TUNIS // When Nelson Mandela landed in Libya in 1990, he was greeted by a crowd of 3,000 cheering students and pulled into a warm embrace with an autocrat of 20 years’ standing, Muammar Qaddafi.
They kissed warmly on the cheek, and gazed into each others’ eyes, making something of an odd couple: Qaddafi was swathed in a snow-white turban and matching gold-trimmed robe while Mandela wore a gray suit.
The Libyan leader was an international pariah, reviled by the United States for supporting extremist groups in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, held responsible for the bombing of a Berlin disco in 1986 and subject to suspicions that he was trying to build nuclear weapons.
Mandela had been released just three months earlier from 27 years in prison, praised in songs by campaigners across the world, supported by the United Nations Security Council for his struggles against apartheid and was just embarking on a world tour where he was to be widely feted.
And yet, Mandela declared: “We consider ourselves comrades in arms,” before entering the vast tent where Qaddafi hosted his guests.
“You have given military training to South Africans who wanted to obtain their liberation through armed struggle … In our situation, as in other countries, an armed struggle is one of the most effective ways for fighting for political change in our country,” he said, according to press reports from the time.
Earlier that day, Mandela had toured the Bab Al Aziziya compound, levelled by American bombers in 1986, reportedly insisting on seeing every room of the building.
It was the beginning of a long and enduring friendship and pan-African partnership that would see Mandela, who would be awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1993, staunchly fight in Qaddafi’s corner even as he became more vilified, particularly for his alleged role in the 1988 bombing of a passenger plane over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.
In public meetings and visits to Libya during Mandela’s five-year presidency of South Africa, the anti-apartheid leader continued to pay tribute to Qaddafi’s support for the armed struggle he once led.
“This man helped us at a time when we were all alone,” he said, when visiting in 1997, welcomed by pipers and a banquet that stretched into the early hours of the morning. Among the banners waved by the crowds that greeted him was one that read: “Mandela’s trip to Libya is a devastating blow to America.”
“Those who say I should not be here are without morals. I am not going to join them in their lack of morality,” said Mandela. He awarded the man he called “brother leader” the Good Hope medal — the highest honour South Africa can bestow on a foreigner.
In 1991, after a three-year investigation, Scottish authorities charged two Libyans in connection with the Lockerbie bombing, and the British and American governments demanded that Libya extradite the two for trial in Scotland and provide any information it had about the attack. The demand was backed up by a UN Security Council resolution in 1992.
Libya — arguing that no evidence had been presented to them — refused. UN sanctions were swiftly imposed, and Libyan aircraft were turned back from international airports. The sanctions were expanded later in the year to items such as oil-production equipment, striking heavy blows to Libya’s lifeblood industry.
In more than a decade of negotiations that followed, as Qaddafi pushed for the trial to happen in a third country and for sanctions to be lifted, while international governments called for Libya to take responsibility for the attack, Mandela was at the forefront. Along with Saudi Arabian officials, Mandela pushed British and American governments to make concessions, carrying letters from Qaddafi to the UN and corresponding personally with the former western leaders Tony Blair and Bill Clinton on the matter.
Why, when South Africa had little to gain from this unlikely alliance, did Mandela continue in his support? He made frequent reference to Qaddafi’s backing for the armed fight against apartheid, but Jakes Gerwel, Mandela’s chief of staff in the 1990s, dismissed the idea of Qaddafi supporting the African National Congress. In an interview with the University of Southern California’s Lyn Boyd Judson, he said that Qaddafi’s support was limited to the more militant Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).
In Ms Judson’s paper on the subject, she says many South African as well as international scholars believe that Mandela’s almost overpowering sense of loyalty was behind his relationships with Qaddafi or Fidel Castro and other outcasts who supported the struggle against apartheid.
An alternative explanation was simply: “I think he liked the guy,” as Ms Judson quotes Tom Lodge, then head of international politics at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg, as saying. “Qaddafi’s quite a character with his goats following him up on stage and the like.”
The links between the two countries remained strong. When the UN Security Council passed the resolution in support of a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, South Africa joined the yes votes — but called for non-military solutions to the problem, and did not condemn Qaddafi. South African president Jacob Zuma made a last mediation mission to Libya in May 2011.
And as the post-Qaddafi, and now the post-Mandela era moves on, the reminders of the old ties are still there. Wrangles between the new Libyan government and South African banks are being played out over vast wealth and diamonds allegedly belonging to the former regime and stowed in South Africa.
A relationship that attracted criticism for its morality and usefulness to South Africa also oversaw extensive oil and trade deals.
In Ms Judson’s paper, Mandela’s chief of staff Gerwels suggests that the ultimate reason for the bond may simply have been pragmatism.
“It was part of Mandela’s strategy … Qaddafi has a naive side to him. His whole politics are based on this Don Quixote character. So his being decorated by Mandela meant a hell of a lot to him. He trusted us.”
Alice Fordham is a former North Africa and Cairo correspondent for The National