Nelson Mandela and Abdullah Ocalan: Bound by revolutionary solidarity

March 2, 2020
Sidney Luckett. Photo: Peter Boyle.

One of the international participants in the 2020 Long March for the freedom of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan was Sidney Luckett, a veteran anti-Apartheid activist from Capetown, South Africa.

A septuagenarian who recently had a knee-replacement operation, Luckett soon felt at home with about 120, mostly young, international solidarity activists and made a lasting impression on everyone who met him.

“I was carried along by the enthusiasm and sheer fun of the others on the march,” he told Green Left’s Peter Boyle. “Whenever we stopped for a short break, traditional dances, often led by the Catalan delegation, would ensue. And the conversations, privately and in groups, were so engaging and consuming, that they went deep into the night without a thought of the looming early morning rise.”

Most important in these conversations, was the story he shared about the link between South Africa's iconic freedom fighter Nelson Mandela and Ocalan.

Nelson Mandela and Abdullah Ocalan had made an important political connection before Ocalan was abducted. Tell us about this relationship?

In 1992, after Nelson Mandela's release from the notorious Robben Island high-security prison for political offenders, and before he was inaugurated as the first president of a democratic South Africa, Mandela turned down the Ataturk Peace Prize Turkey awarded him for his “lifelong fight for freedom”.

He said then that it was hypocritical of the Turkish regime to offer him this prize when it oppressed the Kurds just as Black Africans had been oppressed under the Apartheid regime.

Unsurprisingly, this caused outrage in Turkey and Mandela was called an “insolent African” for turning down this “prestigious” award.

Five years later at a Kurdish Festival in Germany (in September, 1997) Mandela said: “We know what it means to be oppressed in your own country. We know the pain of a mother whose child has disappeared … We know what it means to have your nationality and culture insulted…

"I am part of the Kurdish struggle. I am one of you.” 

He further pointed out that, just as Ocalan was labelled “a terrorist” in Turkey and many Western countries, he himself had been labelled a terrorist in these same Western countries. He condemned the war the Turkish regime was waging on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as “a war against human rights and against the masses”.

What was the political basis of this relationship?

I have already alluded to some of the political similarities between Mandela (fondly known as “Madiba” in South Africa) and Ocalan (fondly known as “Apo”) and there are other similarities in their respective political trajectories. There are also significant differences. 

The first big difference is the age of the African National Congress (ANC), of which Mandela became president, and the PKK, of which Ocalan was one of the co-founders: the ANC was founded in 1912, making it one of the oldest liberation movements in the post-colonial world and certainly the oldest political party on the African continent. The PKK was launched in 1978, more than half a century after the founding of the ANC.

Whereas the latter was launched as fusion between Kurdish nationalism and revolutionary socialism, the former was initially a purely African nationalist movement, uniting various African tribes against British colonialism and, later, against the Apartheid regime.

After six years of Apartheid rule, a socialist manifesto, The Freedom Charter, was adopted by the ANC at the famous Kliptown Conference in 1955. Since the Apartheid regime was greatly threatened by this Congress, 156 delegates (including Mandela) were subsequently arrested and charged with treason. (Three years later, the charges were dropped). 

The Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, in which 250 protesters were shot by the police, marked the beginning of a radical shift in the resistance to the Apartheid regime. Mandela and the majority of the leaders of the ANC, together with the South African Communist Party (SACP), which had been in existence since 1921, formed a military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation). 

All the governments of Western nations (with the exception of Olaf Palme’s government in Sweden) condemned this move and promptly classified the ANC as a terrorist organisation; however, the ANC was given material and moral support by the vast majority of African states, as well by the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Palestine. The close bond between the ANC and the latter two continues to this day. 

By the time the PKK embarked on a full-scale militarised insurgency in 1984, Mandela and his comrades had already been incarcerated on Robben Island for two decades. At that point the political ideologies of the PKK and the ANC closely mirrored one another.

What was the South African government’s role in Ocalan’s quest for asylum and his subsequent abduction and imprisonment?

I first got to know of Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurdish struggle for human rights through the late Judge Essa Moosa, a legal adviser to Mandela. 

This was in 2013, and I had become disillusioned with the ANC because of the widespread corruption in the organisation and the government, with the prime culprit being the president Jacob Zuma.

By then I was no longer a member of the organisation and Moosa invited me to “join him” in the Kurdish Human Rights Action Group (KHRAG) he had established in Cape Town when Ocalan was abducted in Kenya. 

A lawyer and anti-Apartheid activist in the 1980s, Moosa was closely aligned with the United Democratic Front (UDF) — a broad umbrella organisation comprising religious bodies (Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish) and women’s, student and civic organisations committed to a non-racial, non-sexist democratic future for South Africa. 

As a leader of the Western Cape region of the UDF, I had many interactions with Moosa, and when the UDF was banned in 1987, I continued to seek his wise counsel when the loosely organised Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) was formed.

As a result of sustained mass mobilisation, the activities of Umkhonto we Sizwe and international boycott and divestment campaigns, the Apartheid regime eventually unbanned all political organisations, set free the political prisoners, and entered into negotiations with the ANC. This led to our first democratic elections in 1994. 

In 1999, Ocalan was living in exile in Syria and was under pressure to leave because of Turkish threats against Syria. A messy period followed, during which Ocalan was shunted (often under a cloak of secrecy) from one European state to another, to secure political asylum, but without success. 

During this period, President Mandela offered him political asylum in South Africa. Through negotiations involving Moosa and the South African foreign office, Ocalan was secretly flown by the Greek government to Kenya, where he was to obtain a South African passport. However, shady dealings (elaborated in Ocalan’s Prison Writings) between the Turkish MIT [secret service], the CIA and Mossad [Israeli intelligence] resulted in Ocalan’s capture and transfer to the high security Imrali prison island off Istanbul. 

Moosa immediately conveyed Mandela’s displeasure to the Turkish government, but to no avail; thereupon he launched a “Free Ocalan” campaign alongside several other similar initiatives in Europe.

Over time, this campaign was transformed into a Kurdish human rights group that responds to more general human rights issues in Turkey, but maintains a focus on the freedom of Ocalan. 

Can you describe the subsequent development of the Kurdish solidarity movement in South Africa?

In the first few months after Moosa recruited me into KHRAG, it was hardly active — it had a website and that was about all. 

But that changed when Daesh (IS) started moving across northern Syria obliterating all resistance with their US-manufactured modern artillery and tanks and committing the most unspeakable atrocities … until Kobanê. 

The resistance that the YPJ (Women's Protection Units) and YPG (People’s Protection Units) in Kobanê [located in the liberated region of Rojava in north-eastern Syria] put up against the far superiorly-armed Daesh [in 2014–15] began to attract attention, especially among Muslims in South Africa. KHRAG was, and still is, a predominantly Muslim group, and consequently has a membership that follows political developments in the Middle East with keen interest. 

During the Kobanê kairos [critical] moment, I was asked (and agreed) to compile a photographic documentary of the refugee situation in Suruç, a small town in Turkey about 5 kilometres from Kobanê.

At that stage, Kobanê was getting no outside help at all, because Turkey had sealed its borders. Just before leaving Suruç, the US Air Force started parachuting humanitarian aid (food, clothing and medicines) into Kobanê — the aircraft flew from a base in Baghdad, ignoring Turkey’s objections. 

My short photographic report visually supplemented the growing reportage of the Rojava region. 

Rojava is again very much in the news in progressive circles as a result of the Make Rojava Green Again campaign. It has attracted the interest of Non-Government Organisations involved in climate justice, as well as academics from at least four of our major universities — Cape Town, Wits, Stellenbosch and the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

The current chairperson of KHRAG, an academic at UWC, recently participated in a conference in Rojava, hosted by the Internationalist Academy there. KHRAG, together with a Cape Town-based climate justice NGO were in the process of sending two young Black community workers to do some volunteer work there, when Turkey renewed its aggression against that region. This has now been put on hold.

I am confident that the interest in Rojava will expand rapidly because its pillars, which Ocalan had established there — the praxis of woman’s freedom (jineology), democratic confederalism and social ecology — are issues that speak to the concerns of millions of South Africans. 

After participating in the Long March, I am inspired to share this message more widely in South Africa. The young people from all parts of the world in the march — many of whom had spent time in Rojava and learnt to speak Kurdish — showed a level of commitment to change that would inspire anybody who had given up on the possibility of global renewal with regard to democracy, peace and climate.

I have caught a glimpse of what [US Democratic presidential candidate] Bernie Sanders must feel when he looks out at all the young people of different races, genders and religions, who are committed to the movement that he started. It affirmed for me, once again, that elected politicians are powerless if they are not an integral part of mass mobilisation. 

Amandla! Nga wethu! — Power is ours!

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