In South Africa, as in Palestine, people are defined by their choices, not their blood. But today the ruling African National Congress is making some wrong choices for South Africa.
Mideast rivals should take a page from ANC's playbook
Sunday's centenary of the African National Congress (ANC), the South African liberation movement for which I spent a decade of my life fighting apartheid in the 1980s, reminded me of a strange evening in New York in 1997.
I'd been chatting at a media party with a well-known hip-hop scribe, who had offered me a ride home in his rented limo. When we began discussing my South Africa experience, he refused to believe that this white boy had been in the ANC.
"Mandela didn't work with white people," he insisted. Well, actually, of the eight men on trial with Nelson Mandela in 1964, three were white.
There were hundreds of white people active in the resistance. We were a fringe element of the white community, to be sure, but a consistent presence in the ANC. A few were murdered and maimed; a number were jailed, some tortured. It was commitment, not your colour, that gained you entrance to the movement. And so I went on, but none of this was making any impression.
Finally, the limo driver turned around and asked to speak. He was Palestinian, he informed us, from Ramallah, where he'd been active in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "And we always had Israeli Jews in our organisation," he said. "Not many, but always a few. Because we were against Zionism, not against Jews."
That limo driver, growing up in Ramallah, had learned the same political lessons I had been taught in the ANC in Cape Town - lessons Mr Mandela had learned, through his own experiences, 30 years earlier. People are not defined by the ethnicity, tribe or sect into which they are born. They are defined by the choices they make.
One of the more unfortunate myths about South Africa is that the country was saved from a racial bloodbath only by Mr Mandela's willingness to forgive white people, and to persuade his followers not to throw them into the sea. Not only does this make the deeply racist assumption that black people would naturally prefer to tear white people limb from limb, it also ignores the political culture of the ANC that produced Mr Mandela. He'd be the first to tell you that any leader steeped in the movement's culture would have made the same choices.
The preamble to the ANC's Freedom Charter declares, "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white" and that "no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people". The inclusive non-racial politics of the ANC made it conventional wisdom in the movement that the enemy was apartheid injustice, and that white people - once they had relinquished the system of minority rule - would enjoy the same rights as all other South Africans.
The ANC today is no longer a liberation movement; it is a ruling party that has fallen short on its promises of social justice, and is being embraced by a neocolonial elite as a vehicle for self-aggrandisement. For all its flaws and disappointments, however, the ANC's history has bequeathed a template of values against which its current leaders can be held accountable, and corruption and mismanagement are frequently challenged from within by the movement's working-class base.
And its example of inclusive justice endures, not only for South Africans but to people divided by histories of ethnic, tribal and sectarian politics everywhere.
I'd been planning to emigrate to Israel, before being drawn into the ANC's orbit. That intention, driven by fear of anti-Semitism, dissolved amid the ANC's inclusive nation-building, which allowed me to express my Jewish identity in a wider struggle for social justice for all. Indeed, ANC politics gave me a fresh perspective on the Middle East, by demonstrating that a traumatic history of violent conflict between rival national or ethnic groups did not necessarily preclude sharing a common destiny in which nobody is thrown into the sea.
ANC leaders addressed the historical narrative within which the apartheid regime's supporters had constructed their system as an "historic necessity". Afrikaner nationalists believed they had to control their own state because of their brutal treatment at the hands of the British during the Boer wars.
Hoping to suppress the Boers' guerrilla campaign, the British created what they called "concentration camps" into which they herded much of the Afrikaner civilian population, many of whom died of starvation and disease. The ANC acknowledged the Boers' experience, telling them in effect, "We understand your suffering, but we were not your oppressors, and you have nothing to fear from us; your suffering cannot excuse the suffering you have imposed on us."
I began to wonder if the traumatic history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict necessarily precluded a common future based on accommodating the rights of all. Their narratives might be mutually exclusive, but neither Israel nor the Palestinians could eliminate the other.
Their traumas, moreover, were linked by history. The Holocaust suffered by the Jews of Europe, which has been adopted as the centrepiece of Israel's national identity, had in fact triggered a chain of events that resulted in the Nakba - the Palestinian dispossession. The Palestinians were not responsible for the Holocaust, yet they paid a price for it; indeed, it had a profound impact on modern Arab history.
The founding generation of Israeli leaders recognised the Nakba as part of their own history, warning their people as military commander Moshe Dayan did, to be ready to fight in perpetuity because they had taken the Palestinians' land.
The Israelis and Palestinians share a common history, which right now is bound together by bonds of suffering. The lesson of the ANC in South Africa is that this common history, and everyone's place in it, can be re-imagined on new terms to allow their common destiny to transcend that trauma.
Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow on Twitter @TonyKaron