SOUTH AFRICA, THE MANDELA MANTLE, AND THE CASE OF GENOCIDE IN GAZA
By Femi Olugbile
This newspaper column has had a long and fraught relationship with South Africa over the years. In one of its previous incarnations, it described the wild jubilation of a Zimbabwean crowd as Oliver Tambo, President of the ANC – then the only major leader of the African National Congress who was not dead, or in jail, or under some form of restriction, arrived on a dusty stretch of land on the outskirts of Harare in 1981 to participate in the opening of Heroes Acre, the site where the heroes of Zimbabwe’s Liberation War were to be reburied, and where present and future national icons, including Robert Mugabe himself, who presided over the ceremony, would be interred.
One of your columns recorded a trip to Masvingo Province to savour the beauty of Mosi oa tunya, (the smoke that thunders’), known to the outside world as Victoria Falls, and seeing teenage visitors from foreign parts wearing t-shirts with a map of Africa and an arrow pointing downwards to South Africa, the only major country then remaining to be liberated from white rule, with the boastful legend, ‘AFRICA, GETTING DARKER’. The logo, your column recorded, must have been upsetting to many of the local whites who ran the shops and hotels, and were still ardent holdouts of Rhodesia and followers of Ian Smith.
Naturally you celebrated the eventual release of Mandela from Robben Island, and the ascendancy of the ANC to the Presidency of South Africa. In the event, it was Mandela, and not Tambo, who had since died, who became President.
South Africa, seen through the lens of this column, which every so often returned to focus on it, was a country, and an idea, that had taken much from many people, and from who a lot – perhaps too much, would be expected in return. It was not just about gratitude to Nigeria or the weaker, more vulnerable nations such as Zambia and Mozambique who had been ‘Frontline States’ in the liberation war, and suffered economic and physical depredations as a result. To give but one example, the cream of a whole generation of African youths had given up their dreams of Olympic glory when African nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics in 1976 in protest apartheid.
For African Liberation, South Africa was the ultimate prize, and the proof of the possibilities of black African power.
Mandela could only set the tone, and quite rightly he kept his reign short in order not to outlive his welcome, wisdom that liberation leaders of lesser moral fibre like Robert Mugabe failed to grasp. Universal adulation, by people including those who formerly derided him as a terrorist, would not have lasted, and those who controlled public opinion in the Western World would have done everything possible to destroy his image if he had lived to oppose their actions in Libya, in Iraq, and, God forbid, in the Gaza of today.
Because of what Nelson Mandela represented to Africa and the world, it is natural to expect that the inheritors of his mantle would do everything possible to make South Africa the conscience of Africa, and purveyor of its world view. Sadly, they have not always lived up to the image. They have often let themselves down. Thabo Mbeki, who denied HIV/AIDS, when thousands of his countrymen were dying from it. Jazob Zuma, who ran a crony-government, and could not separate public money from private funds. The spectacle of poorly educated South African yobs without a sense of their own history attacking other Africans in paroxysms of xenophobia. Even Cyril Ramaphosa, supposedly the best of the Madiba acolytes, struggling with self-inflicted wounds, and an inefficient government.
On 29th December 2023, South Africa filed a suit before the International Court of Justice in the Hague, accusing Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, in contravention of the 1948 Genocide Convention. It cited the ongoing killing of civilians including children, mass displacement of Palestinians and destruction of their homes, and inciting statements by Israeli officials implying Palestinians were sub-humans deserving of collective punishment.
After getting over the shock that an African nation would have the temerity to defy its stranglehold over mainstream public opinion, Israel has risen to defend itself, its main argument being the context that the war was set off by the Hamas invasion of its territory and a horrific massacre of over twelve hundred Israelis.
The relationship between South Africa and Israel is an interesting one. There are Jewish South Africans, and even members of the ANC, such as the late Nobel Prizewinning author Nadine Gordimer. On the other hand, Israeli supported the white Apartheid government of South Africa, and is alleged to have helped it to acquire nuclear weapons.
South Africa’s prayer to the ICJ is that it should order an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Israel has said its purpose is to destroy Hamas, a literal impossibility. Prime Minister Netanyahu has not helped matters, once referring to a biblical war against their neighbours, the Amalekites, in which Jews, under their first King, Saul, were divinely ordered to kill ‘every man, woman, child and animal’ in the land.
Plaintiff and defendant have since delivered their arguments before the ICJ. The court’s judgment is awaited, as this column is going to bed.
The daily news out of Gaza is morally troubling, even for the most ardent supporters of Israel. The tactics of Hamas are brutal and reprehensible. Israel, on the other hand, continuously acts in violation of its own moral values and democratic pretensions.
What South Africa has done is to take up the Mandela mantle and try to fill a vacuum in the spokesmanship and moral leadership for Africa, while other African nations are paralysed by ambivalence, or wringing their hands in fear of offending ‘the West’. Whatever the outcome may be, Mandela would be smiling in his grave, happy that, for once, his children have not let him down.