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I just learned of his death. He was truly un grand homme, what else to say? I first learned about him in the 1960s—before my teen years—, no doubt from my parents, who instilled in me a precocious indignation toward apartheid South Africa. And I most certainly mentioned his name in my first exercise at public speaking, at an all-day teach-in on South Africa at my high school—the organization of which I initiated—, on the 14th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. I was living in Algiers in Feb. ’90 when Mandela was released from prison; as I didn’t have a television I went over to my neighbors’ to watch the event live. Couldn’t miss that one. And three months later, on precisely May 17th, I saw him speak, at the Coupole du 5 Juillet on the outskirts of Algiers. As tiersmondiste Algeria had been in the international vanguard of the anti-apartheid movement and Mandela had received brief military training there in 1962, just before his arrest and incarceration, he made Algiers one of the first stops on his triumphal world tour following his prison release. I went with my friend Philip Shehadi, the Reuters bureau chief (who was murdered in Algiers nine months later, in circumstances having nothing to do with politics), so got to see Mandela speak from the press section right up front. The arena was packed with some 10,000 mostly young people—the event was formally sponsored by the FLN’s youth organization, the UNJA, though few of those present likely had ties to the party or empty shell UNJA—, with the government officials and other big shots—including Abdelhamid Mehri and Sid-Ahmed Ghozali—in the tribune behind the podium. Mandela, who naturally received a rapturous welcome when he arrived, spoke in English and with no interpretation; as the English language was not understood by maybe 98% of those present, including the big shots and (Algerian) journalists covering the event—I noticed exactly one who was taking notes during the speech—, hardly anyone knew what he was saying, mais peu importe. The crowd cheered deliriously each time Mandela mentioned the word Algeria, even in passing.
Amusing detail: when recounting his 1962 Algeria visit Mandela evoked his fond memories of Krim Belkacem and Mohamed Khider, FLN chefs historiques and members of the immediate post-independence regime, but who later went into dissidence and exile, were assassinated by regime agents, and whose names were still publicly taboo in Algeria in 1990; silence from the youthful crowd—most likely not recognizing the names—and gêne visible from the VIP tribune. Another amusing detail: when FLN Secretary-General Mehri got up to introduce Mandela the crowd booed loudly—booing Mehri and the FLN, and with some chanting the name of FIS leader Abassi Madani; the VIP tribune collectively cringed, with Mehri shouting “uskut!” (silence!) to the crowd and Mandela looking bemused; someone leaned over to say something to him, likely to the effect of “uh, we have a little political problem in Algeria at the moment…”
Anyway, it was great to be able to see him en chair et en os. He was impressive, as could have been expected.
The mark of Mandela’s greatness was, of course, his role in presiding over the orderly, peaceful transition to majority rule, reaching out to the white minority, and his utter lack of rancor over his 28 years of incarceration. But while the transition was peaceful, it is not as if the preceding years were so. In addition to the ordinary, daily violence of the apartheid system, there was the added violence and repression of the minority regime against the majority as the contestation increased from the mid ’80s onward. And though the ANC—to its great credit—eschewed terrorism as a strategy, it did engage in it on occasion. The level of political violence was high in the final years of the apartheid regime. And the orderly transition was no sure thing even with Mandela leading it. In his book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes of the hostility of the Afrikaner rejectionists, led by General Constand Viljoen, to President F.W. de Klerk’s negotiations with Mandela and the ANC. The rejectionists, heavily armed, were ready to launch an OAS-style terror campaign in 1994, which, had it come to pass, would have plunged South Africa into a heretofore unheard of level of violence, brought about a bloodbath, and upended the transition, resulting in a who-knows-what outcome but that would have most certainly been catastrophic. But as Polakow-Suransky recounts, Mandela, just prior to the ’94 election, invited Viljoen and associates to his Johannesburg villa and, speaking to them in Afrikaans (which he had learned on Robben Island), assured them that the white minority would have its full place in the new South Africa and that there would be no retribution or vengeance. With that, Viljoen & Co were disarmed, both figuratively and literally. They dropped their plans for a terror campaign and agreed to participate in the transition. If Mandela’s gesture was not the mark of greatness, then I don’t know what greatness is.
Too bad we haven’t had any Mandelas in the Middle East these past decades. Oh well.
UPDATE: Raphael Ahren, diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel, has an interesting and detailed examination of Nelson Mandela’s relationship with Jews, Israel, and Palestine. The lede: “Late South African leader had strong friendships with many in the Jewish world, but never forgot his allegiance to the PLO — or Israel’s support for the apartheid regime.”
2nd UPDATE: The Algerian website Chouf Chouf has a post on “Nelson Mandela et l’Algérie.”
3rd UPDATE: NYT columnist Bill Keller has a good commentary on historian Stephen Ellis’s revelation—if one can call it that—that Nelson Mandela had been a member of the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s, a “revelation” that US right-wingers are using as a gotcha to defend their own support of the apartheid regime. Keller suggests—though he could have driven home the point—that the engagement of Mandela and the ANC with the SACP was irrelevant as a guide to their eventual behavior in power. To say the least. Anyone who has spent time with African or Arab communists will note that their communist convictions rarely go beyond mouthing slogans. And, as recent history has demonstrated, communists can become capitalists on a dime if the circumstances are right. (December 8)
4th UPDATE: On American right-wing attitudes toward Nelson Mandela—present and past (and it’s always useful to recall past views one so ardently asserted)—, on how GOPers despised and disdained him—and with many in the GOP base still despising and disdaining him—, see here, here, here, here, here, and here. Liberals are naturally having a field day with this one, though in the interests of fairness and balance here’s one reasonable conservative commentary on Mandela’s passing.
5th UPDATE: Giving credit where credit is due in regard to American right-wingers and Mandela, here is Newt Gingrich’s response to the racists in his camp who got on his case for his eulogy. Gingrich may be crazy on a lot of things but on this, he is reasonable and principled.
6th UPDATE: On Mandela having supposedly been a communist in the 1960s, here is what John Comaroff says in the interview I linked to in the following post:
It was [Mandela], for example, who, against the rather different position of the black power movement, argued most forcefully [in favor of] a … post-racial South Africa, a unified nation founded on the sovereignty of the people rather than sovereignty of the party. In that sense, he was a profoundly liberal thinker, in spite of the efforts of the Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher regimes to construe him as a raving communist. He was never that at all, he was always a very considered — if anything, a Christian — democrat.
7th UPDATE: An informative Algeria blog has a post on “Mandela et l’Algérie: cinq mensonges et une révélation,” which corrects some of the errors or misconceptions regarding Mandela’s relationship with Algeria. One of them—a factual error I made myself above—concerns his 1962 visit, which was, in fact, to an ALN base camp just over the Moroccan border, not to Algeria itself, a country he only set foot in for the first time in 1990.