Professional BDS in South Africa overpowers pro-Israel lobby, says former AIPAC man

Updated below.

The BDS movement is overpowering the pro-Israel lobby in South Africa, Howard Sackstein said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz yesterday. Sackstein has worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest pro-Israel lobby organization in the US.

South African BDS activists are “professionals”

In the interview, Sackstein warned the pro-Israel groups in South Africa that they’re up against “professionals.” He also claimed the the BDS campaign is “spearheaded”  by Muhammed Desai of BDS South Africa and Zackie Achmat of Open Shuhada Street:

According to Howard Sackstein, whether pro-Israel groups can get back up on their feet depends on how rapidly they realize that they’re up against “professionals”…

“One point I would make finally is that the BDS campaign, spearheaded by Muhammed Desai and Zachie Achmat, is very well run and seems to be well-funded.”

The above comments have since been removed by Haaretz from the online version of the article, with no editorial note or correction issued.

In an email to me, Desai responded to Sackstein’s observation: “It is ridiculous (or deliberately deceptive) to claim that the boycott of Israel movement in South Africa is spearheaded by two individuals. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) with over two million workers, the South African Communist Party with more than 150,000 members, the South African Students Congress – South Africa’s largest student formation, the South African Council of Churches and others are actually at the forefront.”

He continued: “In fact, this very week COSATU, an official alliance partner of the ANC, reaffirmed its commitment to the BDS campaign at its national congress and has undertaken to ensure that this is advanced at the upcoming ANC National Conference in Mangaung. The ANC National Conference is the supreme ruling and controlling body of the ANC that determines ANC policy and ultimately the government policy for the next five years.”

Ministers have backing of the ruling ANC

In comments also removed from the online version, Sackstein criticized the actions of two South African government ministers in relation to correct labeling of Israeli settlement products and advice against travelling to Israel:

Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies announced that he was to issue an official notice “to require traders in South Africa not to incorrectly label products that originate from the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) as products of Israel”.

Third, Deputy International Relations Minister Ebrahim “Ibie” Ebrahim said that Pretoria discouraged all South Africans from visiting Israel. He said: “Because of the treatment and policies of Israel towards the Palestinian people, we strongly discourage South Africans from going there.”

Sackstein is convinced that the most influential body in the ANC, the national executive council:

“…discussed Israel, Palestine etc. and decided that they would have a common front on the issue and that certain steps needed to be taken.”

In other words, said Sackstein, Davies and Ebrahim were not acting of their own accord, but effectively carrying out ANC policy.

These comments too were censored by Haaretz.

Sackstein claims that “much of the ANC’s latest emphasis on anti-Israel action is the result of trying to win Muslim votes in the Western Cape.” However, Desai refutes this claim in his email: “Its not the ANC pandering to the Western Cape. But the Western Cape together with other stakeholders such as the churches, unions, students and others that are insisting that our ruling party (and indeed our government) take the side of the oppressed, of the Palestinians by supporting the BDS campaign. Its merely the ANC listening and adhering to a position that the vast majority of its constituencies hold.”

Indeed, Palestine solidarity activists in South Africa have mobilized substantial support for the oppressed Palestinian people.

BDS South Africa books impressive results

At the end of Augst, the student council of the prestigious University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg unanimously adopted a full acadmic and cultural boycott of Israel. Tebogo Thotela, president of the Wits Student Representative Council, explains the reasons for the decision in a video published by BDS South Africa (seen at the top of this post).

In 2011, the University of Johannesburg severed its ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, following a campaign backed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and over 400 South African academics. In a recent BDS news roundup, EI’s Nora Barrows-Friedman summed up the recent BDS victories in South Africa:

The Student Representative Council at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa unanimously adopted a full academic and cultural boycott of Israel on 29 August.

This comes on the heels of increasing support of the Palestinian-led BDS movement in South Africa, including the recent moves by government officials to have Israeli settlement products correctly labeled to let consumers know they originate from settlement colonies in the occupied West Bank; and a proclamation by a government minister to discourage South Africans from traveling to Israel because of its human rights record.

Posted on the website for BDS South Africa, the Wits’ student council’s resolution says that it will “not participate in any form of cultural or academic collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions and will not provide support to Israeli cultural or academic institutions.”

Logo of the South African Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Update, 25 September: After I contacted the article’s author asking if he was aware the original version had been removed, the full original article has now been restored to the Haaretz website.




"is very well run and seems to be well-funded”...does he mean like the world-wide, well-funded pro-Zionist lobby? Hardly possible!
The misinformation regarding the founding of Israel and its right to brutally oppress the Palestinians, which can be viewed daily on the net, is astounding in its scope and vehemence. In comparison, if you exclude the hate tirades on both sides, the humanity, knowledge and reticence of pro-Palestinians is admirable, and here I include pro-Palestinian Israelis and Jews.

Adri Nieuwhof

Adri Nieuwhof's picture

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Twitter: @steketeh