Jeffrey L. Rubenstein

South Africa, the ICJ, and the Betrayal of Mandela’s Legacy

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Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, celebrated the decision of the International Court of Justice in South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide: “The International Court of Justice has vindicated us,” he crowed. His minister of justice, Ronald Lamola, invoked Nelson Mandela’s fight for freedom and legacy: “I’m very humbled, and I believe that Mandela will be smiling in his grave that we stood on his shoulders and we did him very proud.” (Quoted in the NYT, January 26, 2024)

South Africa’s meddling in a war that has nothing to do with them is based on a (mis)perception of the Palestinians’ struggle for a state as parallel to that of Mandela and South African blacks against Apartheid.

An ICJ ruling in favor of South Africa that forces Israel to withdraw would serve the interests of Hamas by leaving the terrorist organization intact and with its hostages.  Despite the rhetoric of Ramaphosa and Lamola, their efforts are a betrayal of everything Mandela stood for.

Hamas, whose atrocities were supported by three quarters of Palestinians (according to a poll published by the Palestinian Center for Policy Survey and Research), calls for the genocide of all Jews (so the 1988 charter; the 2017 charter switches to “Zionists”), and promises to repeat the Oct. 7 atrocities again and again.

Mandela, on the other hand, called for South Africa to be a multiracial state after the dismantling of Apartheid and promised safety and security to all whites. He rejected the policies of black nationalists who wanted to exile whites from South Africa, arguing that whites were welcome and crucial for South Africa to succeed. For Mandela, South Africa would move beyond Apartheid and the violence of the past and become a state that included whites and the different black nations (Zulu, Xhosa, Batswana, Sotho, etc.) that had previously regarded each other as enemies.

Hamas is an autocratic, dictatorial organization that sacrifices the lives of Palestinians by using them as human shields, preventing them from fleeing the violence, and setting them up as military targets. Mandela, on the other hand, insisted on democracy, freedom and equality. He stated: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

Indeed, although Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party won a majority of the popular vote in the 1994 Elections, he formed a “Government of National Unity” with F. W. de Klerk, the former president of Apartheid South Africa, as his deputy, as well as with members of the rival Zulu political party in his cabinet. Mandela and de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace prize in 1993 (pictured above).

In his autobiography Mandela wrote, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” That is pretty much the opposite of what Hamas stands for: the genocide of Jews and domination of Palestinians who desire other representation.

Mandela’s successors, the leaders of the ANC who served as Presidents of South Africa, have run the country into the ground in the twenty-five years since Mandela stepped down (1999). Theo Mbeki (1999-2008) and Jacob Zuma (2009-2018), were both forced to resign due to corruption, scandals, incompetence, graft and other failures. Ramaphosa has also repeatedly been accused of corruption and has faced a parliamentary vote for impeachment. There is now more inequality in South Africa than during the years of Apartheid. Among the world’s richest countries in natural resources—with gold, diamonds, uranium, titanium, zirconium and more—South Africa’s electricity routinely operates for only half the day and there is often no running water for many hours.

So I am pretty sure that Mandela is not smiling in his grave, as Ramaphosa and Lamola would have it, nor feeling the least bit of pride. I’m pretty sure he is weeping a bitter tear seeing how his successors have betrayed his ideals and ruined his country.

About the Author
Jeffrey L. Rubenstein is a Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Literature in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies of New York University. His books include, "Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition and Culture" (1999) and "The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud," (2003)
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