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.

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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!

‘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”?

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… Read more »

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… Read more »

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] –… Read more »