South African activists reflect on parallels between life under apartheid and Israel/Palestine today

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In the midst of Israel’s latest seven-week military assault on Gaza, up to 200,000 people took to the streets of Cape Town, South Africa to march in solidarity with the Palestinian people–in what many say was the largest single protest that country has seen since the mass movements that overthrew apartheid. The people who filled this crowd—including prominent as well as lesser-known anti-apartheid heroes—made direct links between South African history and present-day reality for Palestinians. “Israel is a Colonial Apartheid State,” reads a National Coalition for Palestine call-to-action issued ahead of the August 9 march—a message that was echoed in signs and banners throughout the rally.

This historical connection is not new. Palestinian civil society organizations and individuals have long argued that the framework of apartheid describes components of the ethnicity and race based segregation, discrimination, violence, and control under which they live. This analysis has been spread around the world by Palestinians and their allies, so that it is now rattling the powerful, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently letting slip (and then promptly taking back) a warning that Israel is at risk of becoming an “apartheid state.” The appropriateness of the apartheid framework has been confirmed by prominent figures and bodies from South Africa, including Archbishop Desmond TutuUnited Nations Special Rapporteur Richard Falk and research institution, the Human Sciences and Research Council.

The linkage has informed and inspired a global movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction (BDS) Israel to win self-determination and freedom for Palestinians, using tactics similar to those that overthrew apartheid in South Africa. “In view of the fact that people of conscience in the international community have historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice, as exemplified in the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa through diverse forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions,” the world is urged to take part in BDS, according to a 2005 statement from Palestinian civil society organizations. South Africans have heeded that call. In addition to protests in the streets, organizers from Johannesburg to Durban to Port Elizabeth have waged a dynamic BDS effort, which now has won broad support, including from the South Africa’s largest trade union.

Following South Africa’s latest outpouring in support of Gaza, I wanted to learn more about how South Africans view this historical linkage, and how this analysis shapes their consciousness and organizing. I interviewed three activists, two of whom remember living through apartheid, and the third a university student connected to youth solidarity movements. Salim Vally is a Professor at the University of Johannesburg and an organizer with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which describes itself as “a South African based Solidarity Movement that supports the struggle for a free, non-racial and democratic Palestine State for all who live in it.” Martin Jansen is a Cape Town-based organizer with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Alexandria Hotz is a student at the University of Capetown and an organizer with the university’s Palestine Solidarity Forum, which “promotes debate, education and action for political, economic and social justice in Palestine/Israel, on the basis of equal rights for all, regardless of religion and ethnicity.”

What parallels do you draw between South Africa under apartheid and Israel/Palestine today? What are the differences?

Salim Vally: 

The system of control and oppression run by the Israeli state has similarities with what existed in this country under apartheid. Like any two situations, it’s not exact but it is similar and the goals are similar.

There is a difference. In South Africa, the labor of the oppressed—cheap black labor—was required, and the apartheid, capitalist government could not do without it, particularly in the extractive industries and agriculture. In Israel, although they depended on cheap Palestinian labor initially, they’ve since dispensed with it. That is a crucial difference.

In terms of the mechanism and legislation around the apartheid policy in Israel, many believe it is more extensive and brutal than what occurred in this country.

In South Africa, we had the homeland system and various legislation on all social issues. It was much more than just segregation. The purpose was really to divide and control people, and also to have a ready supply of labor to super exploit.

What you find in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere, including Jerusalem, is far beyond the characterization of South African apartheid. It has similarities with states ruled by the military, and the level of repression—the lack of any semblance of democracy—makes it akin to a situation that is much worse than apartheid. What resembles an apartheid system more is what is called Israel within the green line, i.e. the 1967 borders. There Palestinians are treated as second and third class citizens.

In addition, there is what Edward Said called Orientalism—the perception of Palestinians as the “other.” This was also in South Africa. White South Africans were seen as cunning and civilizing, as the chosen people. While we are fighting and advancing solidarity, it has to be seen as a struggle against racism as well. What’s happening to the Palestinians is racist as well.

A cold analysis of Israel will show that this fundamentalist warrior state is needed by imperialism. If you look at the history of Israel since its establishment, there are parallels with South Africa. The nationalist party in South Africa came to power in 1948, the same year the state of Israel was established, at a time when the world was largely colonized. Israel was created under the aegis of British colonialism, and Lord Balfour did not consult with indigenous people of Palestine before splitting up that area. So the struggle is an anti-colonial one. This is what we talk about in South Africa, despite attempts by supporters of Israel and also some misinformed people who portray this as a religious struggle. This is an anti-colonial struggle, a struggle against ethnic cleansing, that humanity needs to unite around.

The role Israel has played to ensure corporate globalization is important, as is the role Israel has played in supporting military regimes in Central America and putting down popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East broadly speaking. Israel has played a role as reaction machinery for imperialism, making the region safe for oil companies.

Today if you look at the military industrial complex of Israel, it has made a niche market in high tech security, in sophisticated armaments, in weapons of mass destruction. Gaza, in a terrible way, has become the laboratory to test these weapons. They are being tested literally on the bodies of Palestinian men, women, and children. This is not only in terms of the maiming and death and destruction, but in terms of monitoring, surveillance, and control. This weaponry, once tested, is then circulated to be used throughout the world. Drone technology is an example, but there are other weaponry like the DIME bomb and various chemical agents.

Martin Jansen: 

For me, it is obvious that Palestinians have it much worse than we have ever experienced. Palestinians face racism, but they also face genocide. That genocide takes the form of occupation, removing people from land, and imprisoning them in Gaza: an open-air prison. The West Bank is not that different from Gaza. Palestinians are literally prisoners in a prisoner of war camp. My analysis is that it is a colonial, occupation, settler regime conducting genocide against Palestinians.

From 1948 onwards, when the right wing came to power in South Africa, they tried to introduce a Bantustan system where Africans would be part of those supposed countries. It was similar to what Palestinians face, but the treatment wasn’t half as bad. Africans were required to carry passbooks, like Palestinians. But there was no attempt by the apartheid regime to get rid of Africans or any other group that was not identified white. In fact, there was an economic dependence for cheap labor. There were quite a few massacres in the history of apartheid, but they certainly were not bombed. We never had so many people detained either.

Alexandria Hotz: 

Our history plays an incredibly important role in mobilizing people to support Palestine and BDS. But there is a need for more education around Palestine and what the issues are and why you should support Palestine and why the comparison is made between apartheid South Africa and Israel.

I never experienced apartheid because I was very young. But I can draw from my studies in political science and history and my own research on what’s happening in Palestine to understand the connection. South Africa is the place that most people turn to as the mea culpa around Palestine.

What is the current landscape of Palestine solidarity movement building in South Africa?

Salim Vally:

For many of us in South Africa, Palestine has always had visceral tug. That is because we saw the Palestinians as people who are going through what we went through. The Israeli state was very close to the erstwhile apartheid regime in South Africa. They had cemented a relationship in trade and security. And the apartheid government and Israel collaborated against various liberation movements.

In the past 20 years we in South Africa have been able to extend that formative relationship with a range of campaigns, taking the lead from our Palestinian brothers and sisters by supporting the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. We make the point that, because that campaign is inspired by the global solidarity movement against apartheid South Africa, as South Africans we need to be in the forefront of that struggle. Key to that is to strip apartheid Israel of its normalcy, to expose it, and make it the kind of pariah state that apartheid South Africa once was. Stopping capital flows, which is the lifeblood of the Israeli economy, is essential.

We have had numerous mobilizations since Israel’s second invasion of Lebanon, and we’ve made a concerted effort to bring on board the trade union movement. The biggest trade union federation in our country, with millions of members, has passed many resolutions and taken part in some significant actions. We have also brought on dominant church organizations in all faiths There are Christian Zionist organizations in our country supported by organizations in your country—I am not talking about them. Most social movements in our country, and an overwhelming number of academics, have endorsed the call for BDS.

We do have an anomaly. On the one hand, all organizations on the left support the Palestinian struggle and have called for a boycott campaign, even the South African Communist Party, which is meant to be part of the ruling group of the government. But the government has not called for boycott. This is a clear contradiction.

We are trying to pressure our government. We have held mass marches throughout the country. On the Day of Rage [August 9 protest against Israel’s latest military assault on Gaza], we had some believe close to 200 000 people in Cape Town. And we have had mass marches in other parts of the country. The momentum is there.

Martin Jansen:

At the moment, and for the past ten years, there have been pockets of solidarity activists in major centers of South Africa, including: Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, and a few others. What’s interesting is that since Israeli colonization and genocide have become increasingly ruthless, especially with bombings of Gaza, we have seen mass outrage and anger within South Africa.

The group I belong to is the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. We are 15 activists who are secular and mixed, including Jews, Atheists, and Muslims. We have been working consistently for well over a decade. We do organize protest marches, but we also focus on public education and organizing.  We are promoting the line that people need to organize on the ground, and solidarity doesn’t stop when the bombings on Gaza stop. That is a big political point to get across. Winning people over to the solidarity movement is our biggest challenge.

Our main target now is BDS and pressuring our government to cut ties with Israel. We were quite impressed with protest in Oakland stopping ship. The big challenge is to create a global solidarity movement that is integrated and connected with each other [referring to repeated and successful efforts by activists to block shipments from Israel’s Zim Integrated Shipping Services from the docking at the Oakland port.]

We recently formed a National Coalition for Palestine. We managed to pull together over 40 organizations to coordinate solidarity work. The latest attacks on Gaza have caused mass outrage and realization on the part of many people that much more needs to be done to support Palestinians.

Alexandria Hotz:

There has been a big quarrel, especially around the attacks on Gaza, to expel the Israeli ambassador from South Africa. There was a lot of pressure by civil society on the ANC and the national government to expel the ambassador. They basically said they couldn’t do that because they want to play this mediating role. They claim that expelling the ambassador would make it difficult to play a mediating role.

I definitely think that the youth movement on Palestine is growing greatly. Many initiatives are being driven by young people, which I think is fantastic. Young people are often seen and not heard, but I definitely think young people are playing an incredibly important role. This includes large amounts of organizing at universities. Young people have played a prominent role in doing that. There are Palestine solidarity organizations at University of Cape Town, University of Western Cape, University of Johannesburg, and other prominent universities in the country.

About Sarah Lazare

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for Common Dreams and social justice organizer based in Portland, Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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19 Responses

  1. just
    November 21, 2014, 4:36 pm

    A truly helpful article, chock-a-block full of important facts. I continue to be impressed & heartened by the work of activists in SA.

    many thanks Sarah, Alexandria, Martin and Salim. Amandla!

  2. RoHa
    November 21, 2014, 8:09 pm

    ‘the perception of Palestinians as the “other.”’

    But I thought Jews were the “other” that Palestinians refused to accept.
    Or were they the “Other”?
    Or perhaps the other “other”?

  3. OyVey00
    November 21, 2014, 9:28 pm

    SA and Palestine are vastly different. The original inhabitants of SA are not the Bantu tribes who rule the country now, but the Khoisan bushmen. They got displaced and genocided by both the Boers and the Bantu tribes when they migrated into the area today known as SA in the past.

    Moreover, once the blacks got into power, they immediately started the cleansing of whites from all aspects of society with repression and violence. Black on white crime is running rampant, withabout 20 whites getting murdered by blacks every day. (See http://www.genocidewatch.org/southafrica.html)

    Not to mention that SA once used to be a first world country with excellent healthcare and education, but now – 20 years after the end of Apartheid – has regressed to a third world society plagued by rape, murder and poverty.

    SA is basically the prime example of what can go wrong in a “social justice” revolution.

    • just
      November 22, 2014, 5:52 am

      “SA is basically the prime example of what can go wrong in a “social justice” revolution.”

      that’s such a lousy comment. so, tell us how you would have gone about restoring rights and justice to millions?

      btw, “rape, murder and poverty” existed before the end of apartheid, and I bet they happen in your country, too!

      Are you just in a bad mood, or do you just like being another critic?

    • gamal
      November 22, 2014, 8:57 am

      “SA and Palestine are vastly different. The original inhabitants of SA are not the Bantu tribes who rule the country now, but the Khoisan bushmen. They got displaced and genocided by both the Boers and the Bantu tribes when they migrated into the area today known as SA in the past”

      your are peddling worn out colonial propaganda

      The Myth of the Empty Land
      Shula Marks

      “Who would have guessed from this that when visitors to South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century wrote and spoke of racial conflict they were referring to the differences between English and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, and that the differences between them is still as great as between any two of the so-called ‘Black Nations’?………..Over the past ten or fifteen years, scholars in these disciplines, together with the historians, have begun to assemble a picture of South Africa’s past which is dramatically at variance with the official version. Although there are still innumerable uncertainties and blurred edges, the evidence, especially from archaeology, has nonetheless transformed our understanding of the peopling of southern Africa and of the countless adaptations made by the earlier inhabitants of the sub-continent to master their environment. Most revolutionary has been the development of the radio-carbon dating techniques which have enabled us radically to reinterpret the past 2,000 years of its history.

      In the 1920s and 1930s South Africa led the way in research on early man and the Stone Age, but it has only been relatively recently, and in part in response to developments north of the Limpopo, that South African archaeologists have begun to investigate sites dated to the last couple of thousand years. These cover the final stages of the Late Stone Age and the advent of what is termed the Iron Age, a dramatically new departure which saw the introduction of agriculture, settled villages, iron-using and pottery and which seems also to be associated with the arrival in the sub-continent of a new people of negroid physical character. As more and more carbon dates have been processed from the Early Iron Age sites which stretch in a thin scatter over southern, central and eastern Africa, so it has become apparent that the first Iron Age farmers south of the Limpopo River as to the north of it, arrived there early in the first millennium AD, and not, as had been previously assumed, relatively late in the second . The earliest dates we have for the Iron Age in South Africa go back some 1,200 years before the Portuguese first rounded the southern tip of the continent in search of the kingdom of Prester John and the fabled riches of the East in 1488. Excavations at Silverleaves and Eiland in the northeastern Transvaal, and Enkwazini near St. Lucia Bay on the Zululand coast have given dates for Iron Age settlements as early as the third to fourth centuries AD. These dates are remarkably close to the first Iron Age dates north of the Limpopo in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, as well as for Zambia and Malawi.”

      http://www.historytoday.com/shula-marks/south-africa-myth-empty-land

      • just
        November 22, 2014, 4:13 pm

        thanks, gamal.

        where did oyvey00 go??? to peddle elsewhere?

  4. JLewisDickerson
    November 21, 2014, 10:41 pm

    RE: “So the struggle is an anti-colonial one. This is what we talk about in South Africa, despite attempts by supporters of Israel and also some misinformed people who portray this as a religious struggle.” ~ Salim Vally

    MY COMMENT: While I largely agree with this, there are burgeoning religious components both on the Israeli/American side (messianic Judaism* and fundamentalist Christianity) and on the Palestinian/Arab side (fundamentalist Islam like that of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which were once encouraged by Israel and the U.S. to weaken the secular Palestinians/Arabs like Fatah and the Pan-Arabists).

    * SEE: “Why rebuilding the Temple would be the end of Judaism as we know it”, By Tomer Persico, Haaretz.com, Nov. 13, 2014 The current drive of Jews, both Orthodox and secular, to ascend to the site of the Holy Temple and rebuild it, reflects a sea change in the Zionist camp. • LINK – http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.626327

  5. JLewisDickerson
    November 21, 2014, 10:56 pm

    RE: “Today if you look at the military industrial complex of Israel, it has made a niche market in high tech security, in sophisticated armaments, in weapons of mass destruction. Gaza, in a terrible way, has become the laboratory to test these weapons. They are being tested literally on the bodies of Palestinian men, women, and children.” ~ Salim Vally

    WATCH: ■ Catalan Police in Israel: repression courses “Tested In Combat” [VIDEO, 05:40] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPrNmGcIFpY
    CATALAN POLICE TRAINING IN ISRAEL VIDEO February 16, 2014
    “Public security” training in Israel for police from Catalonia – or how to wage war on your own civilian population to protect the investments of bankster criminals!

    SOURCE – http://roblosricos.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/catalan-police-training-in-israel/

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    P.S. RE: “Tested In Combat” ~ from the above video on Catalan police training in Israel

    MY COMMENT – Here is a very powerful testimonial regarding the impact of Israel’s “tested in combat” marketing on policing here in the U.S.
    An Israeli Soldier’s Story – Eran Efrati [VIDEO, 40:05] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93hqlmrZKd8
    Published on Mar 8, 2014
    The talk by Eran Efrati was filmed in Denver, Colorado on March 3, 2014 as part of The Soldier and the Refusenik U.S. tour with Maya Wind. Eran talks about his experiences in the IDF and then more broadly discusses Israel, its relationship to the U.S. and the global expansion of militarism.

    Bornajoo October 24, 2014, 3:37 pm
    @JLewisDickerson
    That was indeed a very powerful must-watch testimonial. Thank you for the link. More honest and courageous people from within like Eran urgently required
    The digger you deep it just becomes even more hideous, even more grotesque and even more evil.

    MRW October 27, 2014, 12:43 am
    Everyone should see that “An Israeli Soldier’s Story – Eran Efrati [VIDEO, 40:05].”
    If you can’t stand to watch the whole thing, the last 10 minutes will do it.

    SOURCE – http://mondoweiss.net/2014/10/there-things-around#comment-717880

  6. eljay
    November 21, 2014, 11:05 pm

    So the struggle is an anti-colonial one. This is what we talk about in South Africa, despite attempts by supporters of Israel and also some misinformed people who portray this as a religious struggle. This is an anti-colonial struggle, a struggle against ethnic cleansing, that humanity needs to unite around.

    It is a struggle for justice, accountability and equality, and against a colonialism that is rooted in and driven by religion-based supremacism. Humanity is right to unite around it.

  7. MHughes976
    November 22, 2014, 3:51 am

    Just been reading the BBC report on Mandela’s Gaza visit and speech of Oct.19, 1999: standard 2ss remarks of that era. He calls for the evacuation of the OTs but also for guarantees of Israel’s existence within secure borders, sounding at that point hardly different from Tony Blair.

    • just
      November 22, 2014, 4:16 pm

      Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela are polar opposites.

      ;-)

      • MHughes976
        November 23, 2014, 9:08 am

        Not entirely opposite – the lines of their opinion could sometimes intersect. Mandela’s remarks in Gaza were the remarks of a liberal Zionist. How close he had been in younger days to the SA Communist Party is debated but the SACP certainly had much influence on anti-apartheid thinking, whilst itself clearly being pro-Soviet. The Soviets supported Nasser and his Arab socialism but they never rejected Zionism, which has significant Marxist credentials, in principle.

  8. MHughes976
    November 22, 2014, 3:55 am

    I see that my computer is under attack from advertisers and that certain words have been highlighted without any intention on my part.

  9. ivri
    November 23, 2014, 6:13 am

    It won`t work guys – no matter how hard to try. There is no way to force an analogy between SA and Israel – the situations are vastly different. Likewise with the African colonial legacies, likewise with the harmony pursuing non-violent movements (ML King and Gandhi) – It`s apples and oranges throughout and therefore, accordingly, it`s not proceeding and not going to proceed in the same way.

    • Annie Robbins
      November 23, 2014, 9:58 am

      There is no way to force an analogy between SA and Israel

      that’s the beauty of having the truth on your side. there’s no need to force the idea at all because when people hear the truth they gravitate towards it naturally. it’s rather irrelevant whether you agree with it or not because it’s so obvious to everyone else. no need to force that, no forcing going in.

      • DaBakr
        November 24, 2014, 1:14 am

        @ar
        “that’s the beauty of having the truth on your side. ”

        that is the most religious statement I ever recall you making.

      • Mooser
        November 26, 2014, 4:23 pm

        “that is the most religious statement I ever recall you making.”

        Yeah. Thank God that Zionists never sink to the cynical use of religion to attain their ends.

  10. Mooser
    December 26, 2014, 2:02 pm

    “that is the most religious statement I ever recall you making.”

    Always a difficult thing, to determine how religious somebody is, or isn’t. So why don’t we apply the gold standard of religious tests to Annie! Here’s the question Annie: ‘How many dunams of land, how many square kilometers of land, does your religious faith entitle you to?’ C’mon, now, Annie, this is a chance to show your faith! And get valuable real estate, all at once.

    • Annie Robbins
      December 26, 2014, 2:53 pm

      omg, i’m not feeling particularly brilliant today. whatever faith i have (like a faith most people are good and truth will prevail and hate eats away at the heart and is not good for me or anyone etc etc) doesn’t entitle me to any real estate. the real estate i own is all conditioned on the legality of the contracts i signed. it’s this systematic way people deal w/land transactions the world over.
      ;)

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