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South Africa’s pro-Palestine movement - struggling to repay the anti-Apartheid solidarity debt

October 1, 2015 at 6:00 am

By the early 1990s it seemed that significant progress had been made to reach agreements in what were considered to be the world’s three main political hotspots – Northern Ireland, Palestine and South Africa. Several decades of liberation struggles were suddenly catapulted towards real possibilities for attaining the end-goal. This was largely due to a changed international political climate arising from the collapse of the USSR and its satellite states in Eastern Europe, effectively putting an end to the Cold War. Negotiated agreements between enemies was the order of the day resulting in South Africa having its first democratic elections in April 1994 and coinciding with the signing of the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel. The Oslo Accords ensured Israel’s recognition of the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinian people accompanied by the establishment of a Palestinian Authority (PA), effectively institutionalising Israel’s colonial occupation over the Palestinian people and land with the PLO’s collaboration and a surrogate state, the PA.

In the case of South Africa, its ruling class, dominated by white monopoly capital, had already decided by 1985 that it had to deal with the leading party of the liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC) and settle for black majority rule. Its shift in position was not pushed or precipitated by any democratic, moral or human rights imperatives. Rather, typically it was driven by the economic crisis that had impacted on white fortunes since the 1970s and getting worse, aggravated by a shrinking domestic and international market. The latter in particular was biting hard due to the success of the international Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) boycott and sanctions campaign and the significant psychological blow suffered by the Apartheid regime with its military defeat at the hands of the MPLA and Cuban soldiers in Angola. The AAM ensured that by the mid to late 1980s, international boycotts in almost every sphere of cultural life such as sport, music and academia were effective, along with governments and international institutions such as the UN adopting resolutions and legislation enforcing economic sanctions and embargoes that also deprived the Apartheid regime of acquiring arms to suppress uprisings internally and wage war along its borders.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement was strongest in the countries where it mattered most – Western Europe and North America – because these powerful imperialist nations had historically been the most ardent supporters and defenders of Apartheid South Africa. Their shift against Apartheid can be attributed mainly to the strengthening of the AAM internationally, particularly in North America and Europe along with most African states and their people.

Black South Africans, particularly the ANC, are indebted to the AAM for contributing to the liberation of South Africa. However, the reality in relation to a reciprocal involvement in the Palestinian struggle against Israeli colonial occupation does not reflect this. This is despite the fact that the ANC enjoyed a direct alliance with the PLO whose support included arming and training soldiers of the ANC’s guerrilla army, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK). “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” said Nelson Mandela, reflecting and acknowledging this history, committing the ANC and his government to supporting efforts to liberate Palestine.

This political alliance was actually more profound than simply mutual support since the apartheid Israeli and South African regimes at the time had uncanny similarities in their settler-colonial roots, their establishment in 1948, their oppression and treatment of the native populations, direct economic relations and military co-operation with mutual admiration among their leaders. The South African Jewish community has historically been the biggest supporter and financial contributor – in proportion to its size – to the Zionist project since the establishment of the state of Israel, particularly through the Jewish National Fund.

In full view of the ANC, though, the Zionist support in contemporary South Africa has strengthened and even extends to young South African Jews serving in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) – illegally in terms of SA law – and literally acting as the IDF’s poster boys. Not a single Zionist has been investigated or prosecuted for this.

Little wonder then that leading global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigner Omar Barghouti was more than exasperated in disbelief and disappointment upon meeting ANC and government leaders in South Africa over a year ago. He genuinely struggled to comprehend and understand their complacency and refusal to act in any substantial way in solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle; this despite the fact that they are in power and had a strategic seat at the UN Security Council at the time. The prevailing view of many in the BDS movement was clear: who was better to lead the campaign against Israeli apartheid at this level than the ANC and the South African government?

South Africa’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has long understood that in view of the relative weakness of the Palestinian masses compounded by the poor leadership of its dominant political parties, their struggle has to rely disproportionately on mass international solidarity. Moreover, given our history of a successful struggle against Apartheid oppression and white supremacy that relied on a strong global movement, the ANC government had a special contribution to make to advancing Palestinian liberation. We, along with many solidarity activists, had a reasonable expectation that the ANC in government would lead this struggle in the corridors of power of international institutions such as the UN and its Security Council.

Alas, this was not to be and, to-date, South Africa’s ANC government has neither done anything significant in solidarity with the Palestinians nor committed itself to do so, let alone support BDS. It has not even been prepared to wage a diplomatic battle at the UN despite having at its disposal a range of international resolutions and conventions that oppose Israel’s colonial oppression of the Palestinians.

Over the years, the PSC in South Africa has met with senior ANC officials to propose that they adopt BDS and legislation supporting it in order to compel South Africans, particularly big business and institutions, to isolate Israel politically and economically. Together with other solidarity organisations, we have also petitioned the government to stop using companies such as G4S, Caterpillar and Cape Gate which bolster Israel’s repressive apparatus. The ANC government has consistently ignored and refused these calls.

Even in the wake of Israel’s August 2014 attack on Gaza which resulted in another genocidal massacre that destroyed thousands of lives, the government refused even to accede to the demand to expel the Israeli ambassador. At a meeting with South Africa’s deputy minister of international relations a few months prior to this, the response to our demands was that the government needed civil society to ensure sufficient unrest and protests by South Africans to assist ministers in rationalising a more proactive BDS stance internationally. Yet, the temporary mass solidarity movement that emerged in August 2014, culminating in the biggest ever mass march to Parliament in Cape Town, with over 200 000 people on the streets, was insufficient to push the SA government to take concrete action in support of the Palestinians, not even significant humanitarian support. That was left to NGOs to do. What are we to make of this?

The ANC, like its nationalist counterparts in Fatah and the PLO, has always been a party led and dominated by middle-class interests, even in periods of heightened popularity during mass uprisings such as those in the 1980s. Liberation for the middle class from conditions of colonial oppression is not the same as for the poor and working class masses who invariably suffer the most. For middle-class nationalists it is and has been about removing all impediments and obstacles for them to survive, prosper and thrive, and open up possibilities for elevating themselves socially towards the dominant capitalist class. In the case of both the ANC and PLO it directs them towards joining and becoming dependent on the global class of monopoly capitalists and getting closer to their political representatives, the imperialist states of the USA and Western Europe.

The ANC, especially its top leadership, is in now in real terms closer than ever to big business in South Africa which is in no small measure supportive of Zionism and Israel. This is epitomised by South African President Jacob Zuma reportedly enjoying close personal and family business ties with wealthy Zionist arms dealer Ivor Ichikowitz of the Paramount group of companies. The ANC leadership, including the country’s first post-Apartheid President, Nelson Mandela, enjoyed a similar cosy relationship with Ichikowitz. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has a myriad of business ties within major local and global companies such as McDonalds.

The bottom line for us and the global Palestine solidarity movement is that the ANC and the current South African government cannot be relied upon to play any meaningful role in supporting the Palestine liberation struggle.

Despite the dire genocidal situation of the Palestinian masses we need to accept the long and hard road of mass mobilisation, organisation and a resolute uncompromising global struggle for one unitary and fully democratic state within historic Palestine for all who live there, to which all Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return, as is their legal right. The global BDS campaign offers us the direction and platform for achieving this but it needs to be led and supported actively by a much more proactive Palestinian grassroots, working class organisation and movement of activists.

The author is director/editor of Workers World Media Productions in Cape Town, South Africa. He formerly held positions of leadership in the Plastics and Allied Workers Union and the Chemical Workers Industrial Union (CWIU). He has represented the CWIU, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the Labour Research Service and Workers World Media Productions at various national and international meetings and conferences.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.