OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: World leaders have heaped praise on the late Nelson Mandela, but among the countries paying tribute are some that had long backed the South African apartheid regime that jailed him.
Many of the eulogies for the peacemaker have glossed over Western support for the white supremacist regime in Pretoria during the Cold War, when Mandela and his African National Congress were blacklisted as Soviet proxies.
Israel was one of South Africa’s closest allies at a time when Pretoria was facing U.N.-led sanctions, maintaining defense ties which also benefitted an authoritarian anti-communist regime in Taiwan.
Eulogizing Mandela, Israeli President Shimon Peres described him as a “fighter for human rights who left an indelible mark on the struggle against racism and discrimination.” But during the 1970s and 1980s, when Mandela was serving a 27-year prison sentence, Israel’s stance was very different.
Israel had initially supported U.N. sanctions on South Africa, but finding itself increasingly isolated after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, it cultivated ties with Pretoria – a process in which Peres was deeply involved, first as defense minister and then as foreign minister.
Israel’s close defense and security cooperation with South Africa, allegedly including development of nuclear weapons, left the Jewish state isolated and nearly cost it crucial U.S. military aid as it flew in the face of U.N. resolutions sanctioning Pretoria.
A report Wednesday by Haaretz newspaper said South Africa was the Israeli defense industry’s “biggest customer” with cooperation peaking in 1988 when Israel sold Pretoria 60 Kfir fighter jets for $1.7 billion.
As Western states refused to sell Pretoria arms, apartheid South Africa became a “captive customer” of Israel’s military industry, Haaretz said.
South Africa maintained diplomatic ties with Israel after the end of apartheid, but Mandela emerged as a strong critic of the Israeli occupation, saying in a 1997 speech that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
In the latest awkward twist to the relationship, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on a pledge to attend the memorial.
Israel’s cooperation with Pretoria benefited another apartheid ally – authoritarian, anti-communist Taiwan.
Taiwan and South Africa reportedly maintained sanctions-busting trade in weaponry during the apartheid era, with Taipei selling ammunition and small arms to Pretoria in exchange for uranium. That uranium fed into what historians say was a program by Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) nationalists to develop nuclear weapons with the aid of technology transferred from Israel.
In Washington and London, Mandela and his ANC were long seen as yet another Soviet proxy to be opposed in the name of freedom and democracy, despite the racist policies of the government he sought to overthrow.
Britain’s Thatcher refused to support sanctions in the 1980s, denouncing the ANC as “terrorists.”
“The fear among the political right that the ANC was a pawn of Moscow, and that Mandela was a dangerous figure under the control of the South African Communist Party, was very live during the Cold War,” explained Saul Dubow, African history professor at Queen Mary University of London.
Also at Tuesday’s memorial was U.S. President Barack Obama, who gave a soaring tribute to Mandela just five years after Washington removed him from its terror watch list.
Until then, Mandela and ANC members could only enter the U.S. by means of a State Department waiver to attend U.N. meetings, a situation described as “embarrassing” by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.