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Lest We Forget, on Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel, Mandela Was a Radical

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"If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don't care."

Who said these words? Go on, guess? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Nope. Fidel Castro? Guess again. George Galloway, right? Wrong.

It was the late, great Nelson Mandela, speaking in January 2003. Plenty of quotes from Madiba have been doing the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, in newspaper obituaries and online profiles, but this particular one hasn't had as much traction as the rest.

Could it be because it defies the lazy image of the former South African president as a secular saint, a 'unifier', a figure who supposedly 'transcended' politics and the left-right divide? Could it be because it would force us to reluctantly acknowledge that the ex-ANC leader didn't just battle against injustice at home - who, after all, is pro-apartheid, these days? - but battled against injustice abroad, too. Against (yes, democratically-elected) leaders and governments in the west that now want to wrap themselves in his name, his memory, his legacy.

Of the various tributes that have poured in over the past 24 hours from world leaders, both current and former, three in particular stood out for me.

Former US president George W. Bush, in a statement put out by his office in Dallas, hailed Mandela as a "good man" and "one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time".

Former British prime minister Tony Blair told the BBC: "He was someone who would put people at their ease, he was someone who brought out the best in people, you felt that when you were with him."

And the Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu said: "He will be remembered as the father of the new South Africa and a moral leader of the highest order."

Yes, yes, yes. We get it. We all agree on the "good man", "moral leader", "brought out the best in people" stuff. So far, so uncontroversial. But when will Messrs Bush, Blair or Netanyahu, or their outriders in the media, admit that the late South African president was also a proud, passionate and life-long critic of some of the key policies that they advocated and implemented, both in and out of high office.

Take Iraq. In a speech in January 2003, two months before the invasion, Mandela said military action against the Saddam Hussein regime without UN Security Council approval would be illegitimate; he savaged both Bush and Blair for "undermining the United Nations".

He also accused the then president of the United States, a "small man" who has "no foresight", of "wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust". Yes, holocaust. And yes, Mandela said it. Not John Pilger or Michael Moore.

"Why is the United States behaving so arrogantly?" he continued. "All that (Mr. Bush) wants is Iraqi oil."

Again, Nelson Mandela speaking. Not Tony Benn or the Stop The War Coalition. (In the same speech, incidentally, he also attacked the United States more broadly for its poor post-war record on human rights and for its nuclear strike on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was in this context that he made his stinging remark about America's "unspeakable atrocities".)

Take Afghanistan and the so-called 'war on terror'. After initially giving his support to the US-led assault on the Taliban in the aftermath of the horrific 9/11 attacks, Mandela quickly backtracked, saying in January 2002 that his earlier views had been "one-sided and overstated".

He apologised for having given the impression that he was "insensitive to and uncaring about the suffering inflicted upon the Afghan people and country" and reminded the Bush administration that the "labeling of Osama bin Laden as the terrorist responsible for those acts before he had been tried and convicted could also be seen as undermining some of the basic tenets of the rule of law".

In his 2002 statement, Mandela reiterated his opposition to acts of terror, and reminded readers of how appalled he had been by the barbarism of the 9/11 attacks, but argued that those responsible for bringing down the Twin Towers must be "apprehended and brought to trial without inflicting suffering on innocent people".

Do we now have to rebrand Madiba as an apologist for Al Qaeda and appeaser of the Taliban?

Take, perhaps above all else, Israel and its treatment of the occupied Palestinian people. Mandela referred to Yasser Arafat as a "comrade in arms"; in February 1990, just 16 days after being released from prison, Mandela embraced Arafat in Lusaka, Zambia, comparing the Palestinian struggle against Israel to the black struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

In the same year, on a trip to Australia in October 1990, he angered the country's Jewish community by referring to Israel as a "terrorist state" which was "slaughtering defenseless and innocent Arabs in the occupied territories, and we don't regard that as acceptable".

Does anyone dare smear Mandela as an anti-Semite for making such comments? He would of course later moderate his rhetoric, upon becoming president of South Africa, and confirm his support for Israeli security - "I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel within secure borders," he once said - but he never dropped his unconditional support for the Palestinians.

Speaking at the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People event in Pretoria in 1997, Mandela declaimed: "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.. Yes, all of us need to do more in supporting the struggle of the people of Palestine for self-determination."

In an interview with Newsweek in 2002, in the run-up to the Iraq war, Mandela also singled out Israel and the hypocrisy surrounding the west's stance on the Jewish state and its nuclear weapons stockpile: "Neither Bush nor Tony Blair has provided any evidence that such weapons exist [in Iraq]. But what we know is that Israel has weapons of mass destruction. Nobody talks about that. Why should there be one standard for one country, especially because it is black, and another one for another country, Israel, that is white."

Let's be clear: Mandela was far from perfect in his foreign policy stances. He lauded Colonel Gaddafi as "Brother Leader" and a "friend" and admired the late despot so much that he named his grandson 'Gaddafi'; he lavished praise on Fidel Castro and called Cuba "a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people". (Then again, to be fair to Madiba, Gaddafi-led Libya and Castro-led Cuba backed the ANC's struggle against apartheid in the 1980s while the US and UK governments, under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, dismissed the ANC as "terrorists" and Israel, as Chris McGreal has revealed, "provided expertise and technology that was central to [apartheid] South Africa's development of its nuclear bombs".)

The point, however, is this: Mandela is now rapidly being rebranded and recast, by politicians and pundits alike, as an almost apolitical, controversy-free symbol of 'hope', 'peace', 'forgiveness' and the rest. But he wasn't afraid to stand up to, and speak out against, what he saw as imperialism and colonialism on the part of countries such as the United States and Israel; unfashionable views which, if espoused by other (left-wing) politicians or public figures today, would provoke a torrent of (right-wing) attacks and abuse.

Rather than remember and mourn for Mandela only as a saint, we should remember and celebrate him as a radical. To do otherwise is to do a disservice to his struggle for freedom and justice beyond South Africa's borders.

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