Nelson Mandela

Secretary of State John Kerry, during a press conference yesterday in Israel, said a lesson Nelson Mandela taught him was that it “always seems impossible until it is done.” He told reporters that he considered it appropriate to “think about that in the context of the work that I’ve been doing here in the last couple of days and over these last months, and of the hopes and aspirations of the people of this region.”

“That example of Nelson Mandela is an example that we all need to take to heart as we face the challenge of trying to reach a two-state solution,” Kerry also stated.

The idea that it “always seems impossible until it is done” does not only involve two parties coming together to negotiate peace. It requires that both sides negotiating abandon fear and treat each other’s people with dignity and respect.

Plus, what is going to be done?

Kerry wants Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to come to some kind of agreement that includes a two-state solution, which would preserve many aspects of the system of apartheid that exists in Israel.

Mandela may have been a pragmatist and reconciler, but he bargained when the movement of black South Africans, with the support of leaders and groups around the world, had brought the white government of South Africa to a point where it needed to negotiate an agreement that could bring peace, justice and political emancipation to the country.

There were fears of black domination among leaders in the white government. However, President F.W. de Klerk and others ultimately negotiated and agreed to listen to Mandela dissuade them from letting fear of black South Africans consume them because they wanted to avoid greater civil war.

In contrast, Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders do not want to give up any power. They seem content with holding on to their fears of Arabs and allowing the violence to continue if it can insulate Israeli citizens from it entirely. (For example, an “Iron Dome” to fight off rocket attacks, which the US has sent hundreds of millions to help fund, has been constructed in Tel Aviv.)

Additionally, Mandela co-founded a military wing of the African National Congress called Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) and believed both violence and nonviolence were viable tactics.

“Where the conditions demanded that we should use non-violence, we would so; where the conditions demanded that we should depart from non-violence we would so,” Mandela declared.

In 1962, he wrote, “Whether you have to use peaceful methods or violent methods…is determined purely by the conditions.” Violence is used when “peaceful methods become inadequate.”

There is ample evidence that Israel, through its suppression of protests, has made it inevitable that it will be faced with militant groups that engage in violence against them. Any time Palestinians protest, Israeli forces fire upon demonstrators with live or non-lethal rounds wounding and sometimes killing people. They round up Palestinians and imprison them for engaging in free speech. Efforts are painstakingly made to marginalize and make dissent impossible.

On MSNBC’s “All In,” Chris Hayes used his program to engage in a rare discussion of how Mandela’s embrace of violence as a tactic for revolutionary change might apply to current struggles. Molly Crabapple, an artist and journalist who has covered Syria, noted how Bashar al-Assad made peaceful protest impossible and ensured his government would be met with a violent revolution.

Michael Moynihan, a Daily Beast editorial director, sought to draw a distinction between what South Africans did and everything happening currently:

The important distinction here is that this — these were people who were, you know, sort of living in a giant plantation, you know, bantustans and the rest of it and the illegitimate government and totalitarian regime that took all their rights. So, how does one respond to that if one does not pick up a gun? Now, it should be said that I do not think that this is a great tactic in the long run. I do not think it was the right, you know, tactic.

Ultimately, it did not work in Northern Ireland. You know, you have things like the church street bombing where there were lots of innocent people killed. But, you know, it is not terrorism. These are people waging a war against a government who has waged war upon them. And, I think it was a perfectly legitimate struggle.

Would that mean Palestinians engaging in violence were not terrorists?

Moynihan said later in the segment, “The problem is — and it`s a good point that we talk about language here — terrorism as a word is something that politicians and pundits have degraded so much over the past sort of 20 years and maybe even more is that we have to differentiate here. I mean this is — What the ANC was doing, spear of the nation doing was not what – - this is not Hamas.”

Umkhonto we Sizwe considered four types of violent activities: sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution. It understood, as Mandela wrote in his book, Long Walk to Freedom, that “terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining any public support it might otherwise garner.” The ANC was reluctant to support violence so the military wing went with violence that would inflict the least amount of harm against people: sabotage. It would not start a “blood feud,” making reconciliation still possible. (Nevertheless, the military wing would move to support “guerrilla warfare and terrorism” if sabotage “did not produce the results we wanted.”)

Hayes mentioned this, and, fortunately, Esther Armah, whose family was a part of the anti-colonial struggle in Ghana and even attacked by the military, was a part of the segment.

Armah told Moynihan, “This notion when we start to say that resistance by taking arms is not the right tactic. It does not work, is always articulated from the space of never understanding what it means to be under sustained attack.”

She pointed out prior to Moynihan’s comment that the white government was waging a war on its people. It was the institutional structures of South Africa that transformed Mandela into a leader. Thinking of him just in terms of “loss, legacy and leadership” divorces the man from the movement, which he led.

Mandela’s refusal to renounce violence was a recognition that he could either “submit or fight,” she added, mentioning Malcolm X.

“We will not submit. Now, that is radical revolutionary language. And so the thing that is really painful and challenging for me is that I feel like what happens when we reduce the importance of this moment, I feel like what we are trying to do is anesthetize the moment the racialize brutality,” Armah added. “And, make the space where Nelson Mandela was this man who was individually so extraordinary, he was able to transcend the circumstances of brutality. That is not what was real. This was about the power of movements to make change. That was the walk to freedom.”

Kerry, President Barack Obama and other US government officials will not elevate this aspect of Mandela’s history because they are not objective. They approach the issue of Palestinian peace differently than the issue of Syrian peace because they stand with Israel in its leaders’ global struggle against a worldwide movement of people who oppose the country’s system of apartheid. So, they would never want to concede that Palestinians have been put in a position by Israel where violence is inevitable.

To take this a step further, there is a Palestinian political prisoner jailed who is known to his people as a “Palestinian Mandela.” His name is Marwan Barghouti. After talks at Camp David failed, Barghouti decided “new forms of military struggle” would be necessary. He was convicted of five murders and one attempted murder and given five life sentences and one sentence of 40 years. (Recall, in 1964, Mandela was jailed for 221 acts of sabotage and could have been put to death.)

Barghouti reacted to the death of Mandela, “And from within my prison cell, I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours.”

A group of South Africans led by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation launched an international campaign on Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, on October 27 that called for Barghouti and all Palestinian political prisoners to be released. It was very symbolic because Kathrada was behind the “Release Mandela” campaign in South Africa before he was arrested and jailed on Robben Island.

It is very common for liberals to say things like they would support Palestinians if they had a Palestinian Mandela (or if they had a Palestinian Gandhi), but rarely do they look at those who are organizing and being jailed to find that there is no excuse to wait to support an individual. There are people like Barghouti and countless others that have, in the spirit of Mandela, taken action against a system of oppression and been imprisoned for their efforts.

Mandela was heavily criticized because he was friendly and supportive of Yasser Arafat. He told Ted Koppel in an interview for ABC News during his trip to the United States in 1990, “We identify with the [Palestinian Liberation Organization] because just like ourselves they are fighting for the right of self-determination.”

As Koppel pressed him, Mandela smoothly explained:

…One of the problems we are fearing in the world today are people who don’t look at problems objectively but from the point of view of their own interests. That makes things difficult because once a person is not objective it is extremely difficult to reach an agreement. One of the best examples of this is to think that because Arafat is conducting a struggle against the state of Israel that we must therefore condemn him. We can’t do that. It is just not possible for any organization or individual of integrity to do anything of the sort…

On February 16, 1990, Mandela told the Christian Science Monitor, when asked about his movement’s embrace of violence, if he would make it stop. That was a key concern for the US political class that wanted to support him.

“I have made it clear that the armed struggle will never be suspended—to say nothing of it being stopped—until a settlement is reached,” Mandela declared from “the garden of his tiny Soweto home.”

“You must be careful of being more worried about the violence that comes from the oppressed and saying little—or nothing at all—about the violence that comes from the government. They [the government] have closed all channels of communication. They have intensified the pressures. What does the world expect us to do in that situation?” Mandela added.

In other words, nobody wants violence, but neither does anyone want to suffer and submit to repression. When conflict is ugly, the people with real power to stop the violence, who have the upper hand, should be the first to be held accountable.

Not renouncing violence while engaging in reconciliation with the very people, whom Mandela ultimately forgave for oppressing him, left all tactics that could be used to achieve power available for use. It ensured that those in the white power structure could not attempt to divide and conquer and discredit factions by claiming they were behind violence that Mandela himself had opposed. It prevented the white South African government from having the ability to leverage his opposition to violence when trying to prevent a growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement from isolating the country for its policies and actions.

To the extent that Mandela allowed his principles and vision to be co-opted by capitalists of his country and permitted structures of economic apartheid to be maintained, he is an example to world leaders in power of how one can imprison a transformative organizer in the confines of their achieved compromises. Not willing to sacrifice what had been gained in terms of political rights for black Africans, the economic gains that could be made through the ANC’s Freedom Charter were largely abandoned after the constraints created by the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) were felt. (For more, see this chapter, “Democracy Born in Chains” by Naomi Klein from her book, The Shock Doctrine.)

But, Mandela’s true lesson for people of the world lies in all that he did prior to becoming president and negotiating with de Klerk. It comes from the courage and spirit he showed in his work with the ANC, during his imprisonment and then when he emerged from prison as an anti-apartheid icon. He was willing to fight and die for an idea if necessary. Under attack from his own government, he was able to mobilize others to fight and die for this idea too.

With that in mind, his example carries more power for the oppressed—Palestinians, Syrians, Bahrainis, Egyptians, etc—than for the figureheads of government, who have a commitment to managing power and containing resistance to their actions. And they may have to fight until power realizes it will have to embrace justice and human rights for all.