In a peculiar twist of history both Zionist Israel and Apartheid South Africa came into existence in May 1948; they went on to become something of a grim double act. The architect of Apartheid, Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, liked to equate the history and doctrine of the two countries in an attempt to neutralise Western condemnation of South Africa, and did so by declaring infamously:
“The Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. Israel like South Africa, is an apartheid state.” (Rand Daily Mail, 23 Novemeber 1961). Verwoerd’s logic was simple: We have treated our blacks no differently to what Israel has done to the Arabs. Why pick on us?
Whilst Palestinians had lived continuously in the Holy Land for millennia, Verwoerd was correct with his comparison. Both apartheid South Africa and Zionist Israel were colonial, settler states created on the basis of the dispossession of the land and birthright of indigenous people. This is unblushingly documented in Israel’s case from the time of Herzl through Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan to Sharon. Both states preached and implemented a policy based on racial ethnicity: the sole claim of Jews in Israel and whites in South Africa to exclusive citizenship; monopolised rights in law regarding the ownership of land, property, business; superior access to education, health, social, sporting and cultural amenities, pensions and municipal services at the expense of the original indigenous population; the virtual monopoly membership of military and security forces, and privileged development along their own racial supremacist lines; even both countries’ marriage laws were designed to safeguard racial “purity”.
The fact that the Palestinian minority within Israel is allowed to vote hardly redresses the injustice in all other matters of basic human rights. In any case, those Palestinians allowed to stand for election to the Knesset do so on condition that they dare not question Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
The so-called “non-whites” in apartheid South Africa – indigenous Africans, others of mixed race or of Asiatic origin – were like second or third class non-Jews in Israel itself let alone the occupied Palestinian areas, consigned to a non-citizenship status, subject to all manner of discrimination and prejudice, such as the laws prohibiting their free movement, access to work and trade, dictating where they could reside and so forth. Verwoerd recognised and supported Israel’s dispossession of indigenous Palestinians in 1948, including the unfolding destruction of their villages, the massacres and systematic ethnic cleansing.
Within a few short years of coming to power in 1948 South Africa’s apartheid regime was ruthlessly cleansing cities and towns of so-called “black spots”, areas where the “non-whites” lived, socialised, studied and traded. The regime bulldozed homes, loaded families onto military trucks, and forcibly relocated them to distant settlements. Unlike the “native reserves”, soon to be reconstituted as Bantustans, these were not too far away from industrial areas because the economy thrived on a quota of cheap black labour. Today’s Israel is worse than this in the manner in which it has come to exclude Palestinian labour from its economy.
Whilst Verwoerd did not live to see the division of Palestinian territory after the l967 Six Day War, and the subsequent creation of miniscule Bantustans in the West Bank and Gaza, he would have greatly admired and approved of the machinations that enclosed the Palestinians in their own ghettoised prisons. This, after all, was Verwoerd’s grand plan, and the reason why ex-US President Jimmy Carter could so readily identify the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) as being akin to apartheid. In fact, the Bantustans consisted of 13% of apartheid South Africa, uncannily comparable to the derisory, ever-shrinking pieces of ground Israel consigns to the Palestinians, where much of the OPT comprises the illegal settlement blocks and security grid system with their bizarre Jews-only roads. The effect of this is that the 22% of pre-1967 West Bank territory is effectively a mere 12% of historic pre-1948 Palestine.
When former deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad and I visited Yasser Arafat in his demolished headquarters in Ramallah as part of a post-apartheid South African delegation in 2004, he pointed around him and said, “See, this is nothing but a Bantustan!” No, we responded, pointing out that no Bantustan, in fact not even our townships, had been bombed by warplanes and pulverised by tanks and missiles. To a wide-eyed Arafat we pointed out that Pretoria pumped in funds, constructed impressive administration buildings, even allowed for Bantustan airlines to service the Mickey Mouse capitals in order to impress the world that they were serious about so-called “separate development”. The Bantustans were not even fenced-in.
What Verwoerd admired too was the impunity with which Israel exercised state violence and terror to get its way, without hindrance from its Western allies, increasingly key amongst them the USA. What Verwoerd and his ilk came to admire in Israel, and seek to emulate in the southern African region, was the way the Western powers permitted an imperialist Israel to use its unbridled military with impunity in expanding its territory and holding back the rising tide of Arab nationalism in its neighbourhood.
But it was not only the racial doctrine of Israel that excited apartheid’s leaders, it was the use of the biblical narrative as the ideological rationale to justify its vision, aims and methods. The early Dutch pioneers, the Afrikaners, had used Bible and gun as colonisers elsewhere, to carve out their exclusive fortress bastion in South Africa’s hinterland. Like the biblical Israelites they claimed to be “God’s chosen people” with a mission to tame and civilise the wilderness; disregarding the productivity and industriousness of people who had tilled the soil and traded for centuries (in fact, far longer than the one thousand years referred to by Verwoerd), claiming it was only they who would make the land flow with milk and honey. They invoked a “covenant” with God to deliver their enemies into their hands and to bless their deeds. Until the advent of South Africa’s democracy, the racist history books generally taught that the white man arrived in South Africa more or less as the so-called “Bantu tribes” from the north were wandering across the Limpopo River. Thus the “whites” were pioneer settlers in a land devoid of people; this is echoed by the Zionist mantra of “a land without a people for a people without a land”.
Such a colonial racist mentality which rationalised the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australasia, in Africa from Namibia to the Congo and elsewhere, most clearly was duplicated in Palestine. What is so shameless about this latter-day colonial sham is that Zionist Israel has been permitted by the West to aspire to such a goal even into the 21st Century.
It is by no means difficult to recognise from afar, as Verwoerd had been able to do, that Israel is indeed an apartheid state. Verwoerd’s successor, Balthazar John Vorster visited Israel after the 1973 October War, when in a rare victory Egypt regained the Suez Canal and later, in a peace agreement, the Sinai from Israel. After that, Israel and South Africa were virtually twinned as military allies as Pretoria helped to supply Israel militarily in the immediacy of its 1973 setback and Israel came to support apartheid South Africa at the height of sanctions with weaponry and technology. Items from naval ships and the conversion of supersonic fighter planes, to assistance in building six nuclear bombs and the creation of a thriving arms industry flowed from Israel to apartheid South Africa.
For the liberation movements of southern Africa, Israel and apartheid South Africa represented a racist, colonial axis. It was noted that people like Verwoerd and Vorster had been Nazi sympathisers. Vorster was actually interned during World War II for supporting Nazi Germany and yet he went on to be feted in Israel.
It is instructive to add that in its conduct and methods of repression, Israel came increasingly to resemble apartheid South Africa at its zenith, surpassing its brutality in the scale of house demolitions, removal of communities, targeted assassinations, massacres, imprisonment and torture of its opponents, bombardment of towns and villages and aggression against neighbouring states.
Without doubt, South Africans can identify the pathological cause fuelling the hate of Israel’s political-military elite and public in general, giving rise to more and more extreme racist postures from its elected representatives. Neither is it difficult for anyone acquainted with colonial history to understand the way in which deliberately cultivated race hate inculcates a justification for the most atrocious and inhumane actions against even defenceless civilians; witness Israel’s military excesses against women, children and the elderly in Gaza during Operation “Cast Lead” and the subsequent excuses. It is from such unbridled racism that genocidal wars and holocausts are fuelled.
It can be claimed, without exaggeration, that any South African, whether involved in the freedom struggle, or motivated by basic human decency, who visits the Occupied Palestinian Territories will be shocked to the core at the situation they encounter. They will, I’m sure, agree with Archbishop Tutu’s many observations that such things happen in Israel, “including collective punishment”, that never happened in apartheid South Africa. (The Guardian, 28 May, 2009)
There are indeed many similarities between the apartheid systems of Israel and South Africa. Yet, similarities give cause for optimism and hope. I refer here to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) launched in London in 1959 which grew by leaps and bounds over thirty years and helped bring about Apartheid’s downfall. This has inspired and spurs on today’s world-wide BDS movement against Israel. The latter call, initiated in July 2005, just six years ago, has taken off with even greater speed. Just like the struggle of the Anti-Apartheid Movement against racist South Africa it can lead to dramatic change and contribute to the winning of peace based on freedom and justice for all in the Holy Land.
I began this address by quoting Dr. Verwoerd. It is only fitting to conclude with a quote from Nelson Mandela who stated famously to Yasser Arafat in 1997: “The UN took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system. But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” (December 4, 1997).
Just as a united, national movement of a determined people, reinforced by international solidarity, won freedom for all in the struggle led by Nelson Mandela, so too will this be achieved in relation to Apartheid South Africa’s double act, Apartheid Israel.
Ronnie Kasrils was involved in the liberation struggle in South Africa and is a former cabinet minister in the post-Apartheid South African government.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.