The campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela should be assessed based on contemporary conditions. The 1960s marked the beginning of the post-colonial era in Africa. The Organization of African Unity provided unwavering support for the South African liberation movement, as many African countries saw the South African struggle as a continuation of their own liberation. India played a crucial role in exerting economic pressure to isolate South Africa and garnering support at the United Nations. It was instrumental in establishing the Special Committee against Apartheid.
In contrast, the United States and Western countries viewed apartheid South Africa as a bulwark against communism and supported the apartheid regime. On March 21, 1961, the apartheid government in South Africa massacred 69 unarmed protestors in Sharpeville. Shortly thereafter, in April 1960, the government banned the African National Congress (ANC) and other political movements. These events were a watershed moment in the struggle against apartheid. After the ANC’s banning, which closed all avenues for peaceful resistance, the ANC formed its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.
In 1960, Oliver Tambo, Deputy President of the ANC, was tasked with setting up the ANC international mission and mobilising international opinion against apartheid. Tambo established the South African United Front, which, with the help of governments from Africa and Asia, succeeded in getting South Africa expelled from the Commonwealth. The international mission played a key role in setting up the anti-apartheid movement.
From the outset, Oliver Tambo began the painstaking task of building support in line with the ANC’s two-pronged approach: forming a broad front to isolate the apartheid regime and mobilising the oppressed black majority. Tambo initiated the mobilisation of African leaders, built ties with trade union movements, and forged relationships with progressive movements across Europe. However, the campaigns for Mandela’s freedom were not supported in the capitals of Western countries; instead, they were led by the people. Tambo forged special relationships with progressive leaders like Olaf Palme, an ardent supporter of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Global solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement
Fearing that Mandela and his comrades would face the death penalty, the Anti-Apartheid Movement launched a campaign in November 1963 in response to increasing repression and the arrest of Nelson Mandela and his comrades. The campaign included a weekly vigil outside the South African Embassy in London, organised by the World Campaign for the Release of South African Political Prisoners based on a UN General Assembly resolution passed in October 1963. They also organised a petition that received 200,000 signatures. Mandela became the face of the campaign for freedom in South Africa.
The international campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners began in 1978, coinciding with Mandela’s 60th birthday. Thousands of leaflets and posters were distributed, and the campaign involved students and various sectors of civil society. The impact of the 1977 Soweto uprisings gave impetus to the anti-apartheid movement.
Oliver Tambo’s painstaking work and the international mission’s efforts to isolate South Africa resulted in a declaration for Mandela’s release signed by politicians, academics, and playwrights. Other activities included a torchlight procession in Glasgow and free cycle rides. In 1982, 2,000 mayors from 56 countries signed a declaration calling for Mandela’s release. Simultaneously, there were intensive campaigns to boycott South African sports events and food produce, particularly the Outspan orange (a well-known South African brand), with calls for comprehensive sanctions against South Africa. The “Concert for the Release of Mandela” saw tens of thousands of people attending the concert, broadcast to millions worldwide.
The international campaign for Mandela’s release was based on the ANC’s liberation strategy, identifying four pillars: the armed struggle, the underground, mass mobilisation, and international solidarity. These international campaigns were linked to mass struggles within South Africa, as the Release Mandela Campaign in South Africa supported the international campaign.
Geopolitical barriers to fundamental rights
While Mandela was still in jail, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was formed by Öcalan and others to advance the cause of disenfranchised Kurds in Turkey, addressing the suppression and denial of the existence of Turkey’s Kurds, their language, and political aspirations. After the 1980 coup in Turkey, 50 people were executed, and 50,000 people were arrested, many of whom would die in prison. Following increased repression against the PKK, a full-scale armed resistance was announced in 1984. In 1999, Abdullah Öcalan was captured in Kenya by Turkey with the help of the intelligence forces of the United States and Israel. In an interesting comparison, Mandela, too, was captured with the assistance of the CIA and denounced as a terrorist.
Öcalan’s capture sparked huge public protests in Turkey, with large demonstrations supporting Öcalan and condemning the countries involved in his kidnapping. The Free Öcalan campaign used hunger strikes to express support for Öcalan and draw attention to his conditions of incarceration.
The campaign for the freedom of Öcalan encompasses the call for a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue in Turkey. It includes campaigns like the million-signature campaign, calls by Nobel Laureates for the freedom of Öcalan, engagements with EU bodies to report human rights violations by Turkey, and ongoing rallies with calls for support. The current campaign for the freedom of Öcalan has garnered support from many countries.
While the South African struggle was hampered by Cold War politics, the campaign for the release of Öcalan is complicated by the vested interests of European states in their relationship with Turkey. The geopolitical situation in the Middle East further complicates matters. The decline of progressive movements and the trend towards the right have implications for the campaign for the release of Öcalan. A strength for the Kurdish movement is that millions of Kurdish people are based in Europe, many actively participating in the freedom of Öcalan.
It must be noted that the campaign for the release of Mandela lasted almost 27 years, gaining traction when resistance in South Africa was at its highest. It is also clear that, despite the military might of an oppressive state, it cannot continue indefinitely, and the day for those who commit human rights atrocities will come. The release of Öcalan, like the release of Mandela, can usher an opportunity for the resolution of the Kurdish question.
Fazela Mohamed is a South African activist, the co-chair of the Institute for Kurdish Studies in South Africa (KHRAG) and a former member of the African National Congress (ANC).