China is driving the BRICS train

Pankaj Mishra writes: Rarely has an acronym led such a charmed life as BRICS. Casually invented by former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economist and Bloomberg View columnist Jim O’Neill to label emerging markets of promise, it actually brought together leaders from the disparate countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Last week in Brazil, they took a decisive step toward building institutions that could plausibly challenge the long geopolitical and economic ascendancy of the West.

The New Development Bank, headquartered in Shanghai, would finance infrastructure and development projects. This would be the biggest rival yet to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the economic architecture designed by the U.S. in Bretton Woods in 1944.

There are good reasons why China is working hard to establish it. The BRICS countries contain more than 40 percent of the world’s population and account for a quarter of the world’s economy. China itself may shortly bypass the U.S. to become the world’s biggest economy (based on domestic purchasing power). Yet leadership of the World Bank and the IMF remains the exclusive preserve of the U.S. and western European countries.

The promised reforms to these institutions have not materialized; China now clearly wants to build its own global system with the help of the BRICS. A new “special relationship” with its closest economic partner in the West — Germany — and the recent establishment of Frankfurt as a clearinghouse for the renminbi is part of the same Chinese attempt to break the hegemony of the dollar as a payments and reserve currency. [Continue reading...]

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Mandela received weapons training from Mossad agents in Ethiopia

Haaretz reports: Nelson Mandela, the former South African leader who died earlier this month, was trained in weaponry and sabotage by Mossad operatives in 1962, a few months before he was arrested in South Africa. During his training, Mandela expressed interest in the methods of the Haganah pre-state underground and was viewed by the Mossad as leaning toward communism.

These revelations are from a document in the Israel State Archives labeled “Top Secret.” The existence of the document is revealed here for the first time.

It also emerges that the Mossad operatives attempted to encourage Zionist sympathies in Mandela.

Mandela, the father of the new South Africa and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, led the struggle against apartheid in his country from the 1950s. He was arrested, tried and released a number of times before going underground in the early 1960s. In January 1962, he secretly and illegally fled South Africa and visited various African countries, including Ethiopia, Algeria, Egypt and Ghana. His goal was to meet with the leaders of African countries and garner financial and military support for the armed wing of the underground African National Congress.

A letter sent from the Mossad to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem reveals that Mandela underwent military training by Mossad operatives in Ethiopia during this period. These operatives were unaware of Mandela’s true identity. The letter, classified top secret, was dated October 11, 1962 – about two months after Mandela was arrested in South Africa, shortly after his return to the country. [Continue reading...]

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Mandela’s unfinished revolution

T.O. Molefe writes: For all his remarkable achievements, Nelson Mandela died with his dream for South Africa incomplete. Democracy and peace were attained, yet real racial harmony, social justice and equality seem, in some ways, further away than ever.

South Africa’s economy still stifles the aspirations of most of its black citizens — a situation that threatens the sustainability of the project of national reconciliation that is a central part of the Mandela legacy.

When I am able to detach myself from the anger I feel over this injustice, I see the South Africa that Mr. Mandela described in his 1994 inaugural address — “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world” — as but the opening move of a master tactician. It represented the brief suspension of reality for the sake of an endgame Mr. Mandela knew he would not be around to play.

Mr. Mandela’s rainbow ideal of a multiracial country that had avoided civil war, where blacks had forgiven whites for apartheid and everyone had learned to live together, was great and necessary for its time. But it is an ideal that should be laid to rest with him. Today, an economic revolution is what is needed most if South Africa is to continue on the path to reconciliation.

Like many of the transitional steps on the road to democracy, the rainbow-nation ideal was needed to hold together a country that was on the verge of fracturing. It did this by assuaging white guilt and putting off the black majority’s demand for immediate social justice.

In the 1990s, together with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mr. Mandela popularized a new national self-image that made it possible to focus mainly on racial reconciliation, strengthening democratic institutions and creating a free press — all prerequisites for turning a tentative peace into a more lasting one.

In pursuit of this rainbow ideal, Mr. Mandela and the African National Congress had to silence, mollify or sideline certain allies within the liberation movement who not only demanded a democratic revolution but an economic one, too. But the price of deferring the dream of true equality was to leave the country lurching dangerously toward an explosion.

For the poorer black majority of South Africans, the unheralded heroes who have sacrificed so much in the transition to democracy that Mr. Mandela led, social justice has been held in abeyance, ostensibly for the sake of peace, as though the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” did not apply to them. [Continue reading...]

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If Nelson Mandela really had won, he wouldn’t be seen as a universal hero

Slavoj Žižek writes: In the last two decades of his life, Nelson Mandela was celebrated as a model of how to liberate a country from the colonial yoke without succumbing to the temptation of dictatorial power and anti-capitalist posturing. In short, Mandela was not Robert Mugabe, and South Africa remained a multiparty democracy with a free press and a vibrant economy well-integrated into the global market and immune to hasty socialist experiments. Now, with his death, his stature as a saintly wise man seems confirmed for eternity: there are Hollywood movies about him – he was impersonated by Morgan Freeman, who also, by the way, played the role of God in another film; rock stars and religious leaders, sportsmen and politicians from Bill Clinton to Fidel Castro are all united in his beatification.

Is this, however, the whole story? Two key facts remain obliterated by this celebratory vision. In South Africa, the miserable life of the poor majority broadly remains the same as under apartheid, and the rise of political and civil rights is counterbalanced by the growing insecurity, violence and crime. The main change is that the old white ruling class is joined by the new black elite. Second, people remember the old African National Congress that promised not only the end of apartheid, but also more social justice, even a kind of socialism. This much more radical ANC past is gradually obliterated from our memory. No wonder that anger is growing among poor, black South Africans.

South Africa in this respect is just one version of the recurrent story of the contemporary left. A leader or party is elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a “new world” – but, then, sooner or later, they stumble upon the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms, or does one decide to “play the game”? If one disturbs these mechanisms, one is very swiftly “punished” by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest. This is why it is all too simple to criticise Mandela for abandoning the socialist perspective after the end of apartheid: did he really have a choice? Was the move towards socialism a real option? [Continue reading...]

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Recognizing Nelson Mandela

Alex DeWaal writes: For more than twenty years, following his conviction and sentence to life imprisonment in 1964, the Apartheid government in South Africa banned pictures of Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners. This ban was so effective that in 1982, following a medical checkup in Cape Town, Mandela’s warders allowed him a stroll on a public beach, confident—correctly—that no-one would recognize him. As told by his biographer William Gumede, “On the beach that day no-one as much as glanced at him. Later, with a glint in his eye, Mandela said he’d wondered what would have happened had he suddenly shouted: ‘I am Nelson Mandela!’”

Mandela’s anonymity was all the more ironic as, for over a decade, the African National Congress and the international Anti-Apartheid Movement had singled him out, from among all the other political prisoners in South Africa, as the symbol for its campaign. Images of his face from the Rivonia trial adorned posters and badges around the world, and in 1984 the song “Free Nelson Mandela” by the ska band The Specials helped to spark a movement by musicians, culminating in the “70th birthday concert” in 1988.

Mandela and his comrades were reluctant to give a single personal face to their mass movement. The ANC was run by a collective leadership in which individuals were required to submit to party discipline. It was profoundly averse to any personality cult. Nonetheless, at the insistence of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement which convinced the ANC that the global campaign against Apartheid needed a rallying symbol, they participated in constructing Mandela’s image to serve as an icon for their cause.

For the last twenty three years of his long life, Mandela had little privacy and no anonymity. Instantly recognized around the world, he became a vessel for many people’s hopes and aspirations, and a symbol of the new South Africa. For Africans, he exemplified leadership and dignity in overcoming racism and oppression: he was the leader they deserved. For white liberals, his forgiveness was a reward of which they could hardly have dreamed. Identities were projected onto him. When Mandela visited America after his release from prison, one young journalist prefaced her question with the words, “as an African American, do you…” before he gently reminded her that he was, in fact, an African. The way he has become idolized and idealized tells us more about the world’s need for such a figure, than about Nelson Mandela himself.

We need to tease apart the wishful thinking from the realities of this great man. [Continue reading...]

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Among those eulogising Mandela are people who once damned him as a terrorist and supported apartheid

Chris McGreal writes: Nelson Mandela Square sits at the entrance to the glitziest shopping mall in what is reputed to be the wealthiest square kilometre in Africa. Towering over the cafes around the northern Johannesburg piazza, as if guarding the diamond jewellers and designer clothes shops within, is a six metre tall, 2.5 ton statue of the great man dancing.

The mall’s owners say the statue is intended to honour Mandela and his country’s hard-won democracy and most of the shoppers milling around it would probably see it that way. But the great totem always seemed to me to be mocking the new South Africa.

Many of the same prosperous whites who gaze on the giant Mandela from plush cafes and pour out their love and admiration for his sacrifice in saving South Africans from themselves can also regularly be heard bemoaning the state of the country he bequeathed. They worship the man but despair of the legacy of his handiwork in the levels of crime, corruption, authoritarianism and “falling standards” under democratic government.

Not all whites, but a good number of them. And they feel free to do this because when they look at Mandela they see absolution. Their praise of his willingness to forgive comes with the understanding that they too are forgiven and absolved of the past. Freed of responsibility for how South Africa came to be what it is, they head back to the pool and congratulate themselves on their luck in embracing the world’s greatest modern statesman. Bring up past responsibilities and you face being accused of failing to understand Mandela’s message. [Continue reading...]

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Nelson Mandela’s meaning for young South Africans

Sipho Hlongwane writes: How do you encapsulate the weight of Nelson Mandela on South Africa? How do you do so from the perspective of a generation that does not remember the man in jail, or remember when he walked free, and the idolisation that went with that? These are some of the challenges that we face, as we grapple with the legacy of Madiba and apartheid that is thrust upon us.

My first memory of Mandela was around 1993, when a South African defence force helicopter rumbled overhead and poured forth a cloud of voter education pamphlets (which had Mandela’s face on them) into the hazy KwaZulu Natal afternoon air. My friends and I were a few months away from our 5th birthdays, what did we know of such things? Nevertheless, we were conscripted into collecting and destroying the pamphlets by angry adults, who exhorted us not to read the “communist propaganda”.

For the next couple of weeks, we were made to attend a series of meetings hosted by the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom party, which spooked us into fearing the African National Congress, which was coming to take away our homes and force us into communist slave camps.

A taut thread of fear ran through our preschool daily existences. Such were the joys of growing up in an IFP stronghold during the transition years. This rude introduction into South Africa’s often absurd politics helped temper any veneration I might have had of Mandela.

His death will briefly throw the world into a bereavement that befits the passing of an icon. What the rest of the world will blessedly miss is the anguish, doubt and emotional turmoil that has gripped South Africa for the last decade and more, which will now be heightened .

When he still walked among us, Madiba was the people’s man in the truest sense – all South Africans who bought into the post-apartheid ideal of reconciliation and nation building felt that Madiba was somehow an indispensable part of themselves. Inevitably then, there will be a tug of war for ownership of his legacy.

The unspoken truth in South Africa is that Mandela has been politically irrelevant since 1999. His successor Thabo Mbeki’s bristly nine years in power all but erased Mandela’s genial and reconciliatory years from the popular imagination. The Mbeki years were the natural next step in the development of the nation’s cracked psyche, but it didn’t make them any less painful or scary. The memories of apartheid and the violence of the transition years were still fresh. Like a baby weaned off breast milk, we pined for the comfort of the Madiba years.

The sight of Hollywood and the jet set laying themselves at Madiba’s feet didn’t help: it served to reinforce our nostalgia. To suggest publicly that Mandela could no longer lead the country in any material way bordered on sacrilege. His death will now force every South African to deal with this fact. [Continue reading...]

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How can so many African leaders ignore Mandela’s legacy?

Patience Akumu writes: The world has stopped for a moment to focus its attention on Africa. This is not something that happens often. No, they are not talking about senseless civil wars, crippling poverty, appalling HIV/Aids statistics or blatant dictators. They are talking about a black man who freed his country from an inhumane regime; who dared to dream of a tolerant, united and poverty-free Africa and dedicated his life to the attainment of this dream. In turn, God rewarded him with 95 years of a robust, purposeful life. If Nelson Mandela was from the Luo ethnicity like me, his death would herald two weeks of drinking, merry-making and dancing to the sounds of ffumbo drums in celebration of the resting of an honourable elder.

Seeing the glowing eulogies fills me with the same unsettling pride that gripped my younger soul as I listened to my high school African nationalism teacher talk about the struggle of great leaders to liberate the continent. She spoke of Mandela in the same breath as Kwame Nkurumah, Julius Nyerere, Daniel Arap Moi, Muammar Gaddafi, Yoweri Museveni and Robert Mugabe.

These are the men who stood up to oppressive regimes and dedicated their lives to fighting injustice and transforming the continent, she told us. The fiery way in which she spoke, and reading about the anti-colonial struggle from authors such as Chinua Achebe and Ousmane Sembène, made me want to leap out of my seat.

I was in awe of these great men and wanted to save a continent that, she informed us, was on the brink of sinking under the weight of endless social, economic and political problems.

Today, 10 years later, listing some of these names alongside Mandela seems quite odd. It is hard to imagine, for instance, that Mandela, Mugabe and Museveni all once sung the same song of liberty, equality and tolerance.

Mandela is one of the few African leaders who sang the song to the very end. [Continue reading...]

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Nelson Mandela and the Anti-Apartheid Movement

Peter Hain writes: “Ah, Peter, return of the prodigal son!” Nelson Mandela beamed, welcoming me to his Johannesburg home in February 2000.

Although on an official government visit, in a sense I was also being welcomed to my “home” – to South Africa, the panoramic, sunshine country of my childhood, as the first-ever British minister for Africa to be born on that continent.

Almost to the day, 10 years before, many of us had watched, tears welling up, as he had walked to freedom after 27 years in prison. And a long time before that – in March 1966 – I was a teenager aboard an ocean liner steaming out of Cape Town, past Robben Island where Mandela and his fellow leaders of the African National Congress were jailed. My anti-apartheid activist parents had been forced to leave their beloved country and the “island from hell” disappeared in the stormy mist as we headed for exile in Britain.

People forget how tough it was then, how hard the struggle was to be for decades afterwards. The resistance had been closed down, leaders such as Mandela imprisoned, tortured, banned or forced underground.

Within a few years, Mandela had almost been forgotten. British diplomats dismissed the ANC and Mandela as a busted flush. The white racist police state seemed omnipotent.

But in Britain, the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) had kept the flame of freedom flickering. Soon it was lit by our militant protests, which stopped white South African rugby and cricket tours in 1969-70. The country had been forced into global sporting isolation.

On Robben Island, brutal white warders, all fanatical rugby fans, vented their fury on Mandela and his comrades at the ostracism of the mighty Springboks, unwittingly communicating a morale-boosting message through the news blackout. [Continue reading...]

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Mandela stood up against American power

Peter Beinart writes: Now that he’s dead, and can cause no more trouble, Nelson Mandela is being mourned across the ideological spectrum as a saint. But not long ago, in Washington’s highest circles, he was considered an enemy of the United States. Unless we remember why, we won’t truly honor his legacy.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan placed Mandela’s African National Congress on America’s official list of “terrorist” groups. In 1985, then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted against a resolution urging that he be released from jail. In 2004, after Mandela criticized the Iraq War, an article in National Review said his “vicious anti-Americanism and support for Saddam Hussein should come as no surprise, given his longstanding dedication to communism and praise for terrorists.” As late as 2008, the ANC remained on America’s terrorism watch list, thus requiring the 89-year-old Mandela to receive a special waiver from the secretary of State to visit the U.S.

From their perspective, Mandela’s critics were right to distrust him. They called him a “terrorist” because he had waged armed resistance to apartheid. They called him a “communist” because the Soviet Union was the ANC’s chief external benefactor and the South African Communist Party was among its closest domestic allies. More fundamentally, what Mandela’s American detractors understood is that he considered himself an opponent, not an ally, of American power. And that’s exactly what Mandela’s American admirers must remember now. [Continue reading...]

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Mandela was never a revolutionary, always a radical

Gary Younge writes: A fitting way to commemorate Nelson Mandela is to describe his arrival in the townships during the first democratic elections in 1994. The crowds travelled up to 100 miles in cattle trucks or minibuses to get to places that apartheid had deliberately made remote and barren. Then they waited for hours, in a ramshackle stadium with little shade. Despite being punctual in his personal life, Mandela on the campaign trail was always late: a victim of overambitious scheduling and inefficient minders.

Finally, the crowds saw his cavalcade throw up dust in the distance, and they began to sing the campaign song Sekunjalo Ke Nako (Now is the Time). Everyone started to dance, ululations and cheers growing in intensity. Many of those present had not seen Mandela even on TV, and knew his face only from posters and newspaper pictures. Flags and placards hoisted above heads created a ripple at first, then a wave of excitement on a sea of black, gold and green.

The rush of energy did not subside until Mandela had taken the stage half an hour later. By then the crowd had got what it came for – proximity, a sighting, to be present in history. For hours after the rally, people walking home from the stadium punched the air and shouted “amandla” (“power”) at passing cars.

The problem with personifying a national, political aspiration, as Mandela did, is that it becomes difficult to see where the man starts and the movement ends. [Continue reading...]

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Desmond Tutu on Nelson Mandela: ‘Prison became a crucible’

Desmond Tutu writes: For 27 years, I knew Nelson Mandela by reputation only. I had seen him once, in the early 1950s, when he came to my teacher-training college to judge a debating contest. The next time I saw him was in 1990.

When he came out of prison, many people feared he would turn out to have feet of clay. The idea that he might live up to his reputation seemed too good to be true. A whisper went around that some in the ANC said he was a lot more useful in jail than outside.

When he did come out, the most extraordinary thing happened. Even though many in the white community in South Africa were still dismissing him as a terrorist, he tried to understand their position. His gestures communicated more eloquently than words. For example, he invited his white jailer as a VIP guest to his inauguration as president, and he invited the prosecutor in the Rivonia trial to lunch.

What incredible acts of magnanimity these were. His prosecutor had been quite zealous in pushing for the death penalty. Mandela also invited the widows of the Afrikaner political leaders to come to the president’s residence. Betsie Verwoerd, whose husband, HF Verwoerd, was assassinated in 1966, was unable to come because she was unwell. She lived in Oranje, where Afrikaners congregated to live, exclusively. And Mandela dropped everything and went to have tea with her, there, in that place.

He had an incredible empathy. During the negotiations that led up to the first free elections, the concessions he was willing to make were amazing. Chief Buthelezi wanted this, that and the other, and at every single point Madiba would say: yes, that’s OK. He was upset that many in the ANC said Inkatha was not a genuine liberation movement. He even said that he was ready to promise Buthelezi a senior cabinet position, which was not something he had discussed with his colleagues. He did this to ensure that the country did not descend into a bloodbath. [Continue reading...]

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Nelson Mandela: a leader above all others

In an editorial, The Guardian says: When Helen Suzman went to see Nelson Mandela on Robben Island in 1967, the first prisoner she encountered was a man called Eddie Daniels, who told her: “Yes, we know who you are. Don’t waste time talking to us. Go and talk to Mandela at the end of the row. He’s our leader.” Daniels’s absolute certainty struck Suzman very forcibly. Although Daniels did not spell it out, she learned later that the prison administration had tried to arrange her tour so that she would not reach Mandela’s cell before her limited time on Robben ran out.

She took the advice, made her way to Mandela’s cell, and found there a quietly eloquent and direct man of imposing physique and great natural authority. Eddie Daniels was of course right: Mandela was indeed the leader, not only of the detainees in the island prison, but of the South African liberation movement as a whole. He had mentors and partners, some in detention with him, some in exile, and some enduring a harassed and persecuted life in South Africa itself, and he had rivals inside and outside the African National Congress.

But he was indubitably the man who came, above all others, to symbolise the struggle of the ANC, from the time when it seemed to have collapsed under the assaults of the apartheid state, to the time of its final successes, when that same state found itself pleading with the ANC to enter a new era in which the structures of oppression would be liquidated.

Yet this leadership, even if we define it as moral rather than practical, remains ultimately something of a mystery. Mandela was not able, during 27 years in prison, to exercise sustained operational control or to take a regular part in ANC decision-making, except toward the very end, when he negotiated with FW de Klerk.

Before he went to jail, his record was of brave failure rather than of significant victory. His attempts, during his early years, to wage, along with others, a legal and non-violent campaign for black rights were stymied by a government which was not only unresponsive but positively preferred to push the ANC into clandestine activity so that it could fragment and criminalise the movement. His reluctant conversion to the military path ended abruptly when he was arrested within days of returning to South Africa to pursue the armed struggle. As a civil rights leader, he was ineffective. As a short-lived guerrilla leader, he was an amateur. And when, released from prison, he became the first president of the new South Africa, he was often inattentive, he discarded his once radical views on the economy, and, arguably, he endorsed the wrong man as his successor. To set against that, he insisted on respect for the judgments of the South African Constitutional Court even when they upset the ANC’s plans, and he refused to support the death penalty.

Mandela was far from alone among 20th-century liberation leaders in achieving stature in prison. [Continue reading...]

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Nelson Mandela: we are blessed to have shared our lifetime with a colossus

Justice Malala writes: Nelson Mandela, global hero, died on Thursday night. We had steeled ourselves for it in the months of his hospitalisation over the past year and half. Yet, we are in shock.

We mourn him. We mourn him because in his 95 years, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has taught us how to live.

He taught us to strive for what is good and right, even as we ourselves stumble; to strain for perfection, even as we are caught up in our own flawed lives; to put the poor and downtrodden at the centre of our endeavours, even as we reach for the good life.

As he lay in hospital for months this year, Mandela taught us yet another lesson: just as we have been blessed with the gift of his presence, so too must we accept his inevitable departure. It is the most terrible of Biblical injunctions to perceive, but today it is stark: there is a time to live, and a time to die. Today we face the heartbreaking reality of the latter.

Over the past six months the news coming out of Pretoria had been the gravest it had ever been: the presidency had used the word “critical”; the family was sombre and mournful even as it was divided. The man whose walk to freedom was so long, so painful, so inspirational, was well on in his last journey.

Outside the hospital, passersby stopped and stared at the massed international and local media. “He is old. He must go,” said one to me as, like so many other journalists, we waited outside the hospital for word. It is a refrain that was heard often, at the hospital and elsewhere, even as far away as his home in Qunu. We could not bear to think of Mandela, a man who endured so much in pursuit of all our freedom, being in pain.

The heartbreaking reality, as one of our great poets, Chris van Wyk, once put it, is that it was time to go home, now. It is time to go home. [Continue reading...]

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Nelson Mandela: Freedom fighter — 1918-2013

In June, Gary Younge wrote: Shortly before Nelson Mandela stepped down as president of South Africa in 1999, racial anxiety was a lucrative business. At the public library in the affluent area of Sandton, I attended a session at which an emigration consultant, John Gambarana, warned a hundred-strong, mostly white audience of the chaos and mayhem to come. Holding up a book by broadcaster Lester Venter called When Mandela Goes, he told them, “People, this book is a wake-up call. The bad news is [when Mandela leaves] the pawpaw’s really going to hit the fan. The good news is the fan probably won’t be working.”

And so it was that, even in the eyes of those who made a living peddling fear, less than a decade after his release from prison, Mandela had been transformed from terrorist boogeyman to national savior.

White South Africa has come to embrace him in much the same way that most white Americans came to accept Martin Luther King Jr.: grudgingly and gratefully, retrospectively, selectively, without grace but with considerable guile. By the time they realized that their dislike of him was spent and futile, he had created a world in which admiring him was in their own self-interest. Because, in short, they had no choice.

As the last apartheid leader, F.W. de Klerk—who had lost the election to Mandela—told me that same year, “The same mistakes that we made were still being made in the United States and the ex-colonies. Then we carried them on for around twenty years longer.” There are myriad differences between apartheid South Africa and America under segregation. But on that point, if little else, de Klerk was absolutely right. Neither the benefits of integration nor the urgency with which it was demanded were obvious to most Americans during King’s time. A month before the March on Washington in 1963, 54 percent of whites thought the Kennedy administration was “pushing racial integration too fast.” [Continue reading...]

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Video — South Africa’s mine shooting: Who is to blame?

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How the Israel lobby defended Israel’s military ties to apartheid South Africa

In a review of Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s new book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Glenn Frankel describes how spokesmen for American Jewish organizations acted as apologists or dupes for Israel’s arms sales to the apartheid state.

In the early days of the arms supply pact, Israel could argue that many Western countries, including the United States, had similar surreptitious relationships with the apartheid regime. But by 1980 Israel was the last major violator of the arms embargo. It stuck with South Africa throughout the 1980s when the regime clung to power in the face of international condemnation and intense rounds of political unrest in the black townships.

By 1987 the apartheid regime was struggling to cope with the combination of internal unrest and international condemnation to the point where even Israel was forced to take notice. A key motivator was Section 508, an amendment to the anti-apartheid sanctions bill that passed the U.S. Congress in 1986 and survived President Ronald Reagan’s veto. It required the State Department to produce an annual report on countries violating the arms embargo. The first one, issued in April 1987, reported that Israel had violated the international ban on arm sales “on a regular basis.” The report gave South Africa’s opponents within the Israeli government and their American Jewish allies ammunition to force Israel to adapt a mild set of sanctions against South Africa. I was in Jerusalem when Israel admitted publicly for the first time that it had significant military ties with South Africa and pledged not to enter into any new agreements — which meant, of course, that existing agreements would be maintained. It was, writes Polakow-Suransky, “little more than a cosmetic gesture.”

From the start, spokesmen for American Jewish organizations acted as apologists or dupes for Israel’s arms sales. Moshe Decter, a respected director of research for the American Jewish Committee, wrote in the New York Times in 1976 that Israel’s arms trade with South Africa was “dwarfed into insignificance” compared to that of other countries and said that to claim otherwise was “rank cynicism, rampant hypocrisy and anti-Semitic prejudice.” In a March 1986 debate televised on PBS, Rabbi David Saperstein, a leader of the Reform Jewish movement and outspoken opponent of apartheid, claimed Israeli involvement with South Africa was negligible. He conceded that there may have been arms sales during the rightist Likud years in power from 1977 to 1984, but stated that under Shimon Peres, who served as prime minister between 1984 and 1986, “there have been no new arms sales.” In fact, some of the biggest military contracts and cooperative ventures were signed during Peres’s watch.

The Anti-Defamation League participated in a blatant propaganda campaign against Nelson Mandela and the ANC in the mid 1980s and employed an alleged “fact-finder” named Roy Bullock to spy on the anti-apartheid campaign in the United States — a service he was simultaneously performing for the South African government. The ADL defended the white regime’s purported constitutional reforms while denouncing the ANC as “totalitarian, anti-humane, anti-democratic, anti-Israel, and anti-American.” (In fairness, the ADL later changed its tune. After his release in 1990, Mandela met in Geneva with a number of American Jewish leaders, including ADL president Abe Foxman, who emerged to call the ANC leader “a great hero of freedom.”)

Polakow-Suransky is no knee-jerk critic of Israel, and he tells his story more in sorrow than anger. He grants that the secret alliance had its uses. To the extent it enhanced Israel’s security and comfort zone, it may have helped pave the path to peace efforts. Elazar Granot, a certified dove who is a former left-wing Knesset member and ambassador to the new South Africa, says as much. “I had to take into consideration that maybe Rabin and Peres were able to go to the Oslo agreements because they believed that Israel was strong enough to defend itself,” he tells the author. “Most of the work that was done — I’m talking about the new kinds of weapons — was done in South Africa.”

Polakow-Suransky sees in the excoriation of Jimmy Carter’s 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid by American Jewish leaders an echo of their reflexive defense of Israel vis á vis South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. The author himself draws uncomfortable parallels between apartheid and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, noting that both involved the creation of a system that stifled freedom of movement and labor, denied citizenship and produced homelessness, separation, and disenfranchisement. As the Palestinian population continues to grow and eventually becomes the majority — and Jews the minority — in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, the parallels with apartheid may become increasingly uncomfortable. Even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed, observing in 2007 that if Israel failed to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians, it would inevitably “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights.”

“The apartheid analogy may be inexact today,” Polakow-Suransky warns, “but it won’t be forever.”

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Sasha Polakow-Suransky on Al Jazeera

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