What does Mandela presage for Palestine and the MENA region?

By Harry Hagopian
December 10, 2013

There is a huge gap between black and white. The rainbow nation is a dream, not a reality! - Mamello Tlakel, who has worked as a waitress in South Africa.


A few tears welled up in my eyes last week when I heard that Nelson Mandela had passed away at the grand old age of 95. Madiba, his clan name, (or Tata, a less familiar term of endearment for him), was not a young man who had abruptly been felled by a massive stroke or heart attack. Equally, I have no South African genes or connections in my own life and have only visited the country once many moons ago.

The reason for my reaction is that, like millions of others, I respect Mr Mandela for his human endurance, perseverance, vision, humility and lack of bitterness -- not to mention his shrewd political ability to hold a country together when he came out of gaol and espoused truth and reconciliation rather than vengeance and score-settling. In a world of political pygmies, he stands out tall.

But despite my deep admiration for Nelson Mandela, I also know that this Nobel Prize laureate was no more than a charismatic and largely symbolic figure during the last decade of his life. As a lawyer who, together with Oliver Tambo, had opened the first black law firm in South Africa, his real political career was annealed in prison (mainly on Robben Island) and then during his self-limiting one term as president of a new majority rule South Africa.

His successors have lapsed into the mediocre and allegedly corruptible practices and are not many miles ahead of fellow African (or Asian, or Middle Eastern, or other) politicians worldwide today. This is why I shed a few tears for this caring ‘grandfather of the nation', while also understanding the statement last Sunday from Mamello Tlakeli in The New York Times.

But the death of Mandela also sparked the imagination of Palestinians and other Arab citizens from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. This was quite evident first-hand on social media, where many messages exclaimed the sad dearth of a similar Arab Mandela who could extricate the region from its many crises. My own immediate comment on Twitter noted that, “Madiba was much more than a simple leader. He was also the metaphor for a friend.”

I suppose the Palestinian enthusiasm for Mandela stems from his now-famous statement at The International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in Pretoria on 4 December 1997. Mind you, he also spoke about East Timor, Sudan and Yitzhak Rabin in the same speech. But the quotation that fired up Palestinian imaginations was his statement that, “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

The excitement of the rest of the Arab World is in part also a result of the many bloody attempts to put down the aspirations of all those men and women seeking their own dignity, freedom and real citizenship across parts of the MENA region.

But let me be a tad critical here. On the one hand, I do not like it when Palestinians – or other peoples for that matter – indulge in a sense of victimhood or glory by proxy for their cause. The Palestinian cause is one of the longest festering conflicts and its root causes as much as contemporary manifestations are quite clear to most people. Do we need a Mandela or an Obama or even a Dalai Lama to tell us about them? I would rather Palestinians stood up for their own rights by reaching out to others in a pragmatic way that does not constantly bemoan the past but looks instead boldly toward the future.

I would also rather that Arab World leaders stopped their duplicitous use of the Palestinian political sobriquet for their own domestic or international purposes. This applies as much to the final parameters of a solution as it does to the attitudes adopted by, say, Hamas, as it lobs off the fireworks it labels as rockets into Israel, or as it does to the endemic corruption across the political board. Israel colonises more and more Palestinian – Arab, Muslim and Christian lands – and what is the regional reaction? Words, sighs and fiery statements accompanied by requests for financial aid.

As for the whole MENA region in quest of a Mandela-like man or woman, I would suggest that there surely are one or two men (I cannot sadly include women here) in Arab society who possess his skills and leadership? But they are perhaps unable, or else are disallowed, to raise their heads above the parapet.

The MENA region has to look inward and apply the axiomatic advice ‘physician, heal thyself’ before expecting much more from others. Yet, sadly, many Arabs – non-citizens within their own states – find it necessary to recall their past glories, persecute each other on confessional or sectarian grounds, be indifferent to their national solidarity, and depend on inapt leaders inside or outside their borders.

In his eulogy to Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama described him as “a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice.” This is true for his times, but the truth in South Africa as much as in Palestine or the MENA region is that more men and women should take history in their hands and bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Natural justice precludes unfettered corruption or unbridled nepotism as it does an obsequious and rights-unfriendly over-dependence on others. But will they truly be allowed to do so?

Mandela, in his long road toward freedom, opposed white domination as much as he opposed black domination. This was one of his strengths as he applied it in his policies in the early 1990’s. One legacy he leaves with me – and hopefully with others too – is a more acute awareness that apartheid comes in different shapes, colours and situations.


© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenical consultant and political advisor. He also acts as Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and ad hoc ecumenical consultant to the Bishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church in the UK and Ireland (including as part of the Council of Oriental Orthodox Churches). He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor on http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian as well as a recent Huffington Post blogger on www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dr-harry-hagopian. Formerly Assistant General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches , he was subsequently Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches during the Oslo chapter of negotiations. An international fellow at Sorbonne III University, he is author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. His own website is www.epektasis.net and you can follow him on Twitter on @harryhagopian

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