"I certainly understand," says Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi as he passes through the metal detector like everyone else in the strict security screening at the entrance to the Tel Aviv University auditorium.
South Africa's minister for home affairs rejects calling the Israeli occupation and its treatment of Palestinians "apartheid," as do Palestinian leaders and their supporters in the European left and the Third World.
"The Israeli regime is not apartheid. It is a unique case of democracy," he said in an interview with Haaretz yesterday between debates in the conference marking Shimon Peres' 80th birthday.
If the Palestinians asked him, he would advise them to avoid violence and to prefer negotiations. "Armed struggle and violence do not solve problems, only create them, and generate more violence, in a vicious circle of revenge and counter revenge, as happened [in South Africa]."
Buthelezi is a perennial rival of the African National Congress (ANC) ruling party in South Africa. In his youth he was a member of the ANC, because it adhered, he says, to the principles of non-violence, on which its action was based since its foundation in 1912. But in the `60s, especially after Nelson Mandela's arrest, the ANC opted for armed struggle and set up a military branch for guerrilla warfare. The white apartheid regime called its actions terrorism.
Buthelezi, a Zulu prince, abandoned the movement and in 1975 founded the Inkhata Freedom Party which he presides over to this day. ANC leaders accused him of splitting the black consensus in South Africa and tried to persuade him to rejoin them and support the use of political violence, but he remained firm. Later they branded him as a traitor and collaborator with apartheid.
"I came to Israel on an official visit in 1985, and I was received by Shimon Peres, who was then Israel's prime minister in a manner which was indeed extraordinary. He showed toward me enormous warmth and great empathy toward our struggle for liberation. However, what was most remarkable was his understanding of the real nature of the struggle for liberation in the Republic of South Africa."
For this he still feels obliged to express his admiration of Peres. Buthelezi says in those days most foreign observers believed a simplified version of the South African conflict, a Disney-like image of a struggle between a unified righteous black majority and an oppressive and evil white minority."
His continuing opposition to President Thabo Mbeki and his party is evident in almost every second sentence. Recently he set up a new political bloc with Tony Leon, the leader of the Democratic Union, who also came for Peres's celebrations. The new bloc constitutes 28 percent of South Africa's parliament and Buthelezi intends to challenge Mbeki in presidential elections next April. He and his aides express hopes that he could win. However, since on this visit he represents the South African government, most of whose positions he opposes, he had to say that "as I was taught by my professor, every coin has two sides."
He says he knows Yasser Arafat well and if he were on an official visit he would be keen to meet him. "Both sides need to avoid violence. It's a double-edged sword, as our experience taught us."