Where Is the Palestinian Mandela?
Nelson Mandela

Many interested in Israel-Palestine have asked the question: “Where is the Palestinian Mandela?” But Nelson Mandela’s grandson Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela has argued that this question emerges from a distortion of his grandfather’s legacy. 

Who Was Nelson Mandela?

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 in the Union of South Africa. Mandela, a descendent of the Thembu royal family, became a lawyer and an African nationalist and anti-colonial activist. Soon after Mandela co-founded the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League in 1944, the governing National Party implemented an apartheid regime through its policy of racial segregation which enforced White-minority rule.

Mandela and his peers in the ANC focused their efforts on overthrowing the apartheid regime. Today, Mandela is remembered for his efforts toward racial reconciliation. However, as his grandson reminds us, Mandela was a revolutionary freedom fighter who had to struggle to remove the oppressors before he could consider reconciliation.

In 1961, Mandela warned: “It is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence against a government whose reply is only savage attacks.”

Overthrowing South Africa’s Oppressors

In 1956, Nelson Mandela was among the 156 South African anti-apartheid activists arrested in a raid and accused of treason by the government. The trial resulted in the banning of the African National Congress, and Mandela began operating covertly.

Mandela became a fugitive and disguised himself; the press called him “the Black Pimpernel” for his skill at evading the police, a derogatory reference to Baroness Orczy’s fictional character Scarlet Pimpernel who evaded capture during the French revolution.

When Non-Violence Turned to Violence

Mandela and the ANC and Pan African Congress worked to organize non-violent demonstrations and strikes; however, the government met the peaceful protestors with violence, killing and wounding many people and crushing the popular resistance.

Mandela realized that non-violent movements would not be enough to fight the violence of the apartheid regime: “If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent struggle, we will have to reconsider our tactics. In my mind we are closing a chapter on this question of a non-violent policy.” By 1961, Mandela became a leader of the armed struggle and established the ANC’s paramilitary wing uMkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), which launched with a series of explosions in response to the government’s violence against peace demonstrators.

In an excerpt of his autobiography, Mandela describes his decision to take on the great challenge of starting an army having never before fought in battle or even fired a gun at an enemy: “Are you going to remain silent and neutral in a matter of life and death to my people, to our people? For my own part I have made my choice. I will not leave South Africa, nor will I surrender. Only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won.”

Mandela Sentenced to Life in Prison

Nelson Mandela smuggled himself out of South Africa and travelled around Africa and England to gain support for the fight and receive military training before returning in 1962. By 1964 Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for sabotage, and he said: “The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. Our struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by our own suffering and our own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. If needs be, [a free society] is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

During his 27 years of brutal imprisonment, Mandela’s leadership and legacy inspired great change outside the walls of prison. South Africans continued organizing and protesting the apartheid regime, and international support for the anti-apartheid movement grew. Mandela was freed in 1990 and led negotiations to end apartheid and establish a multiracial government.

In 1993, Nelson Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1994 he became South Africa’s first freely elected president.

Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela

Distorting Mandela’s Legacy

In a 2020 op-ed for Al Jazeera , Nelson Mandela’s grandson Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela—known as “Mandla”—argued that his grandfather’s legacy is distorted in the popular question: “Where is the Palestinian Mandela?” This question refers to an idea of Mandela as a non-violent activist who sought reconciliation in order to critique Palestinians who choose not to engage in non-violent protest.

Mandla writes: “Mandela’s cause was not peace and reconciliation; it was justice and liberation. Reconciliation and forgiveness only came after liberation was achieved. Before that, [Mandela] considered any kind of ‘reconciliation’ with the oppressor as submission…” He continued, “South Africa’s allies in the global anti-apartheid movement also never asked us to make peace with our oppressors before our liberation was achieved.”

Quoting his grandfather, he shared that Mandela did not engage in negotiations with the government while Black South Africans were being violently dispossessed and persecuted, because “the carrying on of negotiations and rhetoric on peace while at the same time the government is conducting a war against us in a position we cannot accept.”

Nelson Mandela Addressing Palestine

Reputable non-profit organization such as B’Tselem, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have described Israel’s policies toward Palestinians as enforcing a system of apartheid in Israel-Palestine. Even the United Nations has called Israel’s occupation of Palestinian Territory apartheid. Nelson Mandela—an activist and intellectual with first-hand experience of apartheid—likely would have agreed. 

In an ABC interview shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Mandela was asked about his relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization, then still considered a terrorist group. He responded: “We identify with the PLO because just like ourselves they are fighting for the right to self-determination.”

A few years later, he reiterated this conviction in a speech on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, declaring: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.”

The Makings of a True Palestinian Mandela

Many hope that a Palestinian Mandela would exclusively pursue non-violent action in the face of Israel’s military aggression toward civilians, including Palestinian children. However, Mandela’s fight against apartheid proved to be much more complicated.

While supporting a two-state solution, Mandela insisted that it would only be possible if Israel withdrew from the Palestinian territories it occupied. He advised Palestinian activists: “Choose peace rather than confrontation. Except in cases where we cannot get, where we cannot proceed, or we cannot move forward. Then if the only alternative is violence, we will use violence.”

Mandela’s grandson Mandla concludes: “The greatest lesson that Israel and its supporters can learn from Nelson Mandela’s life is that peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation will only come when all people enjoy justice, freedom, and dignity.”

We encourage you to learn more about the history behind the Israel-Palestine conflict at the online Promised Land Museum.

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