A decade after Mandela’s death, his pro-Palestinian legacy lives on

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Days after his release from 27 years in prison in February 1990, anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela gave Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a bear hug, symbolising his embrace of a cause his country’s governing ANC party continues to champion.

It was a gesture as controversial then as South Africa’s support for the Palestinian cause is today, but Mandela brushed off criticism.

Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation had been an unwavering supporter of Mandela’s struggle against white minority rule and many South Africans saw parallels between it and the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.

“We were fortunate that with their support, we were able to achieve our freedom … My grandfather … said our freedom is incomplete without the Palestinian struggle,” his grandson Mandla Mandela recalled in an interview ahead of the 10th commemoration of Mandela’s death.

From Dec. 3 to 5 Mandla Mandela, who is also an ANC lawmaker, hosted a solidarity conference in Johannesburg for the Palestinians. It was attended by members of Hamas, an organisation Israel has vowed to annihilate in retaliation for its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people and saw around 240 taken hostage.

Israeli bombing of Gaza since then has killed more than 15,500 people, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run government, and displaced more than three-quarters of the Strip’s 2.3 million population.

Hamas, sworn to Israel’s destruction, is labelled a terrorist organisation by Australia, Canada, the European Union, Israel, Japan and the United States.

Last month, the ruling ANC backed a motion in South Africa’s parliament to suspend diplomatic ties with Israel until it agreed to a ceasefire in Gaza.

“Palestinians still do not enjoy fully their freedom on their land. And instead their land has been annexed more and more, something that we also faced in South Africa,” said the ANC’s deputy chair of international relations, Obed Bapela.

Israel has disputed the comparison with apartheid as a lie motivated by antisemitism, but many South Africans follow Mandela’s lead. “That’s something that he (Mandela) never compromised on and nor should we,” poet and author Lebogang Mashile told Reuters.

Some in South Africa’s Jewish community criticise the ANC’s stance, pointing out that Mandela himself eventually tried to build bridges with Israel.

Historian and author of “Jewish Memories of Mandela”, David Saks, noted that Mandela was the only South African president to have visited Israel since 1994 – albeit only after he left office – and that “he received a rapturous welcome from the Israeli public,” addressing then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and then-President Ezer Weisman as “my friends”.

“He pointed the way which things should have gone (diplomatically with Israel), but (they) didn’t go that way,” Saks said.

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