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Jacob Zuma's special envoy to Gaza, Aziz Pahad, on Hamas, military intervention and BDS

“I don’t think we have a magic wand to solve the problem but I think as part of the AU we can make an effective contribution as Africans, as a continent North and South, to resolving what is becoming a serious problem in that whole region.”

All the genuine liberation movements that fought against apartheid South Africa were labelled Soviet lackeys or terrorists, says Aziz Pahad. The African National Congress (ANC), which led the black struggle against apartheid, was outlawed and then went on to become the ruling party. So when it comes to the issue of Hamas it’s a sensitive subject for South Africa. The organisation based in the Gaza Strip is currently designated as a terrorist organisation by the EU, the US and Israel; in the UK, only the military wing is on the official terrorist list.

When Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006 the South African government issued a statement of support immediately. This was the right thing to do, insists Pahad. “You can’t talk about democracy in the world, and help to bring about democracy, and then when a movement that you don’t like wins democratically your first and immediate response is to label them terrorists.” What doesn’t help, he adds, is that the media worldwide, including South Africa, has failed to explain Hamas’ true objectives.

In April of this year Fatah and Hamas formed a national unity government in Palestine, the first of its kind for seven years. Pahad believes that there are certain governments, including Israel’s, which are hostile to this idea. “We think it’s short-sighted,” he says. “You can’t have a political solution without talking to Hamas. And as long as the Palestinians are united in their approach we will be able to mobilise the African continent and hopefully through the AU [African Union], the international community, and especially through the multilateral organisations and governmental levels, to support the legitimate goals of the Palestinian people.”

As part of this support for Palestine, and amidst growing concern for escalating violence in the region, the ANC has appointed special envoys to the region. Pahad, who served as deputy minister for foreign affairs from 1994 to 2008, is now President Jacob Zuma’s special envoy to Gaza. Based on the country’s own experience Pahad says that the mandate as an envoy is to meet leaders and discuss South Africa’s contribution to bringing about a comprehensive and genuine ceasefire and a durable political solution, then decide what assistance Pretoria can give to the people of Gaza.

“I don’t think we have a magic wand to solve the problem but I think as part of the AU we can make an effective contribution as Africans, as a continent North and South, to resolving what is becoming a serious problem in that whole region.” As far as Zuma’s envoy is concerned, it is clear that the failure to resolve the Palestinian issue, and this is the view of almost everybody, is because the major western powers are not taking a committed, genuine role in finding solutions. “So the African continent should get involved to see what contribution we can make as an African movement as part of the non-aligned movement and part of the UN General Assembly.”

As someone who has visited the region many times, both as special envoy and as deputy minister for foreign affairs, as well as a member of the ANC who was given a banning order under apartheid and exiled to London, Pahad has seen the brutality of both the occupation and the apartheid regime. “The situation of the Palestinians cannot be compared to the situation in South Africa,” he claims. “It is, by its very nature, worse than what we suffered. We were dispossessed of our land in 1913, that’s true, and subsequent to that we had a bad system but it was not as systematically applied in the level of discrimination that is being committed today against the Palestinians.”

Despite this, and despite calls from civil society movements, the ANC has not broken off diplomatic ties with Israel. Pahad believes it’s not the right time as it would detract from South Africa’s influence in the region. “It wouldn’t allow us to interact with both sides – the Israelis, including the progressive forces ‑ and we would be prevented from interacting with the Palestinians. So tactically I think breaking off diplomatic relations would be a disaster. We would all celebrate for one day but what next? Our ambassador has been recalled several times for consultation. That’s nothing startling and nothing new.”

Another debate currently stirring civil society in South Africa is over the prosecution of citizens who fight with the Israeli army. In 2006 South Africa’s National Assembly approved a law requiring citizens to seek permission to serve in foreign armies. Pahad says that two South Africans fighting with the IDF have posted their pictures on Twitter and are now being charged. He says this is true for South Africans fighting not only in the Israeli war but in Iraq and Europe as well. “Our constitution and our laws are quite clear on this,” he says. “I hope that the government will take measures against any South African fighting in any foreign army.”

Pahad says he is “totally convinced” that extremism in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa “is all related to the failure to find a solution to the Palestinian issue.” ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia are all extremist groups which have come out of attempts to solve problems through military force. The ANC opposes regime change policies whether it agrees with the ruling party or not, because doing so will destabilise the whole of north and sub-Saharan Africa. Since Gaddafi was overthrown in Libya, says Pahad, arms have flooded into Mali and other countries in Africa.

“If we are not dealing with the root causes I believe we will see a serious extension of extremism throughout our continent. Indeed, Europe especially is not immune from the throwback of what is happening in our continent and in the Middle East at the moment. So it’s in our own interest to work towards finding a long-term solution to extremism.” The South African government, he explains, believes that you cannot solve the problem of extremism through military means. “There needs to be a return to more strategic thinking of how we deal with the threats to international peace and security. Unless we do that we’re just bandaging the problems; we’re not dealing with the root causes.”

One way to bring about change peacefully in Palestine is boycotting Israeli goods, a global campaign propelled by the BDS movement. South Africa, of all countries, knows about the power of international solidarity and boycotts; the world’s refusal to buy products from the South African apartheid regime is regarded as one of the main reasons for the system’s eventual collapse.

According to Aziz Pahad, during the time of apartheid all major governments, apart from Scandinavia, were hostile towards the ANC and other liberation and nationalist movements and did everything they could to destabilise them, whilst maintaining ties with the apartheid regime. “If it was not for the anti-apartheid campaigns, which totally isolated the apartheid regime – the UN declared apartheid to be a crime against humanity – I don’t believe we would have achieved our democracy 20 years ago. It would have been a bloody struggle; we would have achieved our democracy after much more bloodletting, after much more loss of life. The solidarity movement is absolutely vital to ensuring that governments listen to the voice of the people.”

Why, then, did the solidarity movement in South Africa gain so much more traction than the campaign for Palestine has? Pahad explains that there were many exiled South Africans, particularly in London, which was “the heart” of the movement. This then spread to the rest of Europe and North America. The South Africans were also able to counter the demonisation of the liberation movements in the region and the argument that they were instruments of Soviet imperialism, dominated by the communist party and were terrorists. This was largely down to the mass movement of political resistance in the 70s in South Africa which brought together the trade union movement, the youth movement, religious leaders and the sports movement.

“To tell the real narrative of the Palestinians seems to be a bit more difficult because too many people in Europe are still guilty about what happened during the Second World War and they’re refusing to understand that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism. The tendency, therefore, is to conclude that the Palestinians have not been able to tell their story.”

However, it is still possible to make a change in this respect with the help of the international community. It was, after all, Nelson Mandela who said, “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

“It’s a very important statement,” considers Pahad, “and I want to believe that Mandela would have said that he was reflecting the internationalist aspect with which most of us grew up in our movement and a statement that has been reflected in almost all our major statements when we were in exile. I would think that it would be reflected in all the resolutions since we returned from exile.” Mandela, Pahad stresses, was not giving his own opinion. “He was reflecting the view of the African National Congress,” the envoy says. “It resonates very well with South Africans who are seeking a negotiated political solution.”

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