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From a day of giving to a day of dividing

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Mandela Day, celebrated on 18 July each year, is designated as a day of giving to others and building bridges between communities, but one anti-Israel group chose to mark it by erecting two giant billboards with the words “Mandela’s people stand with Palestine”.

The divisive advertisement could have cost up to R30 000 to R35 000 per board per month, according to an industry expert speaking to the SA Jewish Report on condition of anonymity.

The billboards were erected along major highways in Gauteng, and depict a photo of Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Chief Zwelivelile “Mandla” Mandela. He’s a member of the African National Congress (ANC), a member of Parliament, and a vocal anti-Israel critic.

According to the most recent newsletter of anti-Israel group Africa4Palestine, the billboards went up “coinciding with this year’s international #MandelaDay … [as] a joint initiative between the Royal House of Mandela and Africa4Palestine. Several other billboards are being rolled out in South Africa and other African countries.”

The billboards include three logos: Africa4Palestine, Mvezo Komkhulu (the Mandela homestead), and the Mvezo Traditional Council. One billboard is located outside East Rand Mall and another on William Nicol Drive near Sandton.

The industry expert says the organisations could have negotiated each board down to “R20 000 per board per month in today’s market, assuming they negotiated a good deal”.

South African Jewish Board of Deputies National Director Wendy Kahn says she first saw one of the billboards when she was driving as part of a delegation to deliver much-needed relief to communities in the East Rand, who were desperate for food following looting and unrest.

“It struck me then, as it has before, how much money the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement] is investing in its divisive campaign, including on this expensive billboard. The need in our country is so great, and it chooses to spend large sums of money on promoting its propaganda instead of assisting hungry and desperate South Africans a few kilometres away. Talk about putting one’s political agenda above the welfare of one’s fellow citizens!”

Why would the Mandela name lend itself to a billboard so in opposition to the mandate of Mandela Day? “Given the polarisation over the Palestinian issue as a result of the recent Gaza conflict, it has become easier for organisations which were perhaps more neutral to move into open support of one side, especially if they had sympathies from the get-go,” says local political analyst Daniel Silke.

“Sympathy for Palestine is now felt across a wide variety of South African nongovernmental organisations and related groupings. The atmosphere of partisanship from the South African state gives these organisations the ability to be much more open and vocal in their allegiance.”

Asked what this means for the South African Jewish community and if we have a space to express ourselves as Zionists, Silke says, “I think [the space] has shrunk. Pro-Zionist expression is now critiqued in the most extreme terms. The danger is that the rhetoric is now seemingly sanctioned from the ANC, which has largely given up a more even-handed approach to the Palestinian issue. With legitimisation coming from the state, the rhetoric serves only to fuel further anti-Israel sentiment – and possible antisemitism.

“There are real dangers that sanctioning extreme rhetoric can have a consequential effect on negative actions,” he says. “The ANC needs to be aware that sanctioning the extreme critique of Israel can unleash antisemitism even if that wasn’t the original intention. That’s why critique of Israel requires a special understanding and balance of approach.”

Meanwhile, others have criticised the cynical use of Mandela’s name when the great statesman promoted an even-handed approach as much as possible. “Former President Nelson Mandela supported Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. He stated, ‘We recognise the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism. We insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders’,” says South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin.

“He travelled to Israel, met its leadership, and accepted an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University,” Polovin says. “Madiba recognised that the overwhelming majority of South African Jewry identify proudly as Zionists.

“The BDS movement wishes to try and suppress these facts. It has strategically allied itself to the late Madiba’s grandson, Mandla Mandela, because of the Mandela name, which is being used to push a false and disingenuous apartheid narrative against Israel and to stir unnecessary division in Madiba’s rainbow nation.

“Mandla Mandela is chief of the Mvezo Traditional Council, and has now lent the council’s support to a billboard campaign by Africa4Palestine,” says Polovin. “It’s a sad misuse of tens of thousands of rands a month to display a misleading and divisive billboard instead of spending the funds on skills development and poverty alleviation for the people in the council’s jurisdiction.”

The SA Jewish Report reached out to Africa4Palestine and Chief Zwelivelile “Mandla” Mandela MP for comment but did not receive a response.

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