The passing of Nelson Mandela is an occasion to hear, read and see a wave of tributes to the symbol of triumph over apartheid and the building of a new South Africa.
Mandela was a symbol of many things for many people, so it’s not surprising to find that he represented a whole range of concepts and principles: Democracy, freedom, dignity, equality and coexistence are of course some of the central themes.
In the Middle East, the ironies have been rife as the eulogies pour in. Among the Palestinians, it was occasion for the bitter rivals Fatah and Hamas to agree on how Mandela’s struggle has served as an inspiration for their own fight to end Israeli occupation and establish a fully independent state.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry even used Mandela’s passing to encourage the Palestinians and the Israelis to step up their efforts to arrive at a negotiated agreement that he hopes will enhance “peace, prosperity and security.”
Israeli leaders also weighed in on the loss of Mandela, albeit to apply the necessary spin; Israel was an ally of apartheid-era South Africa.
Perhaps Benjamin Netanyahu saw no irony in praising Mandela as a “freedom fighter,” which was the exact opposite of the official Israeli view for several decades. For the Israelis, Mandela leader had another especially important personal trait. As Shimon Peres stressed, Mandela provided an example of a political leader who “renounced violence.” Are there any Israeli leaders who have the same courage to walk in Mandela’s shoes and completely renounce violence in the interest of peace and coexistence?
Even more bizarre was the reaction of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who informed the world, via his Facebook page, that Mandela was an “inspiration to all the vulnerable peoples of the world.” South Africa’s iconic figure, according to Assad, teaches that “oppressors and aggressors will learn that in the end it is they who are the losers.”
Leaving behind the self-serving reactions by some leaders, one should remember that the end of apartheid was based firmly on the achievement of justice and sovereignty. These are the things that allow people to renounce violence, and embrace coexistence.
In talking about Mandela’s extraordinary life, one can’t ignore the brutal system of apartheid, and the long struggle by the African National Congress to end it, a fight that saw Mandela spend 27 years in prison.
But after Mandela became the president of South Africa, he was often asked to compare his situation as head of state to his long confinement – his preferred response was to avoid dwelling on the details of the past and instead look forward to the future.
Mandela’s legacy is thus one of reconciliation, focusing on the challenges of the future and ensuring the continuity of the bright new order that he helped bring into being.