Cut from the same cloth: Mandela and Barghouti

Often called the ‘Palestinian Mandela’, Marwan Barghouti’s political trajectory is eerily similar to the late leader’s.

Serving five life sentences behind Israeli jail, Barghouti may yet succeed Mahmoud Abbas as president [AP]

One thing that we can be sure of is that Mandela’s death will be followed by historical whitewashing on a grand scale. It is already happening.

We have seen an unprecedented outpouring of global grief as world leaders looked to the southern tip of Africa to offer their condolences; some a little more disingenuously than others. Even the embattled Bashar al-Assad took a moment inbetween the shelling and slaughter in Syria to offer his sympathies, saying (apparently with a straight face) that Mandela’s life taught a lesson to oppressors.

That Mandela has been eulogised by pretty much every single world leader can be seen as a testament to his abilities as a reconciling leader and pragmatic statesman. But it is also because the memory of a complex life like Mandela’s offers a lot to pick and choose from and, however consciously or subconsciously, his legacy will no doubt be neutered by those with uncomfortable truths to hide.

Mandela the “Black Pimpernel”, the co-founder of an armed resistance movement who uncompromisingly supported the right of the oppressed to resist, will be tamed and tempered before entering the official history books. His legacy may be hollowed of its radical content and reduced to a few saccharine words – love, compassion, forgiveness.

When Conservative Party voices in the UK gush over Mandela’s legacy they are careful to skirt around the awkward fact that they were no friends of the ANC during some of its most trying times, Thatcher having famously dismissed the movement in 1987 as “a typical terrorist organisation”. Those on the right in both the UK and the US, have yet to face up to their complicity in apartheid.

Over time Israel would draw ever closer to South Africa and the two pariahs would close ranks against a tide of international opinion.

Israel’s amnesia

But the worst case of selective amnesia was seen in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu, who responded to the death of Mandela by saying, “He was the father of his nation, a man of vision, a fighter for freedom who avoided violence. He was a humble man who provided a personal example for his nation during the long years he spent in prison.”

Predictably, there was no acknowledgement of the historical alliance between apartheid South Africa and Israel. In 1948, when both apartheid and the state of Israel came into being, the two countries would hardly have seemed likely bedfellows – just a few years earlier Afrikaner Nationalist leaders had openly been emulating Hitler and supporting the German war machine. But over time Israel would draw ever closer to South Africa and the two pariahs would close ranks against a tide of international opinion.

While Mandela and his fellow Robben Islanders were locked away, the two states co-operated economically and militarily, with Israel playing a crucial role in busting the sanctions imposed on South Africa. Testimonies by Israeli agent-turned-Hollywood billionaire Arnon Milchan, as well as a recent book by Sasha Polakow-Suransky, show strong evidence for secret nuclear cooperation, too.

And even as South Africa’s right-wing allies in the West were falling by the wayside, Israel tried to maintain close ties with the National Party. For the Israeli leadership, it seemed, no amount of apartheid brutality was distasteful enough for them to question their relationship with South Africa. And to do so, would only have invited charges of hypocrisy and some very uncomfortable self-reflection.

It was only in the late 1980s that Israel, pushed by its Western backers, reluctantly started to put a little distance between itself and the apartheid regime. When Mandela was released soon afterwards, one of the first leaders he decided to meet was Palestine Liberation Organisation Chairman Yasser Arafat. Mandela told the Palestinians “there are many similarities between our struggle and that of the PLO. We live under a unique form of colonialism in South Africa, as well as in Israel.”

By this time, the first Intifada had erupted and Palestinians had brought the struggle for independence closer to home, no doubt encouraged in some ways by the resistance to apartheid. It was the Intifada that catapulted Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti to prominence. The 54-year-old Barghouti, who has widely been referred to as the Mandela of Palestine, is likewise “a fighter for freedom who avoided violence”, to borrow Netanyahu’s words.

Ahmed Kathrada, who was jailed alongside Mandela at Robben Island, launched a campaign to free Barghouti and all political prisoners.

Leading from prison

Barghouti’s political trajectory so far looks startlingly similar to the one Mandela took. Barghouti too was faced with an intransigent state that answered legitimate, non-violent resistance with repression. By the time of the second Intifada, which began in 2000, Barghouti was in charge of Fatah’s armed wing. In 2002, he was arrested and later handed down five life sentences, spending three years in solitary confinement.

Behind bars, he commands tremendous respect among Palestinians who look to him as a unifying figure. He is seen as the only leader who could bridge the seemingly intractable Hamas-Fatah divide, and this is the real reason Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders fear him. It is not because he is a diehard extremist of any kind – long before his imprisonment he showed a very real willingness to engage with Israelis; he has been critical of attacks on civilians while holding firm to his belief in popular resistance; and he has called for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. And it is for these reasons that Barghouti offers the best hope for a just and lasting peace. He may yet succeed Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president from behind bars.

Recently, Ahmed Kathrada, who was jailed alongside Mandela at Robben Island, launched a campaign to free Barghouti and all political prisoners. Roughly 5,000 Palestinians, many of them minors, remain in Israeli jails, where they are often deprived of the right to a fair trial. If Netanyahu is serious about peace – and we have no reason to believe that the Israeli government is acting any less cynically than usual in this latest round of negotiations – then he should release Barghouti unconditionally.

As Kathrada said, not doing so would “[disregard] what has proven to be the case in other conflicts – that prisoners, once released, can be instrumental in achieving peace. The unconditional release of political prisoners is a powerful signal that the hardened enemies of yesterday are finally ready to become peace partners today.” 

Leaders from across the world have gathered for Mandela’s funeral and the occasion offers an important opportunity for global dialogue. Obama, Abbas, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have all made it down to South Africa, but Netanyahu did not attend, speciously citing financial reasons. It makes his tribute to the departed freedom fighter sound all the more astonishing in its hollow hypocrisy.   

Micah Reddy is a South African freelance journalist based in Cairo.

Follow him on Twitter: @RedMicah