Handshake stirs old revolutionary ghosts at Mandela memorial

Tue Dec 10, 2013 11:27am EST
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By Pascal Fletcher

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro stole the show at South Africa's memorial for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, a resonant tribute to a man who brought old enemies together and straddled ideological divides and eras.

The gesture will not exorcise the Cold War ghosts haunting the Florida Straits, but it would have delighted Mandela, who was nothing if not loyal to old revolutionary allies like Raul's retired elder brother Fidel, who at 87 was too old to attend the memorial.

Had they been alive, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would also have been at the Johannesburg stadium where world dignitaries joined tens of thousands of South Africans paying emotional homage.

During his long career and even in the final years before his death on Thursday aged 95, Mandela maintained unswerving loyalty to veteran revolutionaries shunned by the West such Fidel Castro, Gaddafi and Arafat, who had supported his lifelong fight to overturn apartheid in South Africa.

After he became South Africa's first black president in 1994, Mandela defended these political and personal allegiances, testily rejecting pressure to cut off ties with figures and regimes viewed as pariahs by many in the West.

"The enemies of the West are not my enemies and I'm not prepared to be dictated to at all by anybody," Mandela said in 1996, defending invitations to Castro and Gaddafi to visit him.

"I'm not going to take advice as to who my friends should be," he added, saying he was under pressure from at least one global power to break off ties with these anti-U.S. leaders.

The tsunami of tributes pouring in since his death has elevated the former African National Congress freedom fighter to the level of a modern-day saint, obscuring a historical truth some may find uncomfortable.   Continued...

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) greets Cuban President Raul Castro before giving his speech at the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the First National Bank soccer stadium, also known as Soccer City, in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach