What the Palestinians Can Learn from Mandela

“The state of the city, the nation or the world can invest a sporting event with dramatic intensity such as is reached in few theatres,” the legendary Trinidadian historian, patriot and cricket writer CLR James once wrote. World Cup football matches have triggered wars (El Salvador-Honduras in 1968) or been postponed in order to avoid them (the Sudan-Chad match of last May). The 1956 Olympic water polo clash between Hungary and the Soviet Union, played one month after Soviet tanks crushed a popular uprising in Budapest, was so violent that the water was tinted red with players’ blood by the time officials called it off.

The June 24, 1995 Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and Australia was similarly epic, though not because of any enmity between the two countries. The game hosted an iconic moment heralding South Africa’s inclusive post-apartheid nationhood: President Nelson Mandela striding onto the field at Ellis Park in a Springbok rugby jersey, erstwhile symbol of the old regime, while the mostly Afrikaans crowd chanted “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!” – lionising a man most of them would have gladly seen hang just a few years earlier.

John Carlin’s extraordinary new book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation, provides a gripping, intimate account of the game, the events preceding it and their deep relevance to Mandela’s political project. Carlin served as the South Africa bureau chief for The Independent from 1989 to 1995, during which time he forged a foreign journalist’s intimacy with a wide range of key players across the political spectrum. Here he revisits that period, debriefing Mandela, his allies (including one of his bodyguards), key political and military figures in the apartheid establishment and even the rugby players themselves.

South Africa’s peaceful transformation is often hailed as a “miracle” attributable entirely to Mandela’s idealism and personal capacity for compromise and forgiveness. But Mandela never compromised on his core demand of democratic majority rule, and his genius lay not so much in forgiving his enemies as in disarming and outmanoeuvring them. His achievements, including the transformation consecrated by the famous rugby final, were the result of a clear-eyed political strategy. Today Mandela is often invoked as an exemplar of non-violent change – nowhere more frequently than in the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, whose partisans love to bemoan the absence of a “Palestinian Mandela”, as if such a figure would be more willing than the current Palestinian leadership to accept Israel’s terms. But the South African Mandela has always insisted that in Palestine, just as in South Africa, justice is the key to peace and reconciliation.

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17 Responses to What the Palestinians Can Learn from Mandela

  1. William Timberman says:

    Wise men can be incredibly different, but wisdom, it seems, remains the same.

    Thank you for this, Tony, but if I may say so, the Palestinians aren’t the only ones who might take a lesson from it. I hope something very like Mandela’s remarkable political clarity is what Barack Obama has in mind for leading the U.S. out of its presently disgraceful and self-defeating cul-de-sac. Certainly the world is ready for it, as am I.

  2. morris says:

    The Black South Africans never had the support the Palestinians can have: Hizbollah, Syria, Hamas in gaza, Maybe Iran.

    Were the white South Africans better, the same or worse than the Israelis?

    For the Israelis and allies the troubles are stacking up from all sides. Namely the banking…

    Might not a peace agreement with Hamas be the more trustworthy option?

  3. Matthew says:

    Hmm…support from Hezb, Syria, and Iran or $150 billion in support from the world’s only superpower. I think the Palestinians would exchange places in a minute.

    Poor Israel, surrounded by some many weak nations, protected by the world’s Goliath, and still able to crush an utterly defenseless native people under heel. Life is tough.

  4. Rupa Shah says:

    If only more elected officials and responsible individuals in power could learn something from this great man, Nelson Mandela? World would be a different place and a much better place.

  5. FredJ says:

    Peace treaties with Hamas are difficult because they don’t believe in peace conferences and refuse to abide by treaties already agreed upon.

    Mandela compromised. Hamas totally rejects all compromise. The PA/Fatah is so weak that any territory it commands will be taken over by Hamas.

    The issues are very different. In South Africa it was mainly a color line. In Israel it’s religion and nationality; color hardly matters at all.

  6. Tony says:

    Ho hum, Fred… There you go again. What exactly did Mandela compromise on? Certainly not on the basic right of his people to democratic majority rule. Then again, it’s hardly surprising to hear you make up your own version of Mandela, just as you make up your own version of so many other realities. And actually, the situations in South Africa and Israel have a lot more in common than blind defenders of Israel care to admit

  7. Charles says:

    It may be true that the Palestinian non-compromiser is here, or will be. It is also true that very few Palestinian leaders have played towards in Israeli audience in meaningful ways, whereas Mandela was acutely aware of the need to built white support while thwarting white opposition.

    It is highly instructive (by way of example) that Hamas has never paired it’s militancy with a willingness to dialogue with progressive elements of Israeli society, despite many opportunities to do so. The Palestinian visions of Fatah and Hamas have never included Jews in the same way that ANC vision included whites. Which is to say, maybe white involvement in the ANC was very small, but it spoke volumes about what a post-apartheid future would look like. There are NO Palestinian political entities in the West Bank or Gaza that incorporate Jews with compatible views, of whom there are many.

  8. Tony says:

    I agree with the general point you’re trying to make, i.e. that Mandela’s political strategy focused more on the politics of disarming whites, i.e. dissuading them from a violent defense of minority rule, than on trying to muster superior force, which was never going to happen. That’s the teachable part, for sure.

    There have been a few Jews in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist faction of the PLO, BTW, and Arafat used to have a Nturei Kata guy in his cabinet. But don’t overestimate the importance of white in the ANC to the broader project of winning over whites. To the regime’s support base, we never looked like a vision of the future, as much as the face of treason!

    Still, as you say, there’s a huge value today in civil society initiatives like Zochrot, that strive to build bridges between ordinary Israelis and Palestinians based on a just solution to the refugee question…

  9. Murphy says:

    Is it not the case, though, that Apartheid fell not only – or even primarily – because of the influence of Mandela, but because more rational elements in white society could clearly see that the game was up for Afrikanerdom? If Apartheid SA enjoyed widespread international acceptance, and if the economy was thriving, would the majority of whites ever have accepted the end of minority rule?

    Right now, the situation in Israel is quite tolerable for most Israeli Jews. Sure, they live in a paranoid siege mentality, and suffer the occasional terrorist attack, but most live lives quite comparable to those led by privileged Westerners. In other words, the price of occupation for most Israelis is really quite acceptable, whereas by the late 80s, the price of Apartheid had become unacceptably high for most white South Africans.

    Surely, a time has to come – and come it surely will, though likely too late to save Zionism – when most Israelis will realise the inviability of the Zionist project. Similarly, with the decline in US influence, major international players will see less and less point in backing Israel at the expense of its neighbours. Until that time comes, however, all the Mandelas in the world will not be able to do much good.

  10. Steven Solomon says:

    What is often ignored in these debates is the part that the National Party played in the transformation in SA.
    Yes, Madiba is a great leader/orator/figurehead, but without the participation of the NP and allies in the process, I doubt that peace would have prevailed. My point here is that both sides of the table need to want the same thing, and from my perspective, that is lacking in the great, never-ending Palestine/Israel saga. Both sides in SA were willing to compromise and step away from age old dogmas that each party was steeped in. And this is where the similarity between the 2 issues ends. The comparison is no longer relevant.
    Both ‘sides’ here in SA wanted peace….neither side in Palestine/Israel appears to want it.
    Perhaps they should play soccer against each other.

  11. Steven Solomon says:

    The 1995 Rugby WC final was played between SA and New Zealand.

  12. Murphy says:

    “without the participation of the NP and allies in the process, I doubt that peace would have prevailed.”

    That’s sort of my point. A large factor in the fall of Apartheid was the fact that the Afrikaners realised their time was up, and that there was simply no way that Apartheid could be maintained without visiting economic ruin on the country as a whole. It’s not like they woke up one fine morning and realised the immorality of it all. However, as I’ve said, for most Israelis the situation is perfectly tolerable (however much they may maintain otherwise) and hence, in their minds, they have little motivation to seek a genuine peace. Until that perception changes, nothing else will.

  13. J. Otto Pohl says:

    The missing link hinted at by Murphy seems to be the international isolation and boycott of South Africa. If Israeli football teams were banned from playing in Europe. If musicians refused to play concerts in Tel Aviv. If university campuses divested from stock in companies operating in Israel. Then the Israelis might move towards respecting the human rights of the Palestinians in order to get these restrictions removed. But, as long as the US gives unconditional support to Israel regardless of its actions then there is no pressure on Israeli Jews to oppose apartheid against the Palestinians.

  14. mgtech says:

    May be if the South Afrikanns had lobby like Israel they would still have an aparthied


  16. Rina Simmons says:

    In my opinion, that Interest Savings Accounts is way to low!

  17. It’s not like they woke up one fine morning and realised the immorality of it all. However, as I’ve said, for most Israelis the situation is perfectly tolerable (however much they may maintain otherwise) and hence, in their minds, they have little motivation to seek a genuine peace

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