Israel Israeli occupation Palestinians

Mahmoud Abbas and the African National Congress: lessons learned

What follows is Thomas Mitchell’s review of A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream by Mark Gevisser (New York, Palgrave Macmillan 2009). Its publication here should not be construed as a complete endorsement of Tom’s views. I think he is too harsh on Mahmoud Abbas for rejecting Netanyahu’s current conditions out of hand. He appears to buy into the myth that Arafat was the principal culprit for the collapse of the Camp David-Taba negotiations, ignoring evidence that Barak and Clinton shared much of the blame. Still, Mitchell’s basic message to Palestinian moderates has a lot of merit and is worth pondering.

One last note: when the term “seduction” is used to describe diplomatic or political negotations, it generally has a negative connotation, as if it were duplicitous. But that need not be the case, Mitchell is saying. If Abbas were to seduce Israelis into believing they were welcome in the region, and if he truly meant it, everyone would benefit.

Here is Tom’s essay:


I have been busy reading the recently-released biography of Thabo Mbeki [A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream, by Mark Gevisser}. Mbeki was the second president of South Africa from 1999 to 2008 and before that the “prime minister” under Mandela from 1994 to 1999, as well as the “foreign minister” of the African National Congress in exile during the 1980s.

Many people compare Israel to South Africa. I actually think that Northern Ireland and even antebellum America have more in common with Israel than late 20th century South Africa. But the PLO has much in common with the African National Congress. Both represented official liberation movements with wide international and regional legitimacy that were in exile, attempting to fight their way back into their home country and power. After 1982-83 ,when the PLO was kicked out of Lebanon, it was in the same position as the ANC. Both were scattered about the region with their infrastructures spread over several countries. The ANC had its headquarters in Zambia, its military camps in Angola, and its training farms in Tanzania. The PLO had brigades of the Palestinian Liberation Army in Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and after 1982 its army was scattered to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Tunisia.

Officially, the ANC counted on its guerrillas to infiltrate South Africa, commit sabotage and train black South Africans to liberate the country. In reality, during the 1980s Thabo Mbeki as “foreign minister” was busy organizing the anti-apartheid movement in the West to work towards trade sanctions against South Africa, while seducing the white ruling class in South Africa into believing that the country would be safe in their hands and that they were all South Africans. Starting in September 1985, delegations of Afrikaner VIPs began visiting the ANC leadership in Lusaka and elsewhere in Africa to discuss the future of their country. Mbeki would ply them with alcohol, slowly sipping glasses of watered-down Scotch while keeping the glasses of his interlocutors always filled. He knew how to deal with the Afrikaner need to be accepted as real Africans, real South Africans. Mbeki was a member of the South African Communist Party until 1990, a “red diaper” baby. But in London and Lusaka he behaved more like a bourgeois aristocrat with his love of jazz, Scotch, and Shakespeare. Like Yuri Andropov. he let his partners decide that these features were incompatible with being a revolutionary.

In 1989, the ANC largely lost its military option, as a peace agreement between Pretoria and Luanda and Havana led to an end to the liberation struggle in Namibia and the departure of the Cubans and the ANC from Angola. The ANC’s military branch was evacuated to Uganda—as distant from South Africa as Tunisia or Yemen were from Palestine. But an internal “Intifada” within South Africa that had been raging since late 1984 led South Africa to risk an open-ended negotiation process to end both the unrest and its international isolation.

The PLO briefly tried something similar in 1993. It had young academics meet with Israeli academics in Norway and work out a set of principles for solving the conflict. But unlike Mbeki, ANC President Oliver Tambo and Mandela, Yasir Arafat never attempted to seduce the Israeli leadership. Although the rival Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania briefly carried out terrorist attacks in South Africa from 1991 to 1993, these were nothing like the Islamist terror of Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Arafat and the Islamists were still under the delusion that they could liberate Palestine (Israel and the territories) through terror. Arafat made impolitic statements at a mosque in Johannesburg and elsewhere about the real meaning of peace and hudna. Facing a rival liberation movement that was not compromised by his corruption, wealth, and authoritarian rule, Arafat decided to sabotage negotiations in 2000 by deliberately refusing to make any compromises. A new Intifada ended the peace process.

Radicals in the West urge a replication of the ANC formula of international sanctions, internal rebellion, and sabotage to liberate Palestine. But this formula ignores both Israel’s solid alliance with the United States, which South Africa lacked with any Western country after World War II, and the vastly different demographics inside Israel. The ANC offered the Afrikaner right the option of setting up an Afrikaner volksstaat in any area where whites constituted a majority. There were no such areas within South Africa. At best the right-wingers could establish a small town of about two thousand without blacks.

Until the PLO and Hamas accept that Palestine, like South Africa, will be liberated through seduction rather than terror, they will continue to live under occupation. This means that until they deal with Israeli security fears and Israelis’ need to be accepted, the Palestinians will remain powerless, occupied, and impoverished. Someone should buy Mahmoud Abbas a copy of Gervissar’s biography and have him sit down and read the forty pages devoted to Mbeki’s strategy in the 1980s. After Abbas has read the biography he should either invite Mbeki to Ramallah or fly to South Africa and interrogate him at length about his methodology of seduction. Abbas is no more without options than Oliver Tambo was in the 1980s. Tambo decided to begin by dealing with reality instead of with delusions. Abbas should do the same.

The ANC had an internal competitor as well: the black consciousness movement during the early 1970s. Thabo Mbeki and others engaged exile black consciousness figures and in debate exposed the intellectual poverty of the movement. The BCM had no real strategy for liberating South Africa.

Until Fatah can expose the poverty of the Islamists strategy, they will remain on the defensive. Julius Nyerere of Tanzania admonished the ANC as it returned from exile to remember that it had not defeated the Afrikaners militarily and to keep this in mind as they negotiated. The Palestinians friends’ in the Arab world need to repeat this warning to the Palestinians. Their rejection of Netanyahu’s conditions out of hand are an indication that they are still harboring illusions.

9 thoughts on “Mahmoud Abbas and the African National Congress: lessons learned

  1. Good essay. I agree with the overall assessment. The PLO et al played it all wrong–and that’s mostly why the Palestinians are where they’re at today.

    I’m curious to see Israel compared to the antebellum South though. What does Israel have in common with a slave economy that, from what I understand, was decentralized, disorganized, and inefficient (in addition to being immoral)?

  2. Suzanne,

    You can go back to read my previous column about this from about six months ago on the blog. I compare Israel with antebellum America, not the antebellum South. Former generals play a major role in Israeli politics. There are only two Western democracies/constitutional republics with a similar phenomenon: the U.S. and South Africa. The century plus period of military politicians in both countries can be broken into roughly three periods in both. In each country there is only one period in which there is a real multiparty system with former generals playing a major role. In America that was during the antebellum period and in South Africa during the Union period from 1910 to 1948. The American parties compare/identify with the Israeli parties better than the South African parties do.

    The South, except for the short period of 1855-57, was never a multiparty system. The North had a series of third parties, mostly at the state level but occassionally at the federal level from the late 1820s to 1860. The U.S. under Jackson and Van Buren also removed or in Hebrew “asta transfer” its native population, something which is periodically discussed regarding the Palestinians. And from 1846 to 1850 there was a national debate over the future of conquered territories. And there were ongoing Indian wars during this period: in WI in 1832, in Georgia in 1836, in FL in 1835-42 and 1856-58, in TX, and in OR in the 1850s.

  3. H.L. Gates, Jr. (IN SEARCH OF OUR ROOTS, 2009, pg 8), describes slavery as a “dehumanizing process, most certainly to some extent in their (African-American slaves) daily lives and absolutely before the law. And how could it not be, given all the mechanisms of the state over which it had control? Vested interests used the forces of ideology, religion, mythology, and social norms to reinforce the dishumanity of the slave, day in and day out.”

    There are significant differences in the experience of African-Americans and Palestinians and Gates is not making comparisons. But I recently read STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE (2002), by Raja Shehadeh, and Gates’ words reminded me of Shehadeh’s experiences, and of much else that I’ve read about Palestinian life.

    Shehadeh is a founder of the pioneering human rights organisation, Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, and the author of several books about international law, human rights and the Middle East.

    In the words of the Washington Post, STRANGERES IN THE HOUSE is “…a moving and heartfelt document that captures the rage and despair of lives stunted by occupation.” Israel’s occupation of Palestine also brings to bear all those mechanisms of the state. Many argue such situations result in de-humanization of those who act as well as those acted upon.

  4. Tom–thanks for clarifying…looks like I’m not the only one who wrongly assumed antebellum meant the South.

    I’ll look for your previous article.

  5. Tom–I found some columns of yours referring to antebellum America from a year ago. I guess those are the ones you meant?

    Very, very interesting! I had no idea you were a scholar(and author) on Northern Ireland, S. Africa etc.

  6. Suzanne,

    Maybe they were a year ago. If you want to shell out like $70 bucks (or less if you can find a used copy online) you can get either my “Indian Fighters Turned American Politicians” (Praeger, 2003) and “Antislavery Politics in Antebellum and Civil War America” (Praeger, 2007), the first contains a 15 pp. appendix in which I specifically look at the Arab-fighter politician phenomenon in Israel and make comparisons between prominent American military politicians and their Israeli counterparts. The second was written with finding lessons for Meretz in mind, but the lessons seemed to relate more to Labor–how to produce a viable new party once the old party (Whigs) has run out of generals and steam. If you want to leave an email address I can email you an article where I look at military politicians from Israel, the U.S. and S. Africa. I have another article where I analyze the main features of Israeli politics and compare them with NI, antebellum America, and S. Africa.

  7. Margaret,

    I’m sure that at least some, if not much, of the “dehumanizing effect” of the occupation is the humiliation of being occupied by a people that Muslims regard as naturally subservient to Muslims. Much of the negative side of occupation also comes because the Palestinians have for the most part decided to make their resistance in the form of terrorism.

  8. Tom

    If Dan is willing to forward you my email addy, I’d be happy to receive the articles. I don’t want to make it public–especially on a site where some of Phil’s bizarro followers peek in.

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