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Could Mandela have resolved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
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Could Mandela have resolved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

In mourning Nelson Mandela, I have a great personal regret: that he never contributed to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He told me that he wanted to do it and would do it. But time ran out on him.

I knew Mandela for 55 years, from the time he was an attorney in Johannesburg – only one of a handful of blacks to have achieved that status – and a leader in the African National Congress liberation movement. I was a young reporter on the city's Rand Daily Mail newspaper and was pioneering the reporting of black politics and existence – unknown in the mainstream "white" press at the time – and began meeting Mandela.

The government already recognized him as a danger to its apartheid rule and he was "banned": a decree was served on him forbidding him from being with more than one person at a time and from taking part in political activities; he was not allowed to enter schools, universities or factories and had to remain within the municipal boundaries. Nothing he said could be quoted.

Despite this, he continued as a secret leader within the ANC. In 1960, he was detained without trial for five months during the State of Emergency which followed the massacre at the Sharpeville black township where police shot and killed 69 peaceful black demonstrators. The ANC and its rival movement, the Pan-Africanist Congress, were banned.

Once released, Mandela set about working underground to organize a mass strike by black workers against apartheid. The entire police force hunted him. He was popularly known as the "Black Pimpernel" after the Scarlet Pimpernel hero of Baroness D'Orczy's novels about the French Revolution.

By that time we had got to know each other well enough to trust each other: we met secretly at night in dark suburban streets so that he could brief me about his strike plans. We had a system for sending messages to each other if we wanted to meet. We also arranged that I would be at my desk at 5pm every day: every few days the phone would ring and an anonymous voice would read a statement from Mandela. The Security Police were furious and warned my editor, the renowned Laurence Gandar, that he faced prosecution for publishing the continuing flow of information. We went on publishing and there was no prosecution.

The strike was not a success and Mandela fled the country. The rest is history: how he returned, was betrayed by an informer and spent the next 27 years in prison.

In those early days, at the end of the 1950s, he was fully aware of what he was doing in confronting a determined and authoritarian government. He knew he was putting his liberty, and indeed his life, on the line. He knew he was giving up his family – he was in his second marriage, to the beautiful and glamorous Winnie, and they had two young daughters – but he went on.

While in prison he was approached secretly with offers to release him on condition that he publicly denounce violence and move to the Transkei Bantustan, the tribal puppet state set up by the government. He refused.

He was finally released in 1990 and plunged back into political work, openly this time, and in due course was elected president of the new nonracial and democratic South Africa.

We were in contact over the years. The government allowed me to visit him in prison – the first visit by a non-family member. I was told I could see him as a friend, not as a journalist – I was by then deputy editor – and had to promise not to write anything.

In due course I came on aliyah (immigration), to Jerusalem. I regularly traveled to South Africa and while visiting Mandela at his official home in the capital, Pretoria, urged him to give attention to our Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His moral status could do wonders in bringing the two sides together, I told him. South Africa at that time was the shining example to the world of reconciliation and he could exert unique influence to bring about peace.

Mandela listened carefully. He wanted to help, he said, but he was then dealing with Rwanda which was suffering horrific internal strife and killings. "When I have resolved Rwanda I will turn to the Middle East," he said.

That, of course, never happened. So could Nelson Mandela have changed our history? We cannot know and must struggle on.

Benjamin Pogrund's latest book, "Is Israel Apartheid? Reporting the facts about Israel and South Africa", is to be published next year by Rowman & Littlefield in New York.



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