When Nelson Mandela died on December 5th, throughout the world people mourned the loss of a peacemaker and great statesman. The Telegraph, of all newspapers, immediately announced the release of a seven-part biography “of Mandela’s tempestuous life, filled with hardship and struggle and crowned by a singular triumph” under a strapline that read:
Nelson Mandela, who has died aged 95, was the architect of South Africa’s transformation from racial despotism to liberal democracy, saving his country from civil war and becoming its first black president.1
There had been a time, of course, and not so long ago, when organs of the British establishment such as the Daily Telegraph were in the habit of branding Mandela not merely a communist but a terrorist too. Indeed, as an article in the Washington Post points out, until astonishingly recently the United States had quietly maintained its position that Mandela was persona non grata:
But with all the accolades being thrown around, it’s easy to forget that the U.S., in particular, hasn’t always had such a friendly relationship with Mandela – and that in fact, as late as 2008, the Nobel Prize winner and former president was still on the U.S. terrorism watch list.2
But suddenly, with world leaders, assorted celebrities, demi-celebrities (Richard Branson springs to mind) and even the media itself jostling to bathe in Mandela’s reflected glory, the bigger historical picture was being brushed aside and overwritten. An excellent article written by Chris McGreal (this time in the Observer) offered a better perspective:
Listening to the leaders of the free world compete to extol South Africa’s first democratically elected president, there is a striking absence of acknowledgement not only of how little their countries did to get him out of prison but how much they supported the regime that kept him locked up for 27 years. No mention from David Cameron of Margaret Thatcher’s vigorous opposition to sanctions against the white regime and her deriding of Mandela’s supporters as “living in cloud cuckoo land” for believing he might one day lead South Africa. No acknowledgement from Barack Obama of Ronald Reagan’s trumpeting of the Afrikaner-led government as a beacon of democracy in Africa while he consigned Mandela and the African National Congress to the terrorism list.
With Mandela’s parting, it is rather easy to make comparisons to Gandhi. ‘Father’ to their respective nations, both had thrown off the yoke of oppressive regimes, and once in power, had pressed for reforms that would be inclusive, reconciliatory and democratic. That said, where Gandhi’s methods for overthrowing British rule had been strictly non-violent, Mandela’s resistance ultimately was not. Inspired in part by the writings of Gandhi, but also by Che Guevara and Mao, he had eventually felt compelled to take a more aggressive stance, confronting the political violence of the state with a campaign of sabotage.
Here is a little more from the piece by Chris McGreal:
But perhaps the most shameless piece of historical revisionism of recent days came from Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. He greeted news of Mandela’s death by proclaiming him “a freedom fighter who disavowed violence”. That was a pointed jab at the Palestinians. It’s also untrue. Mandela was instrumental in founding the ANC’s armed wing and stood by the right to violent resistance until apartheid was buried. It may not have been a very effective armed campaign, and it did not resort to the indiscriminate killing of civilians by suicide bomb, but Mandela never disavowed violence in the struggle against a violent system.3
Click here to read Chris McGreal’s full article.
Ariel Sharon was another tenacious fighter for a different cause, but when he died only a few weeks later on January 11th, it was hardly surprising that the obituaries were more circumspect. After all, what can one politely say about a man nicknamed “the Bulldozer” (a favourite weapon he used to flatten Palestinian homes) who had forced the displacement of thousands of Palestinians and then shredded their homeland with the construction of illegal settlements and Berlin-style walls? Or Sharon as primary architect of the 1982 Lebanon War which had resulted in the deaths of 20,000 people, including somewhere between 800 and 3000 (depending on estimates) of mostly women, children and elderly men indiscriminately slaughtered in the Sabra and Shatila massacres.
On January 13th, Democracy Now! presented, as part of its own retrospective on Sharon, a description of the killings by Ellen Siegel, a Jewish-American nurse who was working at the Sabra camp at the time of the attacks:
So Sharon, the “warrior”, as he titled his autobiography, was also Sharon, the war criminal. Nevertheless, Sharon still has his apologists. Here is the Telegraph again:
The life of the late Ariel Sharon tells us a great deal about the shifting politics of Israel. He came to the world’s attention as a militant willing to use controversial methods to secure his country’s future. But he ended his career with a more complex image, as a tough-minded statesman searching for peace. His example offers hope.4
Hope of what precisely? For the Palestinians, many of whom actually celebrated Sharon’s death (just as many in Britain celebrated Thatcher’s demise last year), his example offered only reason to despair. And as for a man “searching for peace”; this is a grotesque parody of the truth.
As Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, explained on the same Democracy Now! broadcast, Sharon, who regarded himself as a crusader for a greater Israel, shunned diplomacy unless, under cover of negotiations, he saw a way to gain strategic advantage against his enemies. Withdrawal from Gaza, his one decisive act of non-aggression, was also a tactical retreat to strengthen Israel’s position in the West Bank. Shlaim reminds us:
Sharon committed his first war crime as a young major in 1953 when he destroyed many houses in the Jordanian village of Qibya, and he was responsible for the massacre of 69 civilians. So that was his first war crime, but it was not to be his last. And the consistent thread in his career as a soldier and as a politician was to use brute force, not just against the regular armies of the Arab states, but also against Palestinian civilians. And the other consistent thread is to shun diplomacy and to rely on brute force to impose Israeli hegemony on the entire region. President George W. Bush famously called Sharon a man of peace. Sharon was nothing of the sort. He was a man of war through and through, and he called his autobiography Warrior, not Diplomat. His approach to diplomacy reversed Clausewitz’s dictum; for Sharon, diplomacy was the pursuit of war by other means. For the last 40 years, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been my main research interest, and I can honestly say that I have never come across a single scintilla of evidence to support the notion of Sharon as a man of peace.
Mandela had committed himself body and soul to the dismantling of the apartheid system in South Africa and he succeeded. Tribalism was something Mandela disdained. So under Mandela, white apartheid was not about to be replaced by its black equivalent. But whereas Mandela will be remembered for trying unify his nation, Sharon’s memorial is a twenty-foot concrete barrier protected by sniper towers that snakes across the occupied West Bank. A wall that divides his own tribe from the neighbours, ensuring an apartheid within Israel-Palestine that will be enduring.
“There is a convention that you’re not supposed to speak ill of the recently dead”, said Noam Chomsky after Sharon’s death, continuing “which unfortunately imposes a kind of vow of silence because there’s nothing else to say.”
Click here to watch the full discussion of Sharon’s legacy with Avi Shlaim, Noam Chomsky, and Rashid Khalidi, who is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, on the Democracy Now! website.
1 From Nelson Mandela’s obituary published by the Telegraph on December 5, 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/nelson-mandela/10115323/Nelson-Mandela-obituary.html
2 From an article entitled “Why Nelson Mandela was on a terrorism watch list in 2008” written by Caitlin Dewey, published by the Washington Post on December 7, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2013/12/07/why-nelson-mandela-was-on-a-terrorism-watch-list-in-2008/
3 From an article entitled “Mandela: never forget how the free world’s leaders learned to change their tune” written by Chris McGreal, published in The Observer on December 8, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/08/world-leaders-hypocrisy-mandela
4 From an editorial entitled “Ariel Sharon and the troubled road to peace” published by the Telegraph on January 11, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/telegraph-view/10565265/Ariel-Sharon-and-the-troubled-road-to-peace.html