Mandela’s personal friendships with both Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro irked the ire of the United States, and NATO as a whole. Libyan forces had helped train Mandela’s African National Congress during their militant days, and their friendship was such that one of Mandela’s grandsons is named Gaddafi. In 1994, still considered a global pariah, Gaddafi was invited to Nelson Mandela’s swearing-in ceremony. Mandela responded to Western criticism of his attendance by telling their leaders to “jump in a pool.” Though he had been out of public life for some time, Mandela spoke out against NATO airstrikes against Libya during the 2011 war.
Nelson Mandela and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi were close friends.
The personal friendship between Mandela and Gaddafi translated into official government policy. Bilateral relations between South Africa and Libya strengthened with the end of Apartheid in 1994. South Africa, hoping to wield its central position in the African Union and strong ties with Libya, was set to send President Jacob Zuma as part of an African Union delegation to broker a peace plan at the onset of the 2011 civil war. As the NATO campaign against Gaddafi began, this plan was scuttled, leading to deep divisions within the AU. The sidelining of the AU peace plan and the overstepped mandate of the Libyan intervention has led to a general sense of betrayal by NATO among South African leaders.
Libya had long been rooted in the African continent, and under Gaddafi, had pursued a bombastic vision of pan-Africanism. Gaddafi was also well-known for referring to himself as the “King of Africa”, and for his grandiose vision of a “United States of Africa.” The Organisation of African Unity’s Sirte Declaration of 1999, held in the Libyan city of Sirte, laid the ground work for the establishment of the African Union in 2002. The organization received nearly a third of its funding from Libya, an estimated $40 million per year. Post-Gaddafi Libya is now firmly oriented towards the Arab World, much to the dismay of South Africa. Attacks on black African migrant workers in Libya further underscore the shift in the new Libya’s orientation. The NATO intervention has led to the loss of not only a key ally of South Africa, but for the efforts of pan-African integration as a whole.
Though deathbed stories of Mandela spring up every time he checks into a hospital, the signs are not entirely bleak: Mandela’s health has steadily recovered in recent days, and is said to be “engaging with his family.” The former President is, however, 94 – an advanced age by any measure. His legacy hangs heavily over all aspects of South African politics, and it remains to be seen which direction a post-Mandela South Africa will take with transatlantic relations.