When he was in South Africa in July 2014, Omar Barghouti told a story about the Second Intifada. It was the early 2000s, a decade which had started with the then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visiting Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
For Palestinians living under settler-colonialism in the West Bank and Gaza, this was an act of extreme provocation. They would face the Israeli army's rubber bullets and teargas with stones, but the war was on. Thousands were dying.
"I don't impose my views on my daughters," Barghouti said, "but I do expose them to reality. My daughters live under occupation and apartheid and there's no way to hide them from that fact. Neither is it healthy to hide them from that fact".
He went on to describe a shouting match that happened at that time inside his apartment in Ramallah, which Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers had occupied. "Children of our neighbours were traumatised. If they heard anyone knocking at the door, they would get into the closet and hide there, but our daughters somehow faced fear.
"There were nine Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers parked underneath our building, but they would go out just to tell the soldiers, we are not scared of you. You have big tanks, we have little flags, but you cannot shut our voices."
Barghouti reflected. "We taught them: answer back with power, with dignity."
It was a story which potently characterised a man and the international activist movement he has come to represent: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). In Johannesburg to attend a War Resisters Conference and meet with government and leaders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Barghouti – a co-founder of BDS — arrived in 2014 just as Israel launched Operation Protective Edge upon Gaza. He witnessed furious statements issued by the ANC with the death toll already at nearly 200 Palestinians killed by Israeli air strikes.
The party's deputy secretary general, Jessie Duarte asked: "What should peace-loving peoples of the world do? Israel refuses to recognise the barbarity of its violence against civilians because it does not see those it kills as humans worthy of human dignity."
Barghouti put it plainly. Duarte's words, spoken in a country which knew and understood what a struggle for liberation means, "made Palestinians feel less lonely this time around."
He believed there had been "a consensus" in his meetings with political leaders in South Africa: "Everyone is absolutely convinced that Israel's regime of occupation has reached a level at which it has to be stopped and that your county has a role to play," he told us.
Barghouti referred particularly to the University of Johannesburg's campaign to sever links with Israel's Ben Gurion University in 2011 as "opening the door to massive debates around the world." "Now we hope that in the economic sphere, South Africa will catch up with Europe in official policy towards Israel." At that time, 17 European governments had issued guidelines to their citizens and companies advising them not to do business with Israeli entities linked with the occupied territories.
Notwithstanding the ANC giving open support to BDS, official government policy does not yet follow that of many European governments. There has been a dissonance between the ANC's policies on Israel and Palestine, and the government's approach.
An example of this was the visit of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who was in South Africa with a delegation last October. The ANC gave Meshaal an official reception and State Security Minister David Mahlobo, who happens to be an ANC member, appeared with him on a Cape Town stage. However, while Meshaal's visit was still fresh in the mind, State President Jacob Zuma — who is also the president of the ANC — met publicly with the Jewish Board of Deputies, which had expressed outrage at the Hamas trip.
On the face of it, therefore, South Africa is difficult, complex political terrain for BDS activists. The ANC's liberation history and memory of the importance of solidarity from the worldwide anti-apartheid movement during white supremacist rule, should assist their campaign. The South African government, though, is reluctant to make an enemy of Israel, with which it is engaged in many trade and other agreements.
Yet it is precisely this apparent division between party and state which may well be holding BDS back as it manifests in South Africa. That's not because such a dichotomy exists, but perhaps because the activists themselves are too enmeshed in trying to lobby the ANC and government, rather than trying to find enough common ground with the people of South Africa in their fight for the liberation of Palestine. That is, of course, something of an irony, since Barghouti and others designed BDS upon the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s.
South Africa's national BDS co-ordinator, Muhammed Desai, describes how he recently connected with international activists in Spain's Basque country, and found them looking to him for motivation. "It was almost embarrassing," he says. "Spanish activists have persuaded 25 municipalities to adopt BDS resolutions against Israel."
Certainly, it's not been that easy in South Africa, where Zionism is deeply embedded in what is a very small Jewish community. It does, however, have a direct impact on investment as a number of listed retail companies, in particular a major grocery and pharmacy chain, are known to be donors to Zionist organisations and concerns. Woolworths, an upmarket grocery and clothing brand, was not among these. It was BDS's recently-concluded two-year campaign against the company for selling certain Israeli products which drew high-profile criticism, most recently, and publicly, from prominent academic and intellectual Professor Steven Friedman.
"I don't accept this is a hostile environment in which to operate," explains Friedman, who is well known for supporting the Palestinian struggle. "It depends on who you think BDS should be talking to. I'm not saying government is irrelevant, but successful similar movements use the experiences of ordinary people to capture the public imagination, whether power-holders or politicians are forced to pay attention or not."
He drew attention to the activism of the mid-1980s: "The most effective anti-apartheid sanctions legislation passed during the Reagan era was because pressure from the public was building up in sections of his own party. So we shouldn't judge the environment by what government is thinking but by whether you have a chance of winning support from the public, and I think that is present in South Africa."
Iqbal Jassat, executive member of the Johannesburg-based advocacy organisation the Media Review Network, agrees that BDS in South Africa is "a power tool which ordinary people can apply in various walks of life to effect change in Israel." However, noting the high expectation by Palestinians that South African activism on their behalf "will contribute immensely to their quest for justice," he sees the critique by Friedman as "extremely relevant… to disregard it would be foolish."
For Jassat, the campaign in South Africa has "perceived structural weaknesses"; he refers to the Woolworths campaign as a case in point. "The debate whether it was wise to target (it) as a company instead of boycotting the Israeli products it markets, still rages amongst activists. Campaigns must possess key plans to produce strategic outcomes. A consultative process has to be inclusive of wider society."
Although he insists that the MRN nonetheless remains fully committed to BDS, Jassat has a concern that the movement's independence in South Africa "is paramount, requiring it to dispel the notion of it being an appendage of the ruling ANC."
According to Desai, the BDS movement has taken careful note of the criticism, but believes that "we have established ground." He refers to how the movement is finding "novel spaces" in which to campaign, including through the endorsement of popular artists and comedians. Together with the National Coalition 4 Palestine and its affiliates, BDS was also the driver of a significant march against Israel in Cape Town in 2014 which saw tens of thousands of ordinary people take to the streets in protest. Its work with Kairos Southern Africa was recently part of the reason why the United Congregational Church of South Africa also adopted a boycott of Israel.
Desai himself was at the centre of a battle against the Virgin Active chain after he was barred access to a gym in a Johannesburg suburb for wearing a BDS Free Palestine/Boycott Israel T-shirt. He won.
Differing from Friedman and Jassat, Desai says that he believes the Woolworths campaign brought BDS to the attention of an influential strata of South African society. He also remains convinced that the movement must continue lobbying at the highest political levels, highlighting, for example, BDS's participation in the push by the ANC for a complete ban on any ministers, members of parliament or mayors from the ruling party travelling to Israel.
"We want more of those kinds of decisions to become a reality in the political space," Desai says, and mentions how the premier of South Africa's platinum-rich North West Province cancelled a speaking engagement at a water conference organised by the Israeli embassy last year "as a result of BDS knocking on government doors and reminding officials of their commitment."
Meanwhile, the challenges are growing. This month, the Democratic Alliance (DA) became the minority government in Johannesburg, having defeated the ANC – which has ruled the city since the first democratic elections in 1994 – after gaining the support of the ruling party's arch-rivals, the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), in the first council meeting after the recent election.
Herman Mashaba, a multi-millionaire and the DA's new mayor in Africa's most important city, has appointed developmental economist Rabelani Dagada as his committee member for finance. Dagada undertook a trip to Israel earlier this year, and returned saying that he was not aware of discriminatory laws in that country. "Where's the protest?" asks Friedman. "It's coming," responds Desai.
BDS may now be able to use its controversial political profile in a different way as it puts pressure on Johannesburg's new tsars. As far as the activists are concerned, it's those political antagonists inside the country who are Barghouti's "big tanks", and they're determined not to stop waving the little flags.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.