Amandla Ngawethu! South Africa and Palestine compared

A passbook in Palestine. (Markus Cuel)
A passbook in South Africa. (UN Photo)

On 28 December 2004, The Electronic Intifada featured an article, “Boycott as Resistance: The Moral Dimension,” by Omar Barghouti. While Barghouti argues that the situation in Palestine is “not identical to South Africa; that it is more complex, more multi-dimensional and even more sinister, in some respect,” he also acknowledges “that a sufficient family resemblance between Israel and South Africa exists to grant advocating South Africa style remedies.” Barghouti furthermore reflects on the “insurmountable hurdles” that South Africans faced throughout the anti-apartheid struggle. Finally, Barghouti argued that the “militaristic establishment” of Israel would eventually weaken, if it were systematically challenged, just as it was in South Africa.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in 1989, while the apartheid regime was still choking the South African people, “I am a black South African, and if I were to change the names, a description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa.”

Years later South Africans that were involved in the anti-apartheid struggle paid visits to the occupied Palestinian territories. They have remarked that the situation in Palestine is in many respects far worse than what they faced during the anti-apartheid struggle.

Comparisons between South Africa and Palestine/Israel are made by those who have experienced oppression: the denial of basic human rights, forceful territorial occupation, systematic socio-economic marginalization, planned assassinations, disregard for the rule of law (including international law) confrontation with an overwhelming police and military force, and the list of parallels goes on and on.

Apartheid is separation

Apartheid South Africa was politically, legally, economically and socially broken up along racial lines. The South African citizens were categorized as “white,” “African,” “Indian” and “colored.” “White” South Africans were the most privileged people and the “African” South Africans the least. The oppressed people of South Africa did not accept this division and instead talked about white and black South Africans, with blackness used to connote the shared suffering of, and a common solidarity amongst, all oppressed people.

The apartheid government’s policies had many dimensions, oriented around the literal meaning of the word “apartheid” — separation. This translated into separate living areas reserved for whites, Indians, coloreds and Africans. Well-funded social projects and newly arrived immigrant programs were established for white South Africans, while a virtual vacuum in social services and a ban on immigration existed for black South Africans. World-class hospitals were open to white South Africans, including one in Cape Town that performed the world’s first heart replacement; at the same time, a scarce number of filthy hospitals were the only ones available to black South Africans.

Larger prison cells were set aside for whites who generally received lower prison sentences, while more crowded prison cells were left for black South Africans who received higher prison sentences for the most petty of crimes.

At one stage even separate parliaments for the Indian and colored communities were created in response to pressure to give all South Africans a right to vote however, the “African” community was denied even this. Separate “countries” were established for Africans but were only recognized by South Africa’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These were known as “Bantustans,” or the absurdly euphemistic term “homeland” which were constituted by the so-called “independent homelands” (e.g. Transkei and Venda) and “self=governing territories” (Kwa-Zulu). At the height of apartheid, black South Africans occupied 13 percent of the land, with the rest occupied by white South Africans.

Influx control and “pass books”

Black South Africans were forced to carry so-called “pass books” (identity documents) that were used to control their movement within the so-called “white South Africa,” that is, areas outside the homelands. This was a policy known as “influx control.” Pass books were used to distinguish people on the basis of race, and therefore, ensure inequitable access to social services such as health care, education and more.

Failure to produce this document led to rampant harassment, including imprisonment and deportation of black South Africans. Few black South Africans were permitted to hold a South African passport. Sexual relations across the racial barrier meant criminal prosecution and even imprisonment for those concerned under the so-called Immorality Act.

These are only a few of many barbaric examples of racist apartheid policies, providing more than enough reason for protest and armed struggle, which after several decades of resistance, eventually formed into a broad-based, international anti-apartheid movement. A rallying cry within the movement was “Amandla Ngawethu!” (Power to the People!).

Difference in treatment

Where comparisons may be legitimately made with respect to the situation in Palestine are, for example, where people were treated differently, on the basis of arbitrary distinctions, with white South Africans granted privileges that were not extended to black South Africans. At the same time, special sanctions were placed on the movement and activities of black South Africans, while white South Africans were virtually free from such restrictions (unless they became politically involved).

While white South Africa under apartheid is comparable with what Israel is today, black South Africa and black South Africans under apartheid resembles the situation that most Palestinians in Israel, occupied Palestine and in refugee camps in the region are forced to live under today. It is the massive land dispossession and disproportionate situation that has existed both for black South Africans and for Palestinians, reinforced by policies and actions designed to destroy their dignity, which have formed the primary motivators in both liberation struggles.

Drawing on experiences

Of course, this is not to say that there are not significant distinctions to be made. The key to drawing relevantly on the experiences of previous liberation movements is choosing the proper perspective. The perspective of most Israelis is fundamentally different from that of most Palestinians, as the perspective of most white South Africans was fundamentally different from that of black South Africans under apartheid.

The key to finding a successful political settlement may involve understanding the true nature of the divide and to use understanding that find bases for compromise on both sides.

As Dennis Brutus, former anti-apartheid campaigner and now professor in the USA, declared at the European Social Forum in London in 2004:

“Various campaigns against the apartheid regime had contributed to creating a climate of international awareness of the nature of the racist and oppressive system of apartheid and had led to general outrage and a demand for its international isolations. Something similar should happen in the case of the Palestinian struggle.”

Ultimately, it can be very useful to draw on the expertise of seasoned activists who worked to mobilize and influence popular sentiment towards the liberation of peoples in Southern Africa, and many other countries. Much of this expertise/experience is still around and may be tapped into. Indeed, some of those working today for Palestine were formerly involved in other solidarity movements.

Adri Nieuwhof and Jeff Handmaker are human rights advocates based in the Netherlands. Bangani Ngeleza is a consultant based in South Africa.

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