to Israel last year. In April, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (foreign affairs) confirmed the ambassador would not be replaced, which is, undeniably, "stage one" towards a downgrade.

The plan is that South Africa's liaison office in Tel Aviv would have no political, trade or development co-operation mandate and would function only on a consular level.

This would, says Mandla Mandela, finally match with the efforts of his grandfather who hosted Yasser Arafat in South Africa after his inauguration in 1994. But this week, the memory of Nelson Mandela, as revived on TV in his birthday week, was not about Palestine or Israel. It was about an old friend who, as it happened, also went global with his fight for the liberation of Gaza.

Today, 18 July, was declared Mandela Day in 2010 by the United Nations as a global salute to the former President, ANC political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize-winner. South Africans dubbed it "67 Minutes" after a branding campaign for a day of service to denote Mandela's 67 years of human rights work and militant activism.

Although the campaign has since been diluted into a one-day cocktail of care, in which schoolchildren in affluent areas deliver charitable goods to struggling households, blue-chip companies lend staff to build informal housing, and government ministers fetishise kindness, it does offer a momentary spirit of unity.

South African politics is in its most parlous state since the end of apartheid, so the overwhelmingly positive response to the televised video of Mandela dancing at a live music concert in Paris in 1999, was remarkable for these times.

That kind of footage was once key to selling a "rainbow nation" strategy to the people, but catastrophic corruption over the past decade, which has seen the country's GDP decline by 3.2 percent in the first quarter of 2019, while the unemployment rate that edges on 27 percent, has destroyed optimism. 

This week, former president Jacob Zuma - whose administration presided over most of those 10 years - is appearing before a commission of inquiry into state capture. He is likely to go on trial on charges of fraud later this year.

But the struggles continue, and the next important one to conquer, will be against Israel

None of that mattered on Tuesday night, when news broke that international musician Johnny Clegg, a beloved son of the South African soil, had succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 66. And that led to the screening of the video of Mandela dancing at a Clegg show in the French capital, which held the nation entranced. 

Mandela appeared on the Paris stage as a surprise for Clegg, who counted among his most radiant songs, "Asimbonanga" (we've never seen him), a favourite of Mandela. It tells of how compatriots didn't know Mandela's face when he was freed in 1990, as his image had been banned from publication when he was jailed for 27 years in 1962.

When South Africans finally saw Mandela upon his release from Victor Verster Prison in Cape Town in 1990, he was like a stranger to most, but his legend meant he was instantly adored. 

Clegg was among the artists who fought the vicious apartheid machine, supporting Mandela and the ANC as fearless anti-apartheid activists. In the same spirit, Clegg wrote the song, Love in the Time of Gaza, in 2012, appalled by the bombardment by Israel upon Palestine.

Clegg was a white man after Mandela's own heart. The apartheid state long sought to shut Clegg down, arresting him for the first time when he was 15-years-old as he embraced Black consciousness through a childhood love of maskandi (Zulu folk) guitar and the "umzansi" and "isishameni" dance styles.

The collective grief the country feels on Mandela Day for the loss of Clegg is a grief not unlike that which the United States felt for Aretha Franklin. But the struggles continue, and the next important one to conquer, will be against Israel.

Janet Smith is a former newspaper editor, political analyst and co-author of several books including The A-Z of South African Politics, The Black Consciousness Reader and The Coming Revolution: Julius Malema and the Fight for Economic Freedom.

Follow her on Twitter: @Janet_xasperate

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.