Last Thursday (December 5, 2013) saw the death of Nelson Mandela, a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and the first democratically elected South African president, at the age of 95. An outpouring of grief, condolences and memorializations followed from political leaders and public commentators in almost every country and region in the world. In an interesting turn of events in world history, among those eulogizing Mandela are people who once damned him as a terrorist and supported apartheid. Mandela was on a United States “terrorism watch list” until 2008.
Mandela leaves a decades-long legacy of hard-fought activism on behalf of social justice and democracy. His anticolonial and antiracist struggles in South Africa in the 1950s grew into an international solidarity movement against apartheid, as well as Mandela’s unwavering support for anticolonial and antiracist causes worldwide. Whereas for much of the second half of the twentieth century black South Africans were faced with an elaborate system of apartheid that systematically denied them the right to education, the right to vote, the right to a fair judicial process, the 1990s marked the end of formal apartheid in South Africa, and the beginning of South African democracy. Part of the success of the South African anti-apartheid movement lay in the decision by millions of people around the world to boycott South African consumer products (most famously South African apples, a staple export). This international boycott extended to universities and investment funds in the U.S., many of which divested from South African companies.
Given that Palestinians have long struggled against similar systems of colonialism and apartheid practiced by Israel and its military allies, it should come as no surprise that Mandela saw the South African anti-apartheid movement as an integral part of wider liberation battles against colonialism and racism, including the Palestinian people’s efforts for self-determination. “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” he told a South African audience. As Rahim Kurwa writes in a succinct article on the death of Mandela and the Israel-Palestine conflict, “Today we must join… in solidarity with the Palestinian people, or else bury the legacy of Nelson Mandela.”
However, a number of memorializations for Nelson Mandela this last week have appropriated his legacy in such a way as to render Mandela’s anticolonial and antiracist work almost unrecognizable. In a press release on Dec. 5 “[o]n behalf of the entire university community,” Cornell University’s president, David J. Skorton, issued his “sincere condolences to Mr. Mandela’s family and to the people of South Africa.” Skorton’s message leaves utterly erased Mandela’s work to bring South African anticolonial and antiracist movements together with those in other regions of the world. In particular, it gives no impression of Mandela’s profound support for Palestinian liberation.
Why is Skorton so keen to conceal the real Mandela from the Cornell University community? Through its recent partnership with Technion Israel Institute of Technology, Cornell directly supports Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people, including practices of apartheid and colonialism in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. These increased ties between Cornell University and the Israeli occupation confirm Skorton and the University administration’s support for Israeli colonialism and apartheid, precisely the systemic injustices and injuries that Mandela railed against. Skorton’s press release buries the legacy of Mandela by concealing the University’s financial and institutional assistance to Israel.
But Skorton’s “message of condolence” for Nelson Mandela commits a historical violence, too. In the 1980s, when many U.S. university administrations were moving university investment funds away from South African corporations in solidarity against apartheid, Cornell University’s administration stood firm in its support for the South African apartheid government, despite waves of student and faculty protests that even included hunger-strikes. In 1986, Cornell’s Board of Trustees refused to modify their investments and business ties with South Africa. By late 1988, the administration had reduced the University’s investments in South African companies somewhat, although a significant amount–nearly $50M–remained. In January 1989, the trustees declined to reduce the University’s South African holdings further, even though students and faculty continued to urge for divestment.
Do we want to repeat the shame of Cornell’s failure to divest from South African apartheid? Cornell’s close partnership with the Technion and its holdings in companies that directly profit from occupation and apartheid make a mockery of Skorton’s tribute to Mandela. If we wish to honor Mandela’s legacy properly, we must help see his struggle to its conclusion. We cannot treat apartheid as a thing of the past. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and other figures in the fight against South African apartheid have described Israeli control of Palestine as apartheid; Israel’s militarized maintenance of separate, unequal systems based upon ethnicity fits the international law definition of apartheid, as has been widely recognized.
So we have two choices. We can pay bland, hollow lip service to the struggles of the past, pretend that political action is also a thing of the past, and repress our complicity with apartheid today with the pretence that an egregious partnership with the institutions of apartheid and occupation is just academic business as usual; or we can continue the fight against apartheid by opposing the partnership with Technion, supporting the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, and divesting from the occupation. Only one of those choices would be a fitting tribute to Mandela’s legacy.