Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
On Monday evening, I was a guest of the Palestinian Ambassador at Pretoria’s State Theatre. It was a glorious evening and we enjoyed the haunting traditional music evoking the ancient spirit of Palaestina.
The Palestinian dispute remains one of the most compelling, urgent and volatile situations in our dangerous world. The issue has come to the fore with the publication of the Goldstone Report and it has angered many in the international Jewish community for its apparent bias towards the Palestinian cause. This, to me, is to upend the argument because, by definition, the plight of a stateless people is always going to get more of a sympathetic airing than that of an established modern state like Israel with its preponderance of resources and militarily capability.
That noted, just over two years ago, I expressed my concern that in, rightly, seeking to draw attention to the plight of ordinary Palestinians, we have not been sufficiently sensitive to the parallel suffering of the Israeli people in the past and in the present. I also advanced my thesis that a ‘from the community upwards’ approach of fostering peaceful relations between the two peoples will be as important as top level diplomacy. To create lasting peace, the most important step will be to convince ordinary Israelis and Palestinians that they share common interests. The South African position, official and unofficial, heavily influenced by the ruling-party’s tedious Marxist struggle narrative, has got cemented in shallow caricatures which glorify the Palestinians and demonise the Israelis. I think we need to tread carefully before interpolating the fight against apartheid and the ANC/IFP conflict into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Like in Palestine and Israel today, there were families on both sides of that unnecessary war who lost their loved ones and even if they have forgiven, they will never forget. Like here, both sides waste scarce resources and some of their best leaders on a war against each other when they should be joining forces, intellectual and creative, against the real enemy: segregation, poverty and underdevelopment. The peace process, mark my words, would soon gather momentum if Palestinians saw changes, even modest ones, in their living standards.
Nor does Palestine’s besieged ‘no-mans-land’ economy exactly help to boost Israel’s prosperity.
We are also mindful that the thirst for blood – or at least some form of symbolic revenge – did not wane after the bloody conflict ended.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aspired to provide closure rather than dispense punishment, disappointed many in the ANC when it cleared my name of any crimes against humanity.
In a way, the essence of what happened in KwaZulu-Natal during that troubled decade boils down to the phenomenon of apparently senseless black-on-black violence as it sporadically erupts elsewhere in Africa.
The periodic fratricide of the Bosnian kind is universal enough not to be labelled as exclusively African. It is also enough to give one as an African second thoughts about our supposed pre-colonial pacifism.
All this is no distant history. If it appears unfamiliar, it is further proof to my argument that past in South Africa, no matter how recent, remains an "essentially contested concept." So, I aver, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I take this detour to illustrate my point that we should know better than to engage in a zero-sum game of who is to blame most in order to try and knock the other side out. The stakes are too high for regional and global security, and this approach never got anyone anywhere. Game theory is not the way to go.
The persistence of violence is usually the primary reason governments refuse to negotiate in the first place. In Israel, successive governments, especially those led by the Conservative Likud Party, like the incumbent government, have refused to negotiate with Palestinian leaders until they bring the violence to a halt.
I would, however, recollect that though this approach, prima facie, follows the same dynamics which influenced the political process which led up to CODESA (and the various associated peace accords and agreements) and the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, it is pertinent to note that the ANC and its associates had not renounced violence before 2 February 1990 when President FW de Klerk announced the release of all political prisoners.
So while the reformers in the National Party – determined, as A.S. Mathews put it at the time, "to share power without losing it" – procrastinated, the ANC focused all its energies and resources on the biggest media offensive of its kind ever witnessed: the Free Mandela campaign. Likewise, Britain similarly held its breath when John Major’s government, surprisingly, began talking to Sinn Féin before the provisional IRA renounced violence. It was fascinating to see opposition parties warily give Major their endorsement, although it was not a blank-cheque.
One, of course, cannot posit this debate without referring to the subtle, but significant, change of direction in American foreign policy. Every question in life, we must remember, has a context. I sense, as an elder, a more even-handed and visionary approach in President Barack Obama’s statecraft than we have seen in American foreign policy for some time. Diplomacy, or "Jaw-Jaw" to quote Winston Churchill, seems to be making a comeback.
Writing in the current edition of Foreign Affairs (Without Conditions:The case for Negotiating With the Enemy), Deepak Malhotra, an Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, states: ‘Change may be on the way. Barack Obama’s call early in the US presidential primaries – before he was leading in the polls – to negotiate with enemies without preconditions was, if not a fine-tuned policy revision, an important step forward. That Obama’s stance was strongly criticized as being naïve and dangerous, when it was neither, illustrates the enduring appeal of preconditions. That these attacks were not all together successful and that he subsequently reasserted his position – most notably in his June 2009 Cairo speech – suggest that Americans have done analysis of their own. If a country refuses to negotiate when it is clearly in a position of strength, when will it ever negotiate?’
I would suggest that it is better for Israel to negotiate now out of a position of relative strength. Both sides would do well to heed the advice of that wonderful man, the late former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: "Fight terrorism as if there is no peace process; pursue peace as if there is no terrorism."
South Africa’s self-styled armchair Palestinian freedom fighters would also be misguided to frame the Goldstone Report as an anti-Israel manifesto. It is not, although it heavily criticises Israel’s actions in Gaza without, in my view, balancing it thoroughly with the daily terrors faced by ordinary Israelis. The Report concluding observations state: ‘People of Palestine have the right to freely determine their own political and economic system, including the right to resist forcible deprivation of their right to self-determination and live, in peace and freedom in their own State. The people of Israel have the right to live in peace and security. Both sides are entitled to justice in accordance with international law.’
Notwithstanding the Report’s more elevated language of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, it explicitly recognises Israel’s right to exist and the peace and security of her people. The recognition of Israel’s right to exist is, I still maintain, an inviolable precondition to negotiations.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, MP