When African National Congress leader Chief Albert Luthuli made a call for the international community to support a boycott of apartheid South Africa in 1958, the response was a widespread and dedicated movement that played a significant role in ending apartheid. Amid the sporting boycotts, the pledges of playwrights and artists, the actions by workers to stop South African goods from entering local markets and the constant pressure on states to withdraw their support for the apartheid regime, the role of academics also came to the fore.
One significant move was the resolution taken by 150 Irish academics not to accept academic posts or appointments in apartheid South Africa. In 1971, the council of Trinity College Dublin took a decision not to own shares in any company that traded or had a subsidiary that traded in the Republic. The council later resolved that the university would not retain any formal or institutional links with any academic or state institution in South Africa.
Almost four decades later, the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions is gaining ground again in South Africa, this time against Israeli apartheid.
Earlier this month, more than 100 academics across South Africa, from over 13 universities, pledged their support to a University of Johannesburg initiative for ending collaboration with the Israeli occupation. The campaign has since grown to include up to 200 supporters. The nationwide academic petition calling for the termination of an agreement between the University of Johannesburg and the Israeli Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has attracted widespread attention. With the recent endorsement of some of the leading voices in South Africa, such as Kader Asmal, Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, Mahmood Mamdani, Barney Pityana and Desmond Tutu, the statement confirms the strength of the boycott call in South Africa:
“As academics we acknowledge that all of our scholarly work takes place within larger social contexts — particularly in institutions committed to social transformation. South African institutions are under an obligation to revisit relationships forged during the apartheid era with other institutions that turned a blind eye to racial oppression in the name of ‘purely scholarly’ or ‘scientific work.’”
Israeli universities are not being targeted for boycott because of their ethnic or religious identity, but because of their complicity in the Israeli system of apartheid. As the academics who have supported the call clearly articulate in their statement, Ben-Gurion University maintains material links to the military occupation. Israel’s attacks on Gaza in 2009, which saw the killing of more than 400 children, drew immediate and widespread international condemnation. Israel’s violation of international law was further confirmed by South Africa’s Justice Richard Goldstone in his report to the United Nations. Ben-Gurion University directly and indirectly supported these attacks, through the offering of scholarships and extra tuition to students who served in active combat units and by providing special grants to students who went on reserve duty for each day of service.
The principled position of academics in South Africa to distance themselves from institutions that support the occupation is a reflection of the advances already made in exposing that the Israeli regime is guilty of an illegal and immoral colonial project. South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, in a response to an investigation commissioned by the South African government in 2009, issued a report confirming that the everyday structural racism and oppression imposed by Israel constitutes a regime of apartheid and settler colonialism similar to the one that shaped our lives in South Africa.
More recently, the international response to the shameful attack on the flotilla carrying medical supplies and other basic goods to the ghettoized population of Gaza was a sign of the erosion of Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. In South Africa, the recall of our ambassador to Israel and the issuing of one of the strongest forms of diplomatic condemnation, the demarche, to Israel’s ambassador in Pretoria was a strong statement of recognition by the South African government that Israel’s actions deserve our utmost contempt.
The campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel has now launched in South Africa. Trade unions in South Africa have publicly committed their support; most notably with the action by South African Transport and Allied Workers Union dockworkers early last year to refuse offloading Israeli goods at Durban harbor — a commitment that was renewed in July this year.
The consumer boycott has also been gaining ground, including the launch of the recent public campaign by leading South African activists to boycott Ahava Dead Sea Cosmetics and to join the international movement to boycott Israeli products.
The boycott and sanctions campaign ultimately helped liberate both black and white South Africans. Palestinians and Israelis will similarly benefit from this international non-violent campaign — a campaign that all South Africans can take forward.
The petition to terminate the relationship between University of Johannesburg and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev can be accessed at www.ujpetition.com.
Ronnie Kasrils is a South African politician. He played a prominent role in anti-apartheid activism. A version of this essay was originally published by the Guardian’s Comment is Free and is republished with permission.