We will never forget the wall of solidarity that generations of UN diplomats built behind the anti-apartheid movement, which certainly helped to move the tide of global public opinion.
But somehow this week, sitting in the UN General Assembly in New York, I felt that the global community of nations had collectively failed those engaged in bitter struggles for self-determination and freedom.
Solidarity with the Palestinians and Saharawis has not been as solid and robust as what many nations showed towards the South African liberation movements in the dark days of apartheid.
To be fair, post-apartheid South Africa has consistently been the loudest voice when it comes to reminding the world of these struggles and the need to urgently find solutions to them.
But the question is whether we have shown the same type of resolve that progressive nations across the world showed us when it came to taking a meaningful stand against colonialism and oppression.
Admirably, President Cyril Ramaphosa dedicated a part of his address to the UN General Assembly this week to the plight of the Palestinians, noting that they had endured suffering almost as long as the UN has existed. We know the Palestinians are in a worse situation than they ever have been in their history, and living under suffocating conditions.
This week, when the UN paid tribute to the immense contribution of Nelson Mandela in his centenary, we can’t help but reflect on how distressed he would have been over Palestine.
Mandla Mandela has taken up the mantle and championed the Palestinian cause as fervently as his grandfather had done, and used this week in particular to highlight the global inaction and lack of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
While the UN General Assembly might have consistently passed resolutions calling for a two-state solution, it has failed to move the peace process forward or to compel the Israelis to withdraw their occupying forces. In fact, most of the Palestinian land has been annexed by the occupiers. What have we done wrong?
The time has come for bold new moves on the part of the international community to force a rethink in terms of the cost of the occupation.
To date, our own liberation movement came up with a move that is largely symbolic in nature, but sends a signal that the occupation is unacceptable and the status quo can no longer be tolerated.
In December, the ANC at its national conference took a decision to downgrade relations with Israel as a sign of protest. It is what could be done at a minimum under the current circumstances.
What drew the ire of activists across the country this week was the return to Tel Aviv of South Africa’s recalled ambassador to Israel, although the Department of International Relations clarified that he was there only to attend to family matters, not on official business.
The outcry led to cries of betrayal and accusations that the ANC-led government had sold out the cause of the Palestinians by not implementing the ANC’s decision to downgrade relations almost 10 months after the resolution was finalised. Mandla Mandela himself came out guns blazing, calling on the government to implement the downgrade resolution with immediate effect.
The whole fracas left me rather despondent and wanting wholeheartedly to believe in good faith that our government did in fact intend to implement the ANC’s decision. I put the question to the president in a press conference on his last night in New York.
The response was clear and categorical - the South African government was not having second thoughts on implementing the ANC’s resolution but that it was a process and it would certainly happen.
That was a clear undertaking by the president who has always shown sincere solidarity with the Palestinian cause, even during his days at the helm of Shanduka. We can stop throwing mud at each other internally, and focus on the real struggle at hand.
South Africa will be on the right side of history, but it is only one small step on a long road. But, then again, it took small steps in the late 1980s to build momentum towards confining apartheid to the dustbin of history.
What we are doing is taking a principled stand, and hoping that the rest of the world will follow course.
Whether they do or not we have to continually ask ourselves, “What would Madiba have done?”
* Ebrahim is the group foreign editor of Independent Media