It feels like a very long time ago. Between a then and a now walls have been built. Not just one but many. The walls have also become higher, uglier, thicker and today the walls seem impossible to destroy.
Then, four years ago, we told each other that it couldn’t get worse. The suffering couldn’t become deeper. It was dark and bullets killed, young soldiers became murderers and family members disappeared.
And during this time of constant darkness and humiliation the Palestinian factions gathered in mid-December 2004 to discuss a common future. At a conference hotel in the ghetto of Gaza the political leaders sat lined up like school boys to listen to Yvette Lillian Myakayaka-Manzini (Mavivi), vice president of the ANC women’s department. Listen and discuss something important, the struggle against apartheid.
They were all family fathers and Gaza residents. They were all confined behind high walls and accustomed to being humiliated by young boys and girls dressed in green from all the corners of the world.
They met in the hotel lobby, hugged each other and kissed each other on the cheek. This particular morning they congratulated each other on having successfully blown up a guard tower at the border crossing to Egypt.
But it soon became worse. What couldn’t happen, the impossible, was possible. The next time we arranged a similar meeting the different fractions could no longer meet, they had become enemies. The international community had said no. The coalition government had submerged into civil war.
But first there was the presidential election after President Yasser Arafat. Abu Mazen became the new Palestinian leader.
Soon thereafter the world forced a democratic parliamentary election on the Palestinians in which everyone would participate, even Hamas. Palestine would finally become democratic and many Western countries helped finance the costs of the election process. In Ramallah the Fatah leadership tried to prevent Hamas’ participation. But the world wanted something else. Bush had made up his mind. Democracy would be created to any price under the device that even a forced democracy is a democracy.
Jimmy Carter and Carl Bildt were election observers. Carter spoke about a victory for democracy. Carter held a press conference with Bildt by his side. Bildt looked like a school boy beside Carter. He silently sat beside the ex-President and looked with admiration in his eyes at one of the world’s most famous peace brokers.
But soon we got flies in the beaker and the dream about a two state solution translated into a de facto three state reality: Gaza, West Bank and Israel. The world had spoken. Carter and Bildt raised their voices but very few heard their calls.
But back to the meeting between Mavivi and a collection of family fathers from Gaza.
It was a day when one had agreed not to talk about Israel. Not speak about what the occupier had done in Jenin or what had happened in the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. No, it really became a special day when everyone instead talked about South Africa, the struggle against apartheid and simultaneously linked it to what just happened or didn’t happen in Gaza. Gaza was in the center.
Mavivi told the group that during the battle against white oppression in South Africa one had decided not to use violence against civilians. Civilians died, said Mavivi, but each time it was seen as a failure. The reason that we didn’t use a strategy that was directed against civilians was simple, Mavivi continued. The ANC sought support from the surrounding world, wanted to break the isolation. “We were also seen as terrorists,” said Mavivi. “The question we kept asking ourselves was how to break the isolation?”
“We soon reached an understanding of the outside world,” said Mavivi, “that was based on the following thought. If a taxi driver in Stockholm doesn’t understand the idea behind a suicide bomber then the Swedish government doesn’t either. If an elementary school teacher in Paris doesn’t understand it then the French government doesn’t either. We had to gain an understanding from people all around the world, we needed their support. We could only get support if the taxi driver and the teacher understood and could stand behind our actions. The governments in Sweden and France were expressions of the people’s wishes. We thought support comes from below and becomes a power only when one can unite behind it.”
Mavivi, woman from South Africa, has when the issue of suicide bombers comes up on the agenda already spoken for an hour. The conversation has flown; the factions are open to each other and participated intensively. One had also spoken about the need for leadership and Ariel Sharon was compared to De Klerk and Yasser Arafat with Mandela. Other points on the agenda included the need to compromise and the truth and reconciliation commission that was established in South Africa, to forgive your enemy. To forgive your enemy led to intensive discussions. One nevertheless agreed that a peace agreement was necessary before one could begin to forgive. That two signatures were required before one could begin hugging and kissing on the stage.
But it was when Mavivi brought up the strategic thinking behind suicide bombers that the discussion slowed down. One could discern a difference of opinion between the factions.
The participant was silent when Mavivi as her last point spoke about the struggle in southern Africa and the need for unity, and unity behind a strategy. To work towards a common goal. ANC’s struggle, the resistance, needed to be clear, visible and effective when the enemy was stronger, both financially and militarily.
Mavivi explained that “during apartheid in South Africa we were forced to work so closely to our enemy as if he or she was our brother or sister. We were forced to get to know our enemy, know what he thought. We needed to understand how he thought and above all know when our brother or sister, our enemy, changed his or her strategy. We always had to be one step ahead. To manage this we had to work, be close to him.”
“And we succeeded,” Mavivi continued. “We succeeded because throughout the struggle we maintained a high sense of morale. Our morale soon gave us wide international support. First came the support from the Scandinavian countries. Soon other countries followed and the white minority regime in Pretoria became increasingly isolated.”
But equally important was the internal debate within the ANC. The debate had as its starting point to create unity behind the strategy. “Compromise therefore became an important guiding principle within the ANC. A strategy without unity was for us within the ANC a meaningless strategy that would only have benefitted the oppressors,” said Mavivi. “We strove to get everyone on the same boat, we made a common journey.”
“We constantly faced difficult choices. Our leadership was spread across many countries. Moreover, many of our major leaders were in prison. But the debate was alive. The debate that was being held on Robben Island was also being held in study centers in Sweden, in Tanzania, in Kenya, in Namibia, everywhere. The island outside Cape Town was closed, the security high, but no one could shut out Mandela’s message, his message about unity.”
“Young and old had to unify, women and men soon created a common front. Communists, social democrats, liberals and conservative signed onto a common platform. Equally important was that Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindus united in the struggle against the oppressors. Everyone was included in the common battle against evil. Soon came the condemnation from the world’s powerful leaders and then the UN could also comply.”
“The leadership was decisive in this drawn out struggle. We had a unique situation with a leader who stood for high morals, unity and long term thinking. Many of our leaders had been imprisoned for decades. They had been locked up for a complete life, many counted on dying behind high walls on an isolated island.”
Mavivi was very clear during the whole conversation. She did not have any pointers. She just told her own story, South Africa’s story. A story about struggle, about resistance, about a strategy, about unity. “I don’t know,” said Mavivi, “what is right in Palestine, I only know what was right for us. We listened to our friends. Our friends gave us good advice but our actions, our actions were our own. Had we listened to all the advice and followed them we would never have become free. The struggle against apartheid was our struggle.”
She had finished speaking. I thought the conversation was over. I was wrong. Mavivi now turned to the highly placed Hamas representative and asked him to tell her about their strategy. Tell her about their strategy in the same way that she had told them about the ANC’s.
But he was silent. The other leaders did not have anything to add either. Even Fatah’s representative was silent. There was no common strategy. There was no common goal. At that time, creating unity in Palestine felt distant.
Mavivi, woman from South Africa, now says with a clear voice, “Comrades, you don’t seem to have an enemy. Comrades, your enemy is yourselves and comrades, your struggle has not yet begun.”
The Hamas representative remained silent for a while. His gaze was fixed and he gravely looked at Mavivi. Then he slowly and with a high voice said, “We will never forget the one who came to us in a time of deepest despair. Mavivi, when can you come back?”