Strolling through the streets in the Al-Tireh area of Ramallah, one would easily spot a tall statue of a smiling man raising his right fist high in the air; a man of utmost importance to the Palestinians. No, this is not a statue of Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat) though many might first think of him. The statue is of South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and political leader Madiba, or Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela; an advocate, supporter, and brother of the Palestinian people. Gifted to Ramallah in 2016 by the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, this monument symbolizes the close ties the people of Palestine share with those who faced persecution under South African apartheid and their similar fights for liberation.
July 18th is Nelson Mandela International Day, as declared by the United Nations in 2009. It’s a day for recognition of Mandela’s commitment to human rights and to honor his legacy and values. The Mandela Day Campaign message is as follows:
"Nelson Mandela has fought for social justice for 67 years. We're asking you to start with 67 minutes."
This is a call to action for the world at large to give just 67 minutes of their day to help fight poverty, promote peace, reconciliation and cultural diversity. So, what will you do?
"Experience tells us that the road to liberation is not an easy, romantic wish, but a practical and complicated undertaking that calls for clear thinking and proper planning."#NelsonMandela pic.twitter.com/4gVpweQI0z— NelsonMandela (@NelsonMandela) July 6, 2021
Mandela And Palestine
Mandela related closely to Palestine through his years of dedication to the dissolution of South African apartheid and it is no mystery why. The struggles in so many ways are eerily similar. From laws barring groups of 10 or more people to gather, to special ID cards, segregation and persecution based on ethnicity, Israeli apartheid mirrors much of the South African apartheid system. But Nelson Mandela did not end his efforts within the borders of his own country. His dedication to the freedoms and rights of oppressed people extended into the rest of the world.
In 1964, Mr. Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for the formation of the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), called Umkhonto we Sizwe though more commonly known as MK. During his 26 years in prison the Palestinian struggle found him. During a speech at the Palestine Expo in 2019, Nelson’s grandson Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela spoke of photos of young Palestinian freedom fighters armed with only stones that reached South Africa in the years his grandfather was imprisoned. “Those images found themselves in every street of the townships in South Africa, found themselves in every prison of South Africa and found themselves right in the hands of my grandfather in Robben Island.” He then explains that his grandfather said “those photos inspired them and ensured that they kept hope alive.”
Shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he embarked on a journey around the world, to advocate for nations to continue sanctioning South Africa as the ANC pursued their goals of liberation. During his visit to the United States, he appeared on a Town Hall Meeting with Ted Koppel of ABC News. This was still 4 years before democratic elections took place in South Africa and Nelson Mandela was still considered a terrorist by the US at this time. During the broadcast, Mandela was questioned on many controversial subjects including his relationship with Yasser Arafat and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). This was a heated topic at the time, due to the ongoing First Intifada in Palestine, and the United States’ stance on Arafat and his organization. Mandela very succinctly stated that “we identify with the PLO, because just like ourselves, they are fighting for the right of self-determination.” He proceeds to call on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories of 1967, namely the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. Closing his answer with a direct comment about Yasser Arafat, Mandela simply says, “Arafat is a comrade in arm[s], and we treat him as such.”
Mandela’s Legacy in Our Fight For Palestine
As one should expect, there is a lot that we can learn from Madiba and utilize in the Palestinian story as our struggles are similarly against racism, supremacy and ethnic cleansing. His determination to continue organization and education even when jailed for 26 years ought to be an inspiration for all supporters of Palestine. Use adversity not as a deterrent but rather as motivation to continue your actions.
Get firmly behind the BDS movement. The Anti-Apartheid Movement that brought boycotts and sanctions upon South Africa was crucial in the dismantling of apartheid in the country. This must be seen as a parallel in our own path. Boycotts and sanctions will exert the required pressure to make tangible differences on the ground in Palestine. Mandela was a firm supporter of sanctions on South Africa, urging countries not to rescind them while the struggle was still ongoing.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned from Mandela is empathy and respect. In prison, he saw humanity in people, even those who were harsh towards him. He recognized that many of the prison guards, police officers, and politicians he butted heads with along the way, were products of the system he was trying to dismantle. We can take this into our own fight. Remember that the apartheid system is designed to be perpetual. People are molded by the system they live in, but that doesn’t mean that mold can’t be altered. This is where education shows importance.
So on this Nelson Mandela Day, put yourself to work doing something to further the Palestinian cause. Educate, share, speak up, donate, learn, and remember to always stand strong regardless of your opposition. This will lead to a free Palestine.