Nelson Mandela aide seeks to unseat Labour leader Keir Starmer

Former South African MP and anti-corruption campaigner Andrew Feinstein says he is building a community campaign for challenge

Labour party leader Keir Starmer, left, and Andrew Feinstein are among those contesting the seat of Holborn and St Pancras. Getty Images; The National
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South Africa’s long struggle to end apartheid should remind campaigners not to lose hope for justice in Palestine, veteran politician Andrew Feinstein has said.

The former African National Congress MP in the government of the late president Nelson Mandela hopes to unseat Labour party leader Keir Starmer in next month's UK general election.

Standing as an independent candidate, Mr Feinstein has put the Palestinian cause at the heart of his campaign for Mr Starmer’s London constituency of Holborn and St Pancras, where the South African has lived for more than 20 years.

Yet Mr Feinstein is also challenging Labour’s shift to the right, decried by critics to the left of the party.

“A choice between the Tories and Labour, between Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak, I don't think is a choice that inspires many people,” he said. “People are crying out for alternatives.”

It is part of a movement of independents that arose from divisions within Labour, and that is gaining momentum as Mr Starmer is accused of a purge of the party's left.

Lessons from South Africa

Within Holborn and St Pancras are the university campuses of Bloomsbury, where Mr Feinstein - a gregarious personality and grassroots campaigner at heart - has spoken at student encampments of the lessons from South Africa.

The Palestinian cause has long been compared to the South African struggle, with Mr Mandela making regular pronouncements in support of Palestine and Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Both were part of global liberation movements which received support at the time from non-aligned countries such as Libya and Cuba. “[They've] always been what we described as fraternal struggles,” Mr Feinstein said.

As a result of Israel's support for the apartheid regime, Mandela's relations with Israel remained cold during his presidency.

Today, a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli goods mirrors South Africa’s efforts which led businesses such as Barclays Bank and Shell to divest from the regime in the 1980s.

In recent years, human rights organisations have described Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories as an apartheid system.

These parallels have gained momentum from the growth of the Palestinian solidarity movement in the UK, with fortnightly marches attracting hundreds of thousands of people, and student encampments.

Students played an essential role in bringing down apartheid in South Africa, Mr Feinstein said.

“People look back at the liberation struggle against apartheid in South Africa [as] a remarkably successful struggle. But to be honest with you, it didn't feel that way when you were involved with it at the time.”

Apartheid was not abolished until the 1990s and the ANC came to power under Mandela in 1994.

It lost its majority in government for the first time in 30 years at the South African elections last week. “It wasn’t a quick, successful struggle. It was a very difficult struggle with huge troughs and peaks,” Mr Feinstein said.

The Palestine solidarity movement needed to broaden its support base for BDS to work, drawing on the momentum from the current war.

“Sometimes, the Palestinian solidarity movement doesn't project an entirely unified image to the rest of the world. And this is a crucial moment,” he said.

A unifying figure like Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison under the apartheid regime, was important – but Mr Feinstein was hesitant to compare this aspect of the campaign to the Palestinian cause.

Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian political leader languishing in Israeli prisons, is often described as such a figure, but Mr Feinstein believes there are many more like him.

“People say to me, if only the Palestinians had a Mandela, and I say to them, well, they actually probably have hundreds of Mandelas, they’ve either all been killed, or are in jail, just like Mandela was,” he said.

“I think a sort of unifying figure is important. But I understand how difficult it is in this sort of context.”

While there were obvious divisions among Palestinian political parties, solidarity movements need to embrace the momentum and work together.

“With the Palestinian National Committee and among the various solidarity movements, this is the moment for unity,” he said.

The legacy of South Africa's anti-apartheid campaign became clear with the country presenting a case against Israel to the International Court of Justice this year.

“It's unbelievably symbolic,” said Mr Feinstein.

“South Africans and the world [saw] lawyers representing the full diversity of South African society. The oppressed had become the judges and the lawyers, who are now judging the racism and oppression of others,” he said.

South Africa’s political life had a responsibility in the world to call out racism and oppression, which meant the Palestinian cause was ingrained in political life there.

The parallels with South Africa have been contested. Critics of the labelling of Israel as an apartheid state said Palestinians who are Israeli citizens have the rights Jewish Israelis enjoy.

Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed and hundreds taken hostage, alienated the western mainstream from the Palestinian cause.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian BDS movement faces attempts to outlaw it in the UK and US.

Lessons of campaigner's life

Mr Feinstein’s journey with the ANC moves from “very rapid life lessons of your own privilege” as a teenager joining the party's underground structures, to taking a break during a four and half-hour speech by Raúl Castro in Havana when he was part of a South African delegation with politician Tokyo Sexwale.

He resigned from the South African government in 2001, after the ANC failed to investigate an arms deal at his request. He has since devoted himself to anti-corruption work from his base in London.

The stuff that animates me are the local and the global, and the interconnections between the two,” he said.

The general election date of July 4 was announced less than 24 hours after Mr Feinstein launched his own campaign. When we meet, his team is busy condensing what it had hoped would be a six-month trail into six weeks.

Mr Feinstein describes himself as competitive by nature and says he is in this race to win.

“I don't do anything that I don't think I can’t succeed in. Of course, there are different measures of success. But yes, the ultimate measure is obviously beating [Mr Starmer].”

He says he is running to give people a wider choice in a political system that has long been dominated by two major parties. “The whole premise of a liberal democracy is that you get given a choice,” he said.

“Our politics seems to have nothing to do with us any more. The policy choices between the two parties is virtually non-existent.”

It is a community campaign which Mr Feinstein insists will be driven by residents – and not by himself. “I am just the face of the campaign,” he said.

The trail is what seems to get him most excited. “Having a reason to spend an enormous amount of time just engaging with people about the issues in their lives is an extraordinary thing to be able to do,” he said.

Zionism rejected

Mr Feinstein has long been critical of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

His mother was a Holocaust survivor and he has lectured at Auschwitz on genocide prevention on behalf of the Auschwitz Institute.

Both of his parents described themselves as Zionists. He speaks movingly of his family’s experience and what he perceives to be deeply moral values at the heart of Judaism, which he says emerged stronger from the Holocaust.

“I understand the place that Israel has for Jewish people, because I've experienced it through my own family. But that need for safety, that need for a refuge doesn't give one the right to destroy the homes, the lives, the community of another people. And we cannot avoid that reality,” he said.

He has faced backlash for describing Israel as an apartheid state and for his claims that anti-Semitism is being “weaponised” to stifle criticism of the country's policies.

His campaign comes at a time when the impact of the Israel-Gaza war on Jewish collective memory and trauma are palpable.

The October 7 attacks have been described as the worse on Jews since the Holocaust and the ensuing military campaign in Gaza, which has failed to bring back the hostages, has also brought moral questions about the creation of a Jewish state to the fore.

“It’s going to have a massive impact on the Israeli psyche [and] numerous impacts on the diaspora Jewish psyche,” Mr Feinstein said.

“Jews who have been critical of Israel will in many ways feel fortified in their criticisms, perhaps even more deeply concerned than at any time before about the nature and functioning of the state of Israel,” he said.

The knowledge that Israel would be formed at the expense of another people is one of the moral dilemmas faced from the early days of Zionism.

“The state of Israel was established on the land of the Palestinian people. As humanist Jews, we can't simply say that that's OK,” he said.

Updated: June 05, 2024, 11:37 AM