On the day of Nelson Mandela’s death, people from all walks of life mourned his loss. Amongst the loudest mourners were politicians who criminalized his actions, branded him a terrorist, and supported his imprisonment—labelling his anti-apartheid work an act of ‘anti-white hostility.’
Today he is mourned a hero. Conveniently forgotten are the campaigns against him. Mandela was on the United States’ terrorism watch list until 2008, Margaret Thatcher famously said that, “the ANC [African National Congress] is a typical terrorist organization … Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”
These were not isolated remarks. Returned and Services League of Australia’s Bruce Ruxton commented that the ANC was a more dangerous “terrorist” organization than the Irish Republican Army and the Palestinian Liberation Organization – the latter ironically transformed into a legitimate arm of government after the Oslo Accords.
These histories of vilification—where the powerless are demonized by the powers that dominate them—are almost cyclical (examine the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example). Voltaire’s phrase “To know who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize,” echoes through the passageway of time into contemporary events: Mandela’s imprisonment after organizing against a white supremacist regime; the criminalization of the ANC; Palestinians, both adults and children, incarcerated for refusing to cooperate (though sometimes arbitrarily) under the conditions of occupation; Israel’s refusal to recognize the democratically elected Hamas (while prizing themselves as the beacon of democracy in the Middle East, no less) and converting the Gaza Strip into an open air prison.
In 1997, years after Mandela’s release and the crippling of the apartheid state by popular boycott, divestment and sanctions, Mandela famously said in an address at the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” And yet those who publicly mourn him sugarcoat the true zeal of the great man that was Nelson Mandela, and work to silence his call for action in solidarity with Palestine.
And yet, there is still hope. In the spirit of Nelson Mandela, actions across the world have taken place in the last year alone.
The Association for Asian American studies passed a resolution for a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) in April followed by the American Studies Association in December. The European Union boycotted several Israeli companies and sanctioned Israel for its illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Stephen Hawking endorsed the academic boycott beside the name of Noam Chomsky the York Federation of Students passed a BDS resolution. Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War’s and Palestinian Association of Hamilton’s, joined by McMaster Muslims for Peace and Justice, picketed at Canadian Tire to boycott SodaStream products, whose production is in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Each one of these actions received backlash from Israel and its supporters. Backlash eerily similar to the controversy surrounding Mandela during the age of apartheid South Africa.
The similarity of the portraits—and the absurdity of both—of South Africa and Palestine leaps out when Palestinians who throw rocks are called terrorists, but when Israeli leader Ariel Sharon levelled Palestinian cities and encouraged their further expulsion (all acts of ethnic cleansing as defined by the United Nations and International Criminal Court)—now he’s an example of a warrior!
The question we are faced with is: will we continue to praise Mandela yet sit comfortably in our hypocrisy in not heeding his call for action?