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To Defeat Injustice Follow Mandela’s, Castro’s Example

Taking the moral high ground despite the horrors of the enemy can be a winning strategy.

“Treating captured enemy soldiers humanely and with dignity was one of the hallmarks of Castro’s rebel army,” August H. Nimtz writes. Above, In this Feb. 26, 1957 photo, Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro stands in an unknown location in Cuba.,Associated Press

Never ever would Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) have carried out what Hamas did on the morning of Oct. 7, 2023. Defenders of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination who argue that they are up against an apartheid-like regime, a la South Africa — and, thus, can be forgiven for employing "any means necessary" — either don't know or ignore that inconvenient fact. It took a different kind of leadership to end that reprehensible state-practice.

Anyone who lived through the most challenging moments of that struggle and was lucky enough to see its triumph is obligated to tell the story.

Founded in 1912 to promote political equality for the country's African population, the ANC broadened its mission when it adopted the Freedom Charter, a document democratically written by a multiracial conference in 1955. It declared that "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white."

But not all members agreed with that perspective. Many broke away in 1958 to form the Pan Africanist Congress. The PAC held that South Africa should only be for Africans, not unlike what's captured in the Hamas slogan, "From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free," to wit, free of Jewish people.

When the PAC took the initiative to challenge South Africa's hated apartheid-era pass laws in a peaceful protest in March 1960, which resulted in the deaths of scores of Black participants, some of us thought it had become the organization to look to for liberation in South Africa. Martyrs, apparently, for the cause and Black nationalists to boot.

In response to the Sharpeville Massacre, Mandela and the ANC decided in 1961 to adopt armed struggle resistance. But, as Mandela explained at his trial in 1964, they did so reluctantly. The awkwardness of being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize at almost the same moment wasn't the only reason why the decision was a difficult one for the ANC. It meant abandoning a half-century old policy of nonviolence.

Only when it became clear, as Mandela emphasized, that all peaceful roads to freedom were closed off — what the Sharpeville Massacre soberly taught — did the ANC opt for armed struggle as one of its tactics.

Mandela was chosen to head up the new secret unit of the party, uMkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation. After traveling to Ethiopia and North Africa to get guerrilla training (tracked, unbeknownst to him, by the U.S. CIA), Mandela returned to South Africa to launch the ANC's sabotage campaign. It consciously targeted state installations rather than personnel. The ineffectiveness of that project prompted the organization to begin organizing a guerrilla army.

One of the inspirations for armed struggle Mandela listed in his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution, had successfully overthrown the U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959.

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Treating captured enemy soldiers humanely and with dignity was one of the hallmarks of Castro's rebel army. Taking the moral high ground despite the horrors of the enemy was for Castro a winning strategy. It taught the regime's soldiers, especially the rank and file, that they didn't have to fight to the end. They learned that if they surrendered, they would not be summarily executed. In fact, they were often let go after they gave up their weapons.

That policy goes a long way toward explaining why the revolution's triumph was not the bloodletting that has occurred all too often in history — and why the Cuban example proved to be attractive to aspiring revolutionaries like Mandela.

The imprisonment of Mandela and other anti-apartheid fighters in 1964 had a demoralizing effect. Something had to be done, we all felt. Thus, the origins in 1965 of what came to be called the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) international anti-apartheid movement. The moral and political justification for such a campaign required the explicit consent — which we had — of South African civil society whose working classes would disproportionately shoulder the impact of BDS.

We were successful in winning broad layers of the public, particularly here in the U.S., to the South African cause. Nothing better registered what we had achieved than Congress's 1986 override of President Ronald Reagan's veto of its Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The example of the ANC was indispensable in our success, particularly its "South Africa belongs to all" perspective.

In the end, armed struggle was indeed decisive in apartheid's demise. The defeat the racist regime suffered at the hands of largely Cuban forces in Spring 1987 in Angola is what forced it to the negotiating table, paving the way for Mandela's release from prison and the first free elections in the country in 1994. The Cubans treated the defeated South Africans in the same humane fashion they displayed with Batista's troops.

Once Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he was able to re-establish ethical norms of conduct that had eroded over the years in his absence. His opposition, for example, to the controversial practice of "necklacing," the burning alive of suspected police informers, probably cost him his marriage to his then-wife Winnie Mandela, who enabled such behavior. Nevertheless, Mandela's vision, about which some of us had once been skeptical, prevailed — crucial in the birth of an apartheid-free South Africa.

If the Palestinian people are truly in a fight to end apartheid, then they at least deserve a leadership of the caliber that successfully led the struggle to end that hated practice in its original edition. Anything short of that will be incapable of putting an end to that vicious bloody cycle that threatens working people of every nationality, race and faith — yes, Jewish toilers as well — not only in the Middle East but worldwide wherever similar conflicts exist. To assume that Hamas is the best the people of Gaza can do is to sell the Palestinian struggle short.

If the oppressed in South Africa, subject to three centuries of white settler colonial rule, could deliver the kind of organization it needed in that moment for its liberation from apartheid, supporters of the Palestinian people should be confident they can do the same. It's true, as history has shown, that it takes time — lots of it — to cultivate an effective revolutionary leadership. The horrors that are now being visited upon the people of Gaza make that no easier.

But we do the Palestinian people no favor by lowering the bar, especially in the case of Hamas — an outfit masquerading as revolutionaries, more devoted to and adept at snuffing out Jewish lives than liberating Palestinian ones.

For those who seek an actual solution to the subjugation that Palestinians face, those who realize that righteous indignation is insufficient, the real lessons from South Africa are worth consideration.

And for those who seek an answer to millennia-old social oppression, namely, something more fundamental than ridding the world of only apartheid-like systems, there is no better place to begin than with the Cuban Revolution and the precious lessons its toilers have bequeathed, despite all the challenges it faces. Only because something more fundamental had occurred on the Caribbean Island beginning in 1959 could Cuba's toilers play a decisive role in a world-history drama that unfolded 7,000 miles away.

Atlantic magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Fidel Castro for the Sept. 2, 2010, edition about the threat of war in the Middle East — a topic more tragically current than ever. After Castro expertly opined on the deep history of Jew-hatred, Goldberg asked if he thought "the State of Israel, as a Jewish State, has a right to exist."

In telling contrast to Hamas, Castro replied: "Yes, without a doubt."

August H. Nimtz is distinguished teaching professor of political science and African American and African Studies, University of Minnesota.