The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation in Cairo has silenced critics as the decade-long rift between the two main Palestinian factions ended — we hope finally — a few days ago. Among those waiting anxiously for news of the outcome was 87-year-old Laloo Isu Chiba from his office in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The lifelong anti-Apartheid activist, former Robben Island inmate and friend of the late Nelson Mandela applauded the reconciliation and talked of the importance of forgiveness if the Palestinians are to move forward and focus on winning back their homeland.
“The Palestinian struggle makes our struggle in South Africa look like a picnic,” he observed. “Never in the history of the world has there been a struggle like the one endured by the Palestinian people.”
Chiba knows the pain and the power of such human endurance, drawing on his own contribution and history with the late, great South African statesman and President Mandela. We met at the Foundation named after another titan in the war against apartheid, Ahmed Kathrada, one of Mandela’s closest colleagues who died earlier this year, aged 87.
Welcoming the outbreak of unity between Fatah and Hamas, Chiba cautioned that the Palestinians’ biggest challenge would not be breaking free from Israeli oppression; he has “absolutely no doubt” that this will happen. “However I have my fears about what they will do once they are free. How will they proceed? Too much pain and hurt has already happened because of betrayal and treachery.”
He explained to me that when he was sent to the prison on Robben Island he was a very angry young man because one of his comrades, a close friend, had been thrown out of the 7th floor of a building by the apartheid security forces. “When I heard about this I promised myself I would sort out those responsible. When I confided in Kathy [Kathrada] he was disturbed by my views and told Madiba [Mandela].”
According to Chiba, Nelson Mandela made a point of meeting him to discuss his desire for revenge. It was a meeting that he will never forget and he recalled it with the clarity of a young man. “Madiba told me, ‘Our struggle is a very long one, a very difficult one. You are serving 18 years and I am serving a life sentence and we might never live to see freedom, but one thing is very certain; freedom will come. Assuming for one moment we get out of this place alive, we have to rebuild and reshape our country and we will not be able to do that on the basis of bitterness, revenge or anger but we can do so on the basis of forgiveness and reconciliation.’”
This moving advice was given towards the end of 1965. At the time he was in prison alongside the legendary Walter Sisulu and Kathrada and several other Rivonia and Little Rivonia triallists in B-Section on Robben Island; this was reserved for political prisoners.
Today, Chiba is a board member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. He believes that the anger and desire for revenge he experienced in those early days on Robben Island will also be felt by many young Palestinians and is a major hurdle that they will have to overcome if they are to remain united.
“The hurt experienced by many Palestinians is so deep, there will be many unwilling to engage because every single family in Palestine has already been affected adversely. However I am confident that Hamas and Fatah can set their differences aside and move forward.”
His is tipping Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, a political prisoner held by the Israelis, as the man to watch. Like many other observers Chiba thinks that he is Palestine’s own Mandela. “He has the stature, and in 2015 we launched a ‘Free Marwan’ campaign from Mandela’s old cell on Robben Island.”
According to the veteran activist, the Israelis know that Barghouti is a powerful figure and this is why they are so harsh in their treatment of him. He has met Barghouti’s wife on three occasions in South Africa but not in Palestine; at 87, he fears that he is probably too old to make the journey today.
Nevertheless, as he pointed out, the Palestinian cause was always close to the heart of Mandela and other ex-Robben Island political prisoners like himself and Kathrada. For this reason alone he has followed the reconciliation talks closely and is optimistic that life should begin to improve for those Palestinians living in under siege in the Gaza Strip.
Chiba managed to overcome his desire for revenge; his words should be heeded by everyone in the Palestinian factions. He shares them in solidarity as someone who not only experienced the pain of brutal oppression but also triumphed over the corrosive hate which once engulfed him as a young man. Forgiveness, he insists, really must be part of the Palestinian armoury.