A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid

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The report reproduced below was published by B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories – at the beginning of January 2021. It is presented as it was in the original. (However, there’s a broken link in the original pdf on page 5 – permit required.)

A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid

More than 14 million people, roughly half of them Jews and the other half Palestinians, live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea under a single rule. The common perception in public, political, legal and media discourse is that two separate regimes operate side by side in this area, separated by the Green Line. One regime, inside the borders of the sovereign State of Israel, is a permanent democracy with a population of about nine million, all Israeli citizens. The other regime, in the territories Israel took over in 1967, whose final status is supposed to be determined in future negotiations, is a temporary military occupation imposed on some five million Palestinian subjects.

Over time, the distinction between the two regimes has grown divorced from reality. This state of affairs has existed for more than 50 years – twice as long as the State of Israel existed without it. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers now reside in permanent settlements east of the Green Line, living as though they were west of it. East Jerusalem has been officially annexed to Israel’s sovereign territory, and the West Bank has been annexed in practice. Most importantly, the distinction obfuscates the fact that the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians. All this leads to the conclusion that these are not two parallel regimes that simply happen to uphold the same principle. There is one regime governing the entire area and the people living in it, based on a single organizing principle.

When B’Tselem was founded in 1989, we limited our mandate to the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip, and refrained from addressing human rights inside the State of Israel established in 1948 or from taking a comprehensive approach to the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Yet the situation has changed. The regime’s organizing principle has gained visibility in recent years, as evidenced by the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People passed in 2018, or open talk of formally annexing parts of the West Bank in 2020. Taken together with the facts described above, this means that what happens in the Occupied Territories can no longer be treated as separate from the reality in the entire area under Israel’s control. The terms we have used in recent years to describe the situation – such as “prolonged occupation” or a “one-state reality” – are no longer adequate. To continue effectively fighting human rights violations, it is essential to examine and define the regime that governs the entire area.

This paper analyzes how the Israeli regime works to advance its goals in the entire area under its control. We do not provide a historical review or an evaluation of the Palestinian and Jewish national movements, or of the former South Africa regime. While these are important questions, they are beyond the purview of a human rights organization. Rather, this document presents the principles that guide the regime, demonstrates how it implements them and points to the conclusion that emerges from all of this as to how the regime should be defined and what that means for human rights.

Divide, separate, rule

In the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to cement the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians. A key method in pursuing this goal is engineering space differently for each group.

Jewish citizens live as though the entire area were a single space (excluding the Gaza Strip). The Green Line means next to nothing for them: whether they live west of it, within Israel’s sovereign territory, or east of it, in settlements not formally annexed to Israel, is irrelevant to their rights or status.

Where Palestinians live, on the other hand, is crucial. The Israeli regime has divided the area into several units that it defines and governs differently, according Palestinians different rights in each. This division is relevant to Palestinians only. The geographic space, which is contiguous for Jews, is a fragmented mosaic for Palestinians:

  • Palestinians who live on land defined in 1948 as Israeli sovereign territory (sometimes called Arab-Israelis) are Israeli citizens and make up 17% of the state’s citizenry. While this status affords them many rights, they do not enjoy the same rights as Jewish citizens by either law or practice – as detailed further in this paper.
  • Roughly 350,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, which consists of some 70,000 dunams [1 dunam = 1,000 square meters] that Israel annexed to its sovereign territory in 1967. They are defined as permanent residents of Israel – a status that allows them to live and work in Israel without needing special permits, to receive social benefits and health insurance, and to vote in municipal elections. Yet permanent residency, unlike citizenship, may be revoked at any time, at the complete discretion of the Minister of the Interior. In certain circumstances, it can also expire.
  • Although Israel never formally annexed the West Bank, it treats the territory as its own. More than 2.6 million Palestinian subjects live in the West Bank, in dozens of disconnected enclaves, under rigid military rule and without political rights. In about 40% of the territory, Israel has transferred some civilian powers to the Palestinian Authority (PA). However, the PA is still subordinate to Israel and can only exercise its limited powers with Israel’s consent.
  • The Gaza Strip is home to about two million Palestinians, also denied political rights. In 2005, Israel withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip, dismantled the settlements it built there and abdicated any responsibility for the fate of the Palestinian population. After the Hamas takeover in 2007, Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip that is still in place. Throughout all of these years, Israel has continued to control nearly every aspect of life in Gaza from outside.

Israel accords Palestinians a different package of rights in every one of these units – all of which are inferior compared to the rights afforded to Jewish citizens. The goal of Jewish supremacy is advanced differently in every unit, and the resulting forms of injustice differ: the lived experience of Palestinians in blockaded Gaza is unlike that of Palestinian subjects in the West Bank, permanent residents in East Jerusalem or Palestinian citizens within sovereign Israeli territory. Yet these are variations on the fact that all Palestinians living under Israeli rule are treated as inferior in rights and status to Jews who live in the very same area.

Detailed below are four major methods the Israeli regime uses to advance Jewish supremacy. Two are implemented similarly throughout the entire area: restricting migration by non-Jews and taking over Palestinian land to build Jewish-only communities, while relegating Palestinians to small enclaves. The other two are implemented primarily in the Occupied Territories: draconian restrictions on the movement of non-citizen Palestinians and denial of their political rights. Control over these aspects of life lies entirely in Israel’s hands: in the entire area, Israel has sole power over the population registry, land allocation, voter rolls and the right (or denial thereof) to travel within, enter or exit any part of the area.

A. Immigration – for Jews only:

Any Jew in the world and his or her children, grandchildren and spouses are entitled to immigrate to Israel at any time and receive Israeli citizenship, with all of its associated rights. They receive this status even if they choose to live in a West Bank settlement not formally annexed to Israel’s sovereign territory.

In contrast, non-Jews have no right to legal status in Israeli-controlled areas. Granting status is at the almost complete discretion of officials – the Minister of the Interior (within sovereign Israel) or the military commander (in the Occupied Territories). Despite this official distinction, the organizing principle remains the same: Palestinians living in other countries cannot immigrate to the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, even if they, their parents or their grandparents were born and lived there. The only way Palestinians can immigrate to areas controlled by Israel is by marrying a Palestinian who already lives there – as citizen, resident or subject – as well as meeting a series of conditions and receiving Israeli approval.

Israel not only hampers Palestinian immigration but also impedes Palestinian relocation between the units, if the move – in the perception of the regime – would upgrade their status. For instance, Palestinian citizens of Israel or residents of East Jerusalem can easily relocate to the West Bank (although they risk their rights and status in doing so). Palestinians in the Occupied Territories cannot obtain Israeli citizenship and relocate to Israeli sovereign territory, except for in very rare instances, which depend on the approval of Israeli officials.

Israel’s policy on family unification illustrates this principle. For years, the regime has placed numerous obstacles before families in which each spouse lives in a different geographical unit. Over time, this has impeded and often prevented Palestinians marrying a Palestinian in another unit from acquiring status in that unit. As a result of this policy, tens of thousands of families have been unable to live together. When one spouse is a resident of the Gaza Strip, Israel allows the family to live there together, but if the other spouse is a resident of the West Bank, Israel demands they relocate permanently to Gaza. In 2003, the Knesset passed a Temporary Order (still in force) banning the issuance of Israeli citizenship or permanent residency to Palestinians from the Occupied Territories who marry Israelis – unlike citizens of other countries. In exceptional cases approved by the Minister of the Interior, Palestinians from the West Bank who marry Israelis may be granted status in Israel – yet it is only temporary and does not entitle them to social benefits.

Israel also undermines the right of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – including East Jerusalem – to continue living where they were born. Since 1967, Israel has revoked the status of some 250,000 Palestinians in the West Bank (East Jerusalem included) and the Gaza Strip, in some cases on the grounds they had lived abroad for more than three years. This includes thousands of East Jerusalem residents who moved mere miles east of their homes to parts of the West Bank that are not officially annexed. All these individuals were robbed of the right to return to their homes and families, where they were born and raised.

B. Taking over land for Jews while crowding Palestinians in enclaves:

Israel practices a policy of “Judaizing” the area, based on the mindset that land is a resource meant almost exclusively to benefit the Jewish public. Land is used to develop and expand existing Jewish communities and build new ones, while Palestinians are dispossessed and corralled into small, crowded enclaves. This policy has been practiced with respect to land within sovereign Israeli territory since 1948 and applied to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories since 1967. In 2018, the underlying principle was entrenched in Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People, which stipulates that “the State considers the development of Jewish settlements a national value and will take action to encourage and promote the establishment and reinforcment of such settlements.”

Inside its sovereign territory, Israel has enacted discriminatory laws, most notably the Absentee Property Law, allowing it to expropriate vast tracts of Palestinian-owned land, including millions of dunams in communities whose residents were expelled or fled in 1948 and were barred from returning. Israel has also significantly reduced the areas designated for Palestinian local councils and communities, which now have access to less than 3% of the country’s total area. Most of the designated land is already saturated with construction. As a result, more than 90% of land in Israel’s sovereign territory is now under state control.

Israel has used this land to build hundreds of communities for Jewish citizens – yet not a single one for Palestinian citizens. The exception is a handful of towns and villages built to concentrate the Bedouin population, which has been stripped of most of its proprietary rights. Most of the land on which Bedouins used to live has been expropriated and registered as state land. Many Bedouin communities have been defined as ‘unrecognized’ and their residents as ‘invaders.’ On land historically occupied by Bedouins, Israel has built Jewish-only communities.

The Israeli regime severely restricts construction and development in the little remaining land in Palestinian communities within its sovereign territory. It also refrains from preparing master plans that reflect the population’s needs, and keeps these communities’ areas of jurisdiction virtually unchanged despite population growth. The result is small, crowded enclaves where residents have no choice but to build without permits.

Israel has also passed a law allowing communities with admission committees, numbering hundreds throughout the country, to reject Palestinian applicants on grounds of “cultural incompatibility.” This effectively prevents Palestinian citizens from living in communities designated for Jews. Officially, any Israeli citizen can live in any of the country’s cities; in practice, only 10% of Palestinian citizens do. Even then, they are usually relegated to separate neighborhoods due to lack of educational, religious and other services, the prohibitive cost of purchasing a home in other parts of the city, or discriminatory practices in land and home sales.

The regime has used the same organizing principle in the West Bank since 1967 (including East Jerusalem). Hundreds of thousands of dunams, including farmland and pastureland, have been taken from Palestinian subjects on various pretexts and used, among other things, to establish and expand settlements, including residential neighborhoods, farmland and industrial zones. All settlements are closed military zones that Palestinians are forbidden from entering without a permit. So far, Israel has established more than 280 settlements in the West Bank (East Jerusalem included), which are now home to more than 600,000 Jews. More land has been taken to build hundreds of kilometers of bypass roads for settlers.

Israel has instituted a separate planning system for Palestinians in the West Bank, chiefly designed to prevent construction and development. Large swathes of land are unavailable for construction, having been declared state land, a firing zone, a nature reserve or a national park. The authorities also refrain from drafting adequate master plans reflecting the present and future needs of Palestinian communities in what little land has been spared. The separate planning system centers on demolishing structures built without permits – here, too, for lack of choice. All this has trapped Palestinians in dozens of densely-populated enclaves, with development outside them – whether for residential or public use, including infrastructure – almost completely banned.

C. Restriction of Palestinians’ freedom of movement

Israel allows its Jewish and Palestinian citizens and residents to travel freely throughout the area. Exceptions are the prohibition on entering the Gaza Strip, which it defines “hostile territory,” and the (mostly formal) prohibition on entering areas ostensibly under PA responsibility (Area A). In rare cases, Palestinian citizens or residents are permitted to enter Gaza.

Israeli citizens can also leave and reenter the country at any time. In contrast, residents of East Jerusalem do not hold Israeli passports and lengthy absence can result in revocation of status.

Israel routinely restricts the movement of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and generally forbids them from moving between the units. Palestinians from the West Bank who wish to enter Israel, East Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip must apply to the Israeli authorities. In the Gaza Strip, which has been blockaded since 2007, the entire population is imprisoned as Israel forbids almost any movement in or out – except in rare cases it defines humanitarian. Palestinians who wish to leave Gaza or Palestinians from other units who wish to enter it must also submit a special application for a permit to the Israeli authorities. The permits are issued sparingly and can only be obtained through a strict, arbitrary mechanism, or permit regime, which lacks transparency and clear rules. Israel treats every permit issued to a Palestinian as an act of grace rather than the fulfillment of a vested right.

In the West Bank, Israel controls all the routes between the Palestinian enclaves. This allows the military to set up flying כcheckpoints, close off access points to villages, block roads and stop passage through checkpoints at will. Furthermore, Israel built the Separation Barrier within the West Bank and designated Palestinian land, including farmland, trapped between the barrier and the Green Line as “the seam zone.” Palestinians in the West Bank are barred from entering this zone, subject to the same permit regime.

Palestinians in the Occupied Territories also need Israeli permission to go abroad. As a rule, Israel does not allow them to use Ben Gurion International Airport, which lies inside its sovereign territory. Palestinians from the West Bank must fly through Jordan’s international airport – but can only do so if Israel allows them to cross the border into Jordan. Every year, Israel denies thousands of requests to cross this border, with no explanation. Palestinians from Gaza must go through Egyptian-controlled Rafah Crossing – provided it is open, the Egyptian authorities let them through, and they can undertake the long journey through Egyptian territory. In rare exceptions, Israel allows Gazans to travel through its sovereign territory in an escorted shuttle, in order to reach the West Bank and from there continue to Jordan and on to their destination.

D. Denial of Palestinians’ right to political participation:

Like their Jewish counterparts, Palestinian citizens of Israel can take political action to further their interests, including voting and running for office. They can elect representatives, establish parties or join existing ones. That said, Palestinian elected officials are continually vilified – a sentiment propagated by key political figures – and the right of Palestinian citizens to political participation is under constant attack.

The roughly five million Palestinians who live in the Occupied Territories cannot participate in the political system that governs their lives and determines their futures. Theoretically, most Palestinians are eligible to vote in the PA elections. Yet as the PA’s powers are limited, even if elections were held regularly (the last were in 2006), the Israeli regime would still rule Palestinians’ lives, as it retains major aspects of governance in the Occupied Territories. This includes control over immigration, the population registry, planning and land policies, water, communication infrastructure, import and export, and military control over land, sea and air space.

In East Jerusalem, Palestinians are caught between a rock and a hard place. As permanent residents of Israel, they can vote in municipal elections but not for parliament. On the other hand, Israel makes it difficult for them to participate in PA elections.

Political participation encompasses more than voting or running for office. Israel also denies Palestinians political rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of association. These rights enable individuals to critique regimes, protest policies, form associations to advance their ideas and generally work to promote social and political change.

A slew of legislation, such as the boycott law and the Nakba law, has limited Israelis’ freedom to criticize policies relating to Palestinians throughout the area. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories face even harsher restrictions: they are not allowed to demonstrate; many associations have been banned; and almost any political statement is considered incitement. These restrictions are assiduously enforced by the military courts, which have imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and are a key mechanism upholding the occupation. In East Jerusalem, Israel works to prevent any social, cultural or political activity associated in any way with the PA.

The division of space also hampers a unified Palestinian struggle against Israeli policy. The variation in laws, procedures and rights among the geographical units and the draconian movement restrictions have separated the Palestinians into distinct groups. This fragmentation not only helps Israel promote Jewish supremacy, but also thwarts criticism and resistance.

No to apartheid: That is our struggle:

The Israeli regime, which controls all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, seeks to advance and cement Jewish supremacy throughout the entire area. To that end, it has divided the area into several units, each with a different set of rights for Palestinians – always inferior to the rights of Jews. As part of this policy, Palestinians are denied many rights, including the right to self-determination.

This policy is advanced in several ways. Israel demographically engineers the space through laws and orders that allow any Jew in the world or their relatives to obtain Israeli citizenship, but almost completely deny Palestinians this possibility. It has physically engineered the entire area by taking over of millions of dunams of land and establishing Jewish-only communities, while driving Palestinians into small enclaves. Movement is engineered through restrictions on Palestinian subjects, and political engineering excludes millions of Palestinians from participating in the processes that determine their lives and futures while holding them under military occupation.

A regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime. Israeli apartheid, which promotes the supremacy of Jews over Palestinians, was not born in one day or of a single speech. It is a process that has gradually grown more institutionalized and explicit, with mechanisms introduced over time in law and practice to promote Jewish supremacy. These accumulated measures, their pervasiveness in legislation and political practice, and the public and judicial support they receive – all form the basis for our conclusion that the bar for labeling the Israeli regime as apartheid has been met.

If this regime has developed over many years, why release this paper in 2021? What has changed? Recent years have seen a rise in the motivation and willingness of Israeli officials and institutions to enshrine Jewish supremacy in law and openly state their intentions. The enactment of Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People and the declared plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank have shattered the façade Israel worked for years to maintain.

The Nation State basic law, enacted in 2018, enshrines the Jewish people’s right to self-determination to the exclusion of all others. It establishes that distinguishing Jews in Israel (and throughout the world) from non-Jews is fundamental and legitimate. Based on this distinction, the law permits institutionalized discrimination in favor of Jews in settlement, housing, land development, citizenship, language and culture. It is true that the Israeli regime largely followed these principles before. Yet Jewish supremacy has now been enshrined in basic law, making it a binding constitutional principle – unlike ordinary law or practices by authorities, which can be challenged. This signals to all state institutions that they not only can, but must, promote Jewish supremacy in the entire area under Israeli control.

Israel’s plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank also bridges the gap between the official status of the Occupied Territories, which is accompanied by empty rhetoric about negotiation of its future, and the fact that Israel actually annexed most of the West Bank long ago. Israel did not follow through on its declarations of formal annexation after July 2020, and various officials have released contradicting statements regarding the plan since. Regardless of how and when Israel advances formal annexation of one kind or another, its intention to achieve permanent control over the entire area has already been openly declared by the state’s highest officials.

The Israeli regime’s rationale, and the measures used to implement it, are reminiscent of the South African regime that sought to preserve the supremacy of white citizens, in part through partitioning the population into classes and sub-classes and ascribing different rights to each. There are, of course, differences between the regimes. For instance, the division in South Africa was based on race and skin color, while in Israel it is based on nationality and ethnicity. Segregation in South Africa was also manifested in public space, in the form of a policed, formal, public separation between people based on skin color – a degree of visibility that Israel usually avoids. Yet in public discourse and in international law, apartheid does not mean an exact copy of the former South African regime. No regime will ever be identical. ‘Apartheid’ has long been an independent term, entrenched in international conventions, referring to a regime’s organizing principle: systematically promoting the dominance of one group over another and working to cement it.

The Israeli regime does not have to declare itself an apartheid regime to be defined as such, nor is it relevant that representatives of the state broadly proclaim it a democracy. What defines apartheid is not statements but practice. While South Africa declared itself an apartheid regime in 1948, it is unreasonable to expect other states to follow suit given the historical repercussions. The response of most countries to South Africa’s apartheid is likelier to deter countries from admitting to implementing a similar regime. It is also clear that what was possible in 1948 is no longer possible today, both legally and in terms of public opinion.

As painful as it may be to look reality in the eye, it is more painful to live under a boot. The harsh reality described here may deteriorate further if new practices are introduced – with or without accompanying legislation. Nevertheless, people created this regime and people can make it worse – or work to replace it. That hope is the driving force behind this position paper. How can people fight injustice if it is unnamed? Apartheid is the organizing principle, yet recognizing this does not mean giving up. On the contrary: it is a call for change.

Fighting for a future based on human rights, liberty and justice is especially crucial now. There are various political paths to a just future here, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but all of us must first choose to say no to apartheid.

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) – dir. Justin Chadwick

Sharpville Massacre May 1960

Sharpville Massacre May 1960

Considering that the period covered was one of the most dynamic and crucial in the development of Black Southern Africa the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is remarkably pedestrian, slow, ponderous and ultimately unsatisfying. This isn’t surprising when you consider that the whole emphasis is placed on an individual with political events merely being a historical backdrop rather than looking at those events and analysing how any individual relates to the greater whole.

Being based on Mandela’s autobiography (of the same name) published in 1994 (a 750 pages doorstop that seems to have been his primary aim after release as he wrote this prior to his being elected South Africa’s first Black President in April 1994) this perhaps is not surprising but I would have thought that a film based in a period of massive upheaval and conflict should have recognised that social movements have a momentum of their own and that an individual’s role should be measured, for good or bad, in how it progresses that social movement.

The film is basically in three parts.

At the very beginning we are presented with an idealised childhood and youth in the South African bush. When he goes off to study at University Mandela’s wish is only to become a successful and wealthy lawyer. He’s a smart-arse lawyer and we are shown an episode in court where he wins a case by playing on the racism of a white woman. She is so disgusted at having to answer questions from a ‘kaffir’ and having to justify to him that a pair of knickers are hers that she walks out of the courtroom and the case collapses. So we are introduced to the Mandela who is a clever and astute lawyer.

But in this period he’s not especially interested in politics. This is the 1940s, before the formal establishment of Apartheid, and although the formal and legal institution of that system has yet to be written into law we are still dealing with a racist and segregated society. But Mandela, although having contact with the African National Congress (ANC), seems more concerned about using the pistol in his trousers than any true weapon against the State.

When, as a result of the openly racist National Party in the whites only election in 1948, strict segregation of the races is enforced and Mandela moves into a house in the Orlando township he is given a speech were it gives the impression that he is the only one who really understands what is going on in the country – here the film seems to play around with the timeline of events for dramatic effect. This establishes a theme that continues throughout the rest of the film, Mandela knows best, Mandela is the one who doesn’t break when the pressure is applied, Mandela is the clear and thoughtful leader who sees the future whilst others are lost in a wilderness. In this way any voices, either in agreement of otherwise are totally ignored.

We get the start of the hagiography that is the film with demonstrations of his ability as a public speaker, a demagogue who says what everyone else is afraid to say – and throughout the rest of the film very few significant statements are made by any of the other characters. In such street meetings the camera flashes to other ANC supporters who look concerned when Mandela makes a statement that might be construed as inflammatory and going too far and which might bring down the wrath and anger of the white racists. This despite the fact that the film, in an earlier scene, shows that many in the ANC were challenging the system BEFORE the active involvement of Mandela. He was not a leader from the off and, in fact, although not shown in the film, Mandela later became instrumental in side-lining the more radical elements within the movement.

Towards the end of this first third he develops as an egoist and self publicist having the newspaper cameras around when he burns his passbook. This follows the Sharpville massacre of May 1960 in which 69 people were butchered during a Pan-African Congress (PAC) organised protest against the obligatory carrying of identification papers. The PAC was much further to the left than the ANC and the two organisations vied for the mass support of the South African population. In those pictures he’s smiling as if it were yet another photo opportunity and demonstrates how he rode on the backs of others who had taken the initiative – not for the last time.

After Sharpville - Mandela burns his passbook

After Sharpville – Mandela burns his passbook

The only period in the whole of his life where Mandela might be vaguely considered to have followed a revolutionary road was during the first couple of years of the 1960s. Then he followed some military training in Algeria and this period saw the establishment of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, known in shorthand as MK), the military wing of the ANC. This organisation limited itself to sabotage activities in its beginning and rarely went much further for the rest of its existence and it was the activities of MK that led to the arrest and trial of Mandela and others from the ANC leadership.

Much has been made of Mandela’s closing speech at the Rivonia trial of 1964 where his last words were ‘it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’. This was inspired by Fidel Castro’s speech after the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 7th 1953 and considered the start of the Cuban revolution. Castro’s last words were: ‘Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me’. (Don’t you ever get the impression they were speaking with history in mind rather than anything else?) It is true that they could have been sentenced to death at this trial but the Afrikaaners were to deny them their desire for martyrdom and instead sentenced them to life imprisonment. Fine, stirring and defiant these final words might have been but a better idea of Mandela’s political thinking, which he maintained till the end, can be understood if the whole of the speech is read, where, among other things he speaks of his admiration for the British establishment.

The second section of the film concerns his time in prison. Yet again all the other inmates become mere cyphers. For example, on arrival at Robben Island prison he is shown as the only one remaining defiant as when he shouts out ‘Amandla’ (meaning ‘power’) which would expect the reply ‘Awethu’ (‘to us’) Mandela’s call is met with total, demoralised, silence.

Being a prisoner was the most significant role that Mandela played in the South African liberation struggle and became the symbol for anti-Apartheid campaigns throughout the world. For 18 years he was isolated from the struggle like all the other prisoners on Robben Island and wasn’t aware of or in any way involved in the direction of the struggle as it intensified. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s one after another of the countries that had been dominated by European colonial powers gained their independence, often after bitter, bloody and determined armed struggles. It was in this way that Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola gained their freedom from direct foreign control (but not from international capitalist interference). Things were starting to get out of control in South Africa and fearing the country would move much further to the left after any possible victory in the liberation struggle Mandela was brought back into the political process to create division and promote moderation.

This very selection of someone who had been out of contact with the everyday struggle becoming the representative of the black population says a lot about the failure of the ANC to make any significant inroads during their so-called ‘armed struggle’.

This, third, section of the film plainly shows the attitude Mandela had to any sort of collective leadership and decision-making process. Probably the most significant discussion amongst his fellow prisoners and the clearest political stance (and the only one in the film) they took was totally ignored by Mandela. When they voted that he shouldn’t be meeting with the ‘The Boer’ leadership by himself his response was ‘I take note, comrades, but I will do what I think is right.’ He assumes the inalienable right to be the only capable of making the ‘correct’ decisions!

At the same time we are shown that he is becoming increasingly estranged from his second wife, Winnie Madikizela, who, living and fighting in the townships, had realised that the situation had changed radically from what it had been at the beginning of the 1960s when he had been tried and imprisoned.

In this third part of the film we see Mandela playing everything as a one man show. He calls for unity when it’s his ideas that are being challenged, using his international reputation to beat down his opponents. He accuses Winnie of not following the capitulation ANC leadership as she calls for the struggle to become a true armed struggle and not to continue to throw unarmed children in the battle against machine gun-toting thugs in armoured vehicles.

Despite this open individualism and depicting his political manoeuvring the film still arrives at the general consensus in the end, that of a patient, elder statesmen who considers that peace with the white oppressors is preferable to true liberation for the South African working class, both black and white.

It was for that reason he was so fêted at the end of last year after his death on 5th December. His legacy being a South Africa where the same political and economic forces are in control, albeit with some black faces feeding at the trough, and an increasingly desperate situation for the majority.

Who’s mourning Nelson Mandela – and why?

Murder at Sharpeville 21 March 1960 - Godfrey Rubens

Murder at Sharpeville 21 March 1960 – Godfrey Rubens

In May 1929 Mao Zedong wrote a short article entitled ‘To be attacked by the enemy is a good thing and not a bad thing’. If a revolutionary does something that challenges the capitalist/imperialist system then their representatives will do their utmost to discredit, undermine and denigrate those revolutionaries involved in order to destroy their attractiveness to the oppressed masses. In the same way they will praise to the skies anyone who, under the guise of ‘fighting’ for the oppressed actually are no more than a lackey of the ruling class. It is in this light that we should look at who’s mourning Nelson Mandela – and why.

International politics is not civilised. There’s too much at stake, not just in terms of wealth but also control, prospects for the future and the long-term existence of particular social systems. At the moment there’s only one political system that’s able to have a significant impact upon matters globally and that’s the system of exploitation and oppression known as capitalism. For a good part of the 20th century this moribund and decadent system was fighting a rear-guard action against the progressive system of socialism, first with the establishment of the Soviet Union after the 1917 October Revolution and then the dramatic success of the Chinese Communists and the declaration of the People’s Republic in October 1949.

The Soviet Union took the revisionist road in the years after the death of Joseph Stalin and China went even quicker down that capitalist road within months of the death of Chairman Mao. The reasons for those dramatic developments have been, are and will be subject to debate and an analysis which is too complex to go into here. Suffice it to state that this caused confusion and disarray amongst revolutionary forces throughout the world and it’s impossible to calculate the consequences of these traitorous moves on the poor and oppressed throughout the planet.

However, it wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union as a viable entity in 1991 that imperialism felt confident enough to go on full-scale attack and recover its dominance over the world. This covered: the economic – with the whole scale privatisation of the people’s resources in whatever country under the guise of restructuring and efficiency; the philosophical with, for example, the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ in 1992, which argued that capitalism was the epitome of human development; and the cultural with the widespread dissemination of English language films and the ubiquitous presence of capitalist ‘icons’ such as McDonalds and Coca/Pepsi Cola.

It was into this environment that Nelson Mandela was released from his 27 years imprisonment under the neo-fascist South African apartheid regime. The timing of his freedom couldn’t have been better chosen.

As early as July 1987 debate was taking place amongst the South African establishment of the necessity or otherwise of the apartheid regime in maintaining capitalist control of the country. Newspaper articles at that time looked to the lack of significant change in the economic structure in neighbouring Zimbabwe since Independence in April 1980 and argued that capitalism had little to fear from Black majority rule.

In Zimbabwe the status quo had not been significantly challenged. This was partly due to Mugabe honouring the conditions of the Lancaster House Agreement (signed in London on 21st December 1979) but also to a lack of real political understanding by the leadership in Harare. At the time I considered that Mugabe and pulled off a coup against the white Rhodesian supremacists and their British supporters but have had to revise that opinion in the light of subsequent developments. The ten years of grace given to the white racists allowed them to consolidate their control and also to undermine the revolutionary forces by seducing the weak and fomenting disillusionment amongst the true revolutionaries.

Later pressures and restrictions placed upon the country by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund throughout the 1990s only made matters worse. When land seizures became more prevalent at the beginning of the 2000s it was too little, too late and led to the chaotic situation that has bedevilled the country in recent years. Only now with the support of capitalist China is Zimbabwe able to drag itself out of the mire but only to change one master for another.

So by February 1990, when Mandela was released from prison (less than three months after the fall of the Berlin Wall) his role as mediator between the extremes of the apartheid regime and the Azanian revolutionaries was crucial in maintaining South Africa in the capitalist orbit. Leaders that spend such a long time in prison, separate from the day-to-day struggle, are notoriously bad at understanding the contemporary situation. He went in with certain political ideas and views and came out with those same views 27 years later. Subject to the oppression of the apartheid regime in a passive sense he hadn’t experienced the viciousness and violence to which the people of the townships were increasingly being subjected. In that way Winnie Mandela was a better representative of the ordinary people.

On the balcony in Cape Town the biggest cheer in his speech was that in response to his declaration that the armed struggle would continue – this from a man whose attitude to such a course of action was ambivalent to say the least. In that same speech he also spoke of reconciliation but in the climate of the time, with the general impression and feeling that the regime was on the run, that the long, long years of oppression were almost at an end, there was a mismatch between the masses in the square and the individual on the pedestal.

But those behind the scenes knew exactly what was going on. I’m not necessarily saying that Mandela made an agreement to secure his release. He didn’t need to. If anyone was to read his defence speech at the Rivonia Trial of 1964 (the one that ends with the words ‘ …. I am prepared to die’) rather than just refer to it as ‘one of the most famous speeches of all time’ they would realise that Mandela spent more time saying what he didn’t agree with than what he did. Being in prison, isolated from the struggle, not developing his ideas as the struggle in the country intensified, to be of use to the Afrikaaner state (and its imperialist backers) he just had to remain intellectually where he was in the early 60s. And he did.

Pik Botha, and later FW de Klerk, knew Mandela wasn’t a hot-blooded revolutionary who wanted to fundamentally change society. He would be happy with the end of the apartheid system even if it didn’t change the basis of South African society. Never did Mandela express any support for, real understanding of and a desire for the establishment of socialism let alone communism. He stayed loyal to his class background and presided over a Black majority state where the conditions of the people got worse instead of better.

It’s one of the contradictions of ‘freedom’ in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In 1987 Zimbabwe was ‘free’ but was still restricted by capitalist control of the economy but across the border in South Africa the people weren’t ‘free’ but the standard of living of those in the townships was often higher than those of comparable workers in Harare. The people in the erstwhile Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe are now ‘free’ but things like education, health, welfare services and elderly care are increasingly out of reach for many of the poorest in society.

Forces within Africa, particularly the Pan-African Congress, did have the shoots of a socialist ideology but the ground was taken from under them with Mandela’s release. Very soon after his release he became the darling of the ‘west’ and the ‘east’ (he made a visit to Cuba) and soon it appeared that the only person who could talk for the Azanian people was Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC). People believed the empty promises as his release presaged a better future for everyone. These empty promises were believed in the same way that ‘democratic’ politicians promise the world before elections but deliver nothing when in power – just consider the mismatch between promises and reality in late 20th Britain. And those promises were made for the same reasons, to try to deflect the people from taking more direct and significant action.

(Just as an aside, whatever happened to the term Azania and the impression that I certainly had, for many years before the ‘end’ of apartheid, that South Africa would be renamed, just as Rhodesia became Zimbabwe? But that would have upset the Afrikaaners and we wouldn’t want them put out.)

Mandela gave greater credibility to the right-wing within the ANC which wanted no more than black faces in control of the society as it was. Even though there were some within the ANC and Umkonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) – the armed wing of the ANC – that considered the armed struggle the only way to true liberation, especially in the early years (see copies of Sechaba from the 1970s), it never had the impact that was achieved by the other liberation movements in other countries fighting European colonialism and racism as in Rhodesia, Mozambique, Namibia, Guinea-Bissau and Angola. In fact, the armed movement was so ineffectual in South Africa that the apartheid regime was able to send its forces to try to claw back what the ex-Portuguese colonies had achieved through long, bitter and painful liberation wars.

Nelson Mandela became the ‘First Freely Elected Black President of South Africa’ in 1994 and in his wake revolutionaries faded into the background, corrupt black politicians and business started to feed at the trough once exclusive to the whites and the poor, both black and white, remained poor.

What, it seems, is often forgotten in the context of Southern Africa is that the ratio of blacks to whites in South Africa was about 3 black to one white in the 1990s. That meant that poverty wasn’t just the fate of the blacks. Some blacks lived in relative luxury in Soweto – the township to the south-west of Johannesburg – whilst poor working class whites might be homeless and begging on the streets. Contrast that with the situation in Rhodesia before independence when the ration was something like 27 blacks to one white and which led to an even more vicious and vindictive society. As the whites had much more to fight for that resulted in 47,000 black Zimbabwean deaths in the National Liberation War between 1973 and 1980.

And that situation remains almost 20 years later. Instead of uniting and fighting against the system that oppresses them all the workers, of whatever colour, are fighting amongst and against themselves and leaving the rich and powerful to carry on in the old way. That’s fundamentally Mandela’s legacy.

He didn’t want a revolution and those that did never realised that a revolution is not a dinner party (as Mao described in an article in 1927). A revolution is messy, violent and unpredictable. The only ones that can gain by avoiding such a situation is the present ruling class. They can/will be contrite and make all the apologies necessary, as long as their wealth and power are not challenged. On the other hand the exploited and oppressed can only end their exploitation and oppression by challenging the world order, by turning the world upside-down.

And that’s why world leaders, both past and present, are falling over themselves to shower Mandela’s corpse with praise. He stopped people from doing that. This is all shown in the film that came out at the time that must have had the producers rubbing their hands with glee – just weeks prior to his death. The film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom showed quite clearly where his politics lay.

If to be attacked by the enemy is a good thing and not a bad thing then being praised by all those who spend all their time and efforts maintaining the system of inequality and injustice is a bad thing and not a good thing.