The Spirit of Nelson Mandela in Palestine: Is His Real Legacy Being Upheld?
26 June 2016
By Ramzy Baroud
I had mixed feelings when I learned that Palestine has erected a statue of
Nelson Mandela, the iconic South African anti-Apartheid leader. On the one
hand, I was quite pleased that the unmistakable connection between the
struggles of Palestinians and South Africans is cemented more than ever
before. On the other hand, I dreaded that rich, corrupt Palestinians in
Ramallah are utilizing the image of Mandela to acquire badly-needed political
The six-meter bronze statue now stands in its own Nelson Mandela Square in Al-Tireh
neighborhood in Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority headquarters are
based. The PA is known for its endemic political and financial corruption. In
some ways, its survival is both essential for the richest Palestinian class
and also for the Israeli military Occupation.
Thus, it was quite disheartening to witness the travesty of political theater
where the likes of PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, who rules with a long-expired
mandate, unveiling the statue in a ceremony attended by his ministers and
The statue was a gift from the City of Johannesburg, and its costs of R6
million was paid for by the people of that city, whose solidarity with
Palestine is rooted in a long history, that of blood and tears, and the
haunting cries of pain and freedom. At that, the gift is most appreciated.
But the Mandela that now stands erect in Ramallah has been incorporated into
the zeitgeist of this city, particularly the rich and beaming neighborhood of
massive white-stone villas and luxury cars.
It would have meant much more if it had stood in the center of Gaza, a city
that is withstanding an ongoing genocide; in the heart of Jenin, a town known
for its bravery and hardship; in Al-Khalil, in Nablus or in Khan Younis.
Seeing rich Palestinian officials and businessmen rubbing shoulders with
unmistakable giddiness while fighting for space before the many cameras, made
the occasion vastly less special.
Oddly enough, the main location of the Nelson Mandela Square and statue in
Sandton City in Johannesburg is equally unsettling. I visited the place more
than once, and despite my immense admiration for Mandela, it failed to move
The commercial atmosphere there felt as if it was an attempt at redefining who
Mandela was: from a populist leader and a former prisoner with proud ties to
the Communist Party to an emasculated icon, a warm, fuzzy figure with no
Worse, he is being promoted as if a merchandise within a precarious neoliberal
marketplace, where revolutionary values are shunned and everything is on sale.
This is how the Sandton City website describes the square:
''Home to some of South Africa's finest restaurants, exclusive couture and
designer labels and a European styled piazza, Nelson Mandela Square offers
chic sophistication, culture and glamour, all under the African sun.''
Yet, the Mandela that is promoted by some in South Africa and their
counterparts in Palestine is fundamentally different from the Mandela many of
us knew about. The man passed away on December 5, 2013, but he clearly left
behind two legacies, one celebrated in Palestinian refugee camps and South
Africa's slums, while another is sold to the culturally 'sophisticated'
tourists and Ramallah's corrupt class.
The name 'Nelson Mandela' was a staple in my family, living in a dilapidated
refugee camp in Gaza under military Occupation and the constant threat of
violence. We rushed to the television to watch whenever his name was mentioned
in the news. The finest young men in camp were chased down, beaten, arrested
and shot while trying to write his name on the decaying walls of our humble
That was the Mandela I knew, and most Palestinians remember with adoration and
respect. The one standing in Ramallah, unveiled by those Palestinians who
speak proudly of conducting 'security coordination' with Israel – as in
jointly cracking down on Palestinian Resistance – is a whole different
He is a different Mandela because Abbas and his Authority do not, in the
least, embody the spirit of Mandela the freedom fighter, the defiant prisoner,
the unifying leader, the champion of a boycott movement.
In fact, the Palestinian leadership as represented in the unelected government
of Abbas in Ramallah, is yet to endorse the Palestinian civil society call for
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions(BDS), itself modeled after the South Africa
Instead, Abbas' PA has wasted over 20 years of nonsensical and futile
negotiations, collaborated with Israel, divided the ranks of Palestinians and
is actively involved in suppressing Palestinian Resistance in the West Bank.
With his popularity falling to an all-time low among Palestinians, Abbas is
desperate to concoct hollow victories, and insist on presenting himself as a
national liberation leader, despite all evidence to the contrary.
But the bond between South Africa and Palestine is much greater than a
photo-op in Ramallah, involving well-dressed men repeating insincere clichés
about peace and freedom. I dare say it is bigger than Mandela himself,
regardless of which legacy we insist on remembering him by. It is a link that
has been baptized in the blood of the poor and the innocent and the tenacious
struggle of millions of black and brown Africans and Palestinian Arabs.
I was fortunate enough to experience this for myself.
In my last South African speaking tour a few years ago, I was approached by
two South African men. They seemed particularly grateful for reasons that
initially eluded me. ''We want to thank you so much for your support of our
struggle against apartheid,'' one said with so much sincerity and palpable
It made sense. Palestinians saw the struggle of their black brethren as their
own struggle. But the two men were not referring to sentimentalities. While
the Israeli government, military and intelligence supported the apartheid
government in many ways, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had
actually trained and equipped ANC fighters. Cuba and others did
too, but to think that the then Palestinian leadership had the kind of
political consciousness to extend a hand of solidarity to a nation fighting
for its freedom, while the Palestinian people were themselves still enduring
that same fight, filled me with pride.
Those men told me that they still hold onto their PLO-supplied military
uniforms, even after all these years. We embraced and parted ways but, with
time, I came to realize that the present struggle against apartheid in
Palestine is not merely similar to that of South Africa. Both struggles are
extensions of the same movement, the same fight for freedom and, in fact,
against the same enemy.
When Nelson Mandela said, ''We know all too well that our freedom is
incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,'' he was not trying to be
cordial or diplomatic. He meant every word.
Someday, we hope that a statue of Mandela, one that represents the spirit of
Resistance in Palestine, will stand tall amid the people who championed his
cause and loved him most.
– Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20
years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an
author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books
include ‘Searching Jenin', ‘The Second Palestinian Intifada' and his latest
'My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story'. His website is: