For many Africans, a sense of déjà vu was unavoidable last month as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed, ‘”Whoever moves to establish a Palestinian state or intends to withdraw from territory is simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel.” Asked by the Israeli news site NRG if that meant a state would not be established if he remained prime minister, he said: “Indeed.”’ Three days later he won an election with unprecedented support from right wing Israelis.
When Benjamin Netanyahu made that statement in the run-up to the Israeli election I was reminded of another prime minister, one whose words still echo in the hearts and minds of my fellow Zimbabweans. “There will be no majority rule in my lifetime,” said Ian Smith in 1969. The position of the white minority government in Salisbury had finally been clarified, and the world began to realize how monstrous it had become.
In colonial Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called, land was always the critical issue. This part of Southern Africa was colonized in 1890 by the Englishman Cecil John Rhodes. Most native people were dispossessed when their land was confiscated and allocated to Europeans. White settlers renamed the land Rhodesia, they themselves Rhodesians, and designated any piece of fertile land to their own kind. Natives were forcibly moved to dry regions where there was low rainfall and tsetse flies were a constant plague. Whole villages were destroyed so land could be given to settlers. This led to many uprisings by the natives, as well as demonstrations and the forming of political parties. The settlers built a strong military to suppress both the uprisings and the dissenting voices. Blacks were abused violently, with many put in prisons for years at a time. Many others disappeared and were never seen again. To defend their obvious racism, the government had claimed that the European settlers were establishing “Christianity and Christian civilization.” This was a clear abuse of religion, both for personal gain and to deny the people the right to their land and justice.
The rest of the world took notice. In the 1970s a boycott, divestment and sanctions movement was started to act against the terrible state of human rights abuses in Rhodesia. (No, it wasn’t called BDS, as it is today, but it involved these exact same mechanisms.) The natives likewise upped their game to organize around a demand for an independent state of Zimbabwe based on equal opportunities and equal rights to the land. Ian Smith, in trying to suppress this movement, actually sealed the fate for Rhodesia when he made an absolute declaration against independence for blacks, access to their land and the right of return for refugees who had run away from war and abuse. “I don’t believe in black majority rule ever in Rhodesia—not in a thousand years.”
Ian Smith had an ally in his neighbor to the south. The Boers in South Africa had also grabbed land from the natives, and its Apartheid system was likewise based on a religious claim that the “Afrikaners” had been given the land by God. They claimed that those blacks who were demanding equal opportunity, equal rights and justice were wasting their time by working against God’s purposes. They also supported Rhodesia in asserting that the region was populated by irrationally hostile nations, and that a harsh internal security system was fully justified. Leaders like Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma and Nelson Mandela were thrown in prison at Robben Island. When Pik Botha took over the leadership of South Africa, like Ian Smith, he declared that never in his lifetime would he ever consider negotiating anything with “terrorists” like Nelson Mandela. The world realized how evil Apartheid in South Africa was and again a boycott, divestment and sanctions movement started.
In 1979 Ian Smith’s Rhodesia fell due to an armed struggle, but also because the economy could no longer sustain the war. The various boycotts and sanctions had made an impact. In 1994 Apartheid South Africa also felt the sting of well organized economic pressure and, thankfully, negotiations progressed without nearly as much violence.
All this mirrors what is happening in Israel and Palestine today. Ian Smith, Pick Botha, and Benjamin Netanyahu are all similar. I would call them ideological triplets. Even in this era, when the world is committed to an independent Palestine, Netanyahu declares that there will never be a Palestinian state. To defend this, he mischaracterizes the Palestinian people.
I have to say, this angers me. Palestinians, like Zimbabweans and South Africans, are simply struggling for equality and justice and having a state where they are full citizens. We seem to forget that Israel and the occupied territories were primarily Palestinian land not so long ago, and that many Palestinians initially welcomed their fellow Semites so they too could have a land they could call their own. Now, once again, it is the more recent settlers from the West, Europe and Russia who seek to wipe the natives from the surface of the earth altogether. While the world has rejected colonialism, Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen to follow this same destructive pattern.
Christians in the Holy Land, as well as their Muslim neighbors, have suffered and been driven from their homes. Christian Palestinians have issued an urgent call to the churches of the world for action to end this suffering and apartheid. These actions include boycott, divestment and sanctions.
Now is the time for the BDS movement to put down its shoes and be on the move. Now is the time for BDS to move against this last great outpost of Western colonialism, segregation and Apartheid. This is the time and the hour, and the day and the year to push hard for Justice for the people and the establishment of an equal Palestinian state.
As Dr Martin Luther King Jr. said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We press on!! Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday!!