Learning from South Africa

2 October 2008

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Israeli border police officers mounted on horseback stand guard near Palestinian women waiting to cross the Qalandiya checkpoint outside the West Bank city of Ramallah on their way to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, 26 September. (Rami Swidan/MaanImages)


The strategic value of international solidarity with the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, refugees in the Diaspora and Palestinians in Israel raises some fundamental questions. The most immediate and urgent are: what the nature of international solidarity should be and how it can best support the Palestinian struggle for self-determination?

International solidarity needs, first and foremost, to address the ways in which colonial Zionism has followed and continues to follow the Bantustanization policy of apartheid South Africa. There is also an imperative to address the severe damage that the Oslo Accords have caused to the Palestinian struggle, given the degree of confusion that these accords have created in the international arena.

A historical analysis of the current Palestinian quagmire cannot separate apartheid and Zionism from colonialism. As Samir Amin argues very persuasively in Unequal Development, in 19th century South Africa, central capitalism and colonialists forcefully dispossessed rural African communities to satisfy their need for a large proletariat to exploit the country’s great mineral wealth. The indigenous people were driven into barren regions which left them with no alternative but to become cheap labor for European mines and farms, and later, rising South African industry. This initial dispossession slowly transformed a vibrant and dynamic society into mere labor reserves, with a gradual loss of independence, and, ultimately, to the creation of apartheid and Bantustans.

However, this process was not one-sided: throughout this dispossession and remaking of South Africa into a haven for racial supremacy, the international community was mobilized by the internal South African struggle and a concerted advocacy campaign by South Africans to protest against apartheid’s blatant creation of surplus labor, and against its inhuman and racist exploitation of black South Africans. Today it is the Israeli apartheid state that is condemned for dispossessing the native population, applying a policy of genocide against them and recently even threatening a “holocaust” in the Gaza Strip. Israel has over the years been accused of being worse than the apartheid state by South Africans such as Bishop Tutu, Blade Nzimande and John Dugard. These South Africans who experienced apartheid cite the use of F-16s, helicopter gun ships on unarmed civilians, as well as the home demolitions and arrests of families of suspected “militants” as practices that make Israeli apartheid qualitatively worse than South African apartheid.

Similarities between the two apartheid states can be found in their policies on citizenship, their use of detention without trial, and laws which limit freedom of movement and the right to live in one’s own home with one’s family. Just as apartheid South Africa gave citizenship to white South Africans and relegated blacks to “independent homelands” (i.e. Bantustans), Zionism gives all Jews the right to citizenship in the State of Israel, while denying citizenship to Palestinians — the indigenous inhabitants of the land. While Apartheid used race to determine citizenship, the state of Israel uses religious identification to determine citizenship. Just as the apartheid state made laws criminalizing free movement of blacks on their ancestral land, Israel uses a military occupation infrastructure composed of checkpoints, Jewish only settlements and roads, the apartheid wall, combined with a myriad of legal regulations that govern Palestinian daily life and are designed specifically to restrict how they work and live.

Since 1967, Israel has detained a quarter of the Palestinian male population and today has over 11,000 prisoners in its jails, thousands of whom have no legal recourse. Many of those incarcerated have spent years in jail for “crimes” such as entering Israel illegally. Thousands of Palestinian families live with the threat of forced separation or are already separated because they do not have the necessary permits to live together — permits Israel has refused to issue since 2000. These policies strike at the heart of family life since Palestinians are forced to apply to Israel for family reunification permits if they want to live together.

During the years of apartheid, South Africa came under repeated pressure from the international community and multilateral organizations such as the United Nations Security Council which passed countless resolutions against it because of its inhumane treatment of blacks. This gave much-needed succor to the oppressed, while Palestinians today are bereft of even this tiny comfort because the United States continues to use its veto to ensure that Israel escapes censure from the world body.

International solidarity with the Palestinian people has, over the decades, played an extremely important, albeit dialectical, role in enhancing the struggle. There is an undeniable proportional relationship between the different forms of struggle in the occupied territories and the international attention and solidarity it is able to command. Disturbingly, after 15 years of Israel side-stepping every commitment made in the Oslo Accords, and eight years after the start of the second Palestinian intifada, there still strongly lingers in international civil society, a belief that the Palestinian struggle has, in essence, been resolved. Hence the urgency for an international solidarity campaign that will highlight the similarities between apartheid and Zionism, as well as the common experience of Palestinians today, as a dispossessed people, and black South Africans under apartheid.

We have all watched as the results of the 2006 elections in Palestine have been denied legitimacy by the international community and the Palestinian people collectively punished for their temerity in choosing their own leaders. South Africans had to wait 27 years for their chosen leader and political party to be free to lead them; during those long years they rejected all false leaders that were foisted on them even when these quislings were celebrated by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. As recently as 1987, Thatcher was confident enough to say that “Nelson Mandela would never be the president of a free South Africa.”

Like Thatcher’s government, other governments around the world were forced to isolate apartheid South Africa. They would not have done so without the pressure exerted on them by their own people. Israel needs to be isolated in exactly the same way as apartheid South Africa. Today, there is a growing mass-based struggle inside Palestine, as well as other forms of struggle, exactly as there was inside apartheid South Africa. An intensified international solidarity movement with a common agenda can make the struggle for Palestine resonate in every country in the world, thus closing off the world to Israelis until they open the world to Palestinians.

Savera Kalideen is a South African solidarity activist, Haidar Eid is a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) and one-state activist based in Palestine.