Mandela Had “A Unique Moral Authority”

by James M. Wallc kufiya.mandela.algeria.may90

Nelson Mandela died at his Johannesburg home on December 5. The man who led South Africa out of the bondage of national apartheid, died at the age of 95.

The world has responded with an outpouring of praise for the man who served as South Africa’s first post-apartheid president.

Leaders from western nations, where Mandela was once scorned as a “terrorist” revolutionary, rushed to get in line to recall him as a great leader.

A public memorial service is planned for Tuesday in a Johannesburg outdoor soccer stadium. Mandela will be buried at his ancestral home in Qunu, Eastern Cape, on December 15.

The British newspaper, the Independent, took note of Mandela’s moral authority:

Nelson Mandela was the most respected, and probably the most loved of all world leaders in the late 20th century, and the most enduring of the heroes who emerged from the political convulsions of the 1980s. .  .  . 

For 27 years in jail he refused to compromise his principles, while for most of that time his own party, the African National Congress (ANC), was broken. But he emerged in February 1990 to become the dominant influence in his country, without whom peace was unlikely.

When he was elected President in April 1994, he was accepted by whites as well as blacks as the embodiment of his country’s new democracy, with a unique moral authority.

Among those who quickly announced that they will travel to South Africa to honor Mandela were U.S. President Barack Obama and two earlier U.S. presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Jimmy Carter, another former U.S. president, will travel to Johannesburg with a delegation of The Elders, a group of “independent, progressive leaders committed to peace, justice and human rights”.

The Elders group was founded by Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on July 18, 2007, his 89th birthday.

According to the Elders’ web site:

When the group of Elders was launched in 2007, Mandela called on them to act as “a fiercely independent and robust force for good, tackling complex and intractable issues – especially those that are not popular.”

The Elders are Martti Ahtisaari, Kofi Annan (Chair), Ela BhattLakhdar Brahimi, Gro Harlem Brundtland (Deputy Chair), Fernando Henrique CardosoJimmy CarterHina JilaniGraça Machel, Mary Robinson and Ernesto ZedilloDesmond Tutu is an Honorary Elder..

After founding The Elders, Nelson Mandela did not play an active role, but he remained an Honorary Elder and the inspiration for The Elders’ work. In May 2010, the Elders were reunited with Nelson Mandela during one of the group’s biannual meetings, in Johannesburg.

Among the issues addressed by Mandela and the Elders, has been Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people.

The Elders may be said to be Nelson Mandela’s “Band of Brothers and Sisters”, in his peaceful fight for justice throughout the world.

One of those efforts close to Mandela’s heart was, as he has said, to free the Palestinian people from the bondage of occupation.

He made this clear after he was released from a South African imprisonment that had lasted for 27 years. One of his first U.S. appearances came in 1990 when he appeared on an ABC television Nightline program hosted by Ted Koppel.

The tape of Ted Koppel’s 1990 Nightline program runs 20 minutes.  The first reference to Palestinians comes three minutes into the tape:

Koppel took questions from a town hall audience that included several prominent American Jewish leaders who were clearly “troubled” by Mandela’s insistence that he was supportive of Yasir Arafat’s leadership of the Palestinian struggle for independence.

Early in the taped interview (starting at 3:00), Mandela told Koppel:

“We identify with the PLO, because just like us, they are fighting for the right of self-determinatiion.”

At the time of this 1990 interview, the U.S. Congress was considering a decision to lift or retain economic sanctions against the South African apartheid state. Mandela was in the U.S. to fight for the continuation of the sanctions, the protest campaign that had helped Mandela gain freedom from prison.

In the televised town hall event, Mandela more than holds his own with Koppel, who suggested that Mandella, now that he was in the U.S., might want to consider the best “political” steps he might take to curry favor with members of Congress, where support for Israel was (and remains) strong.

Mandela said he had discussed the black/Jewish relationship in the U.S. and in South Africa, with blacks and Jews in both countries. But he insisted, to great applause from a friendly audience, that Jews in both the U.S. and Israel

“must know what our position is: Arafat is a comrade in arms.”

This week, as American political leaders and commentators, rush to make public statements of support for the life and work of Mandela, we are not likely to hear much of either the position of Mandela on Israel’s occupation, nor of the work the Elders, the world leaders group he founded.

Those leaders who travel from outside of Africa to praise and mourn Mandela , and who are still active in domestic politics, will be walking the delicate political line that Mandela refused to walk on his Koppel interview.

That delicate walk will be endlessly reproduced by U.S. mainstream media.  It will be a sight that would have drawn one of Mandela’s bursts of laughter. (See the video above.)

Nelson Mandela, who succeeded in setting his people free, was the South African leader who said, “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.

It is a long flight to Johannesburg. There will be ample time for world leaders to reflect on Mandela’s vision for the Palestinian people.

The picture of Nelson Mandela wearing an Arab kufiya, was taken in Algeria in May, 1990.

About James Wall

James M. Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Jim launched this new personal blog April 24, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years.
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8 Responses to Mandela Had “A Unique Moral Authority”

  1. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    Thank you, Jim, for pointing out the strong, long-term relationship between Nelson Mandela and ANC, on the one hand, and the Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat.

    After all, the Palestinian leadership actively supported the ANC resistance against the Apartheid regime, in various effective areas, including training and weapons, among other things. After all, the Apartheid regime was very wary of a potential escalation of guerilla warfare in South Africa that would have also drawn in volunteers from African and some Arab nations.

    In dramatic contrast, Israel was helping train forces of the Apartheid regime in snuffing out South African resistance. It did so, by providing the Apartheid regime with special weapons, training, and assistance to crush any guerilla forces.

    Israel’s trade flourished with Apartheid South Africa and the two countries found solace in each other’s company and in their common efforts to dominate another people.

    In both, Apartheid Israel and Apartheid South Africa, it was basically foreign people who emigrated from Europe to colonize and dominate a native population, under racist or religious pretexts.

    Israel is also known to have combined efforts with Apartheid South Africa to develop their nuclear arsenals, including testing their weapons in the Indian Ocean.

    Yes, today, every leader, including “Apartheid witch doctor”, Netanyahu, fall in line to pay tribute to Mandela, because they rely on corrupt media and politicians to bite their collective tongue.

  2. Samia Khoury says:

    Thank you James for this. I was sure you would write about Mandela this week. Yes I saw that Youtube a couple of days ago, and kept wondering whether we Palestinians will ever be blessed with a Nelson Mandela, or whether Israel will ever come to terms with the grave injustice they have inflicted on the Palestinians and be capable of producting a F.W. Ke Klerk to redress that injustice.

  3. Jim, I just posted your as-always timely and pertinent post to Facebook with this comment: “I hope that, somehow, justice-oriented human-rights activists will be able to use this moment to generate some determined momentum toward justice and freedom of the Palestinian people from the shackles of political/militant Zionism. In horrific actuality, the Palestinians have been ‘in jail’ for far longer than was Nelson Mandela.”

  4. John Kleinheksel says:

    Excellent to focus on Mandela now Jim,
    What a model for taking action in I/P!
    Let’s keep the connection between Mandela and I/P in the forefront. Let’s not let the MSM (mainstream media) forget how his example, his words, and his actions inform I/P TODAY (and tomorrow)!
    The Ilan Pappe interview on Electronic Intifada (Dec. 8) is so appropriate to this discussion. Thanks again Jim.

  5. Fr. Robert says:

    Jim, so insightful to note that Mandela would enjoy a belly laugh at the cowardice of the leaders coming to his funeral.

    Each of the four comments above: thanks, very insightful.

    I cannot remember another such brilliant challenge to the MSM’s manufacture of consent as Ted Koppel was brought to “paralysis” only by the moral force of the principled position of his subject.

    On standing with the Palestinian effort for self-determination at the risk of offending the many Jews who opposed apartheid: “for any man that would change his principles depending upon whom he is dealing with, that is not a man who can lead a nation.”

    I would suggest that your next piece parse the interview further to draw out the lessons for us today. Thanks so much Jim.

  6. Pauline Coffman says:

    Just to let your readers know, when I clicked on the arrow on the YouTube video, it did not load for me. I then clicked on the YouTube icon at the bottom of the video and it immediately began to play. This is such an important video that readers will not want to miss viewing it.

    Thanks, Jim, for this tribute to Mandela.

  7. Harris Fawell says:

    Jim. What a great story you have told for our world’s leaders to contemplate. I thank you profusely. Harris Fawell

  8. William Gepford says:

    Thanks, Jim. Mandela not only saw the problem, but he took an active role to bring change. That’s what gave him “moral authority.” Many people know what is wrong with society, but they do nothing about it. Only when they risk their lives and do something, will things change.

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