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Will South Africa unravel the mystery of the Palestine-Israel #VisaScandal?

January 16, 2021 at 3:11 pm

Protest outside the Israeli Embassy in South Africa on 14 August 2020 [#Africa4Palestine]

The petition for South Africa’s ANC-led government to lift punitive visa restrictions on Palestinians wanting to travel to the country is an embarrassing but necessary exercise. Many people, including veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle familiar with Palestine’s freedom struggle, and aware of deep historic ties between the two liberation movements, are shocked to discover the existence of such unfair visa requirements.

Discrimination at the border, meanwhile, allows Israeli citizens to enter South Africa without visas. This is an insult to the memory of the thousands who fought against the twin evils of apartheid and settler-colonialism.

While some may dismiss the double standards inherent in visa requirements which favour the oppressors and punish the oppressed as reflective of an era in which expediency trumps morality, that doesn’t make it right. Apart from the fact that it is untenable to have such discrimination in place against the occupied Palestinians while favouring the occupying power, it goes against the human rights values upon which South Africa’s foreign policy rests.

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Members of the ANC-led government in Pretoria should be as horrified as the general public to discover that Palestinians but not Israelis need visas to enter South Africa, which is unduly restrictive and racist. If so, then it behoves them to reverse this injustice.

Since the defeat of apartheid and the advent of democracy, the South African government has proclaimed proud solidarity with Palestine’s freedom struggle. In pursuit of this human rights imperative, Pretoria has displayed remarkable courage in standing up to Israel’s main benefactor, the United States of America, at the United Nations.

Initiating resolutions at the UN General Assembly and lobbying member states of the Security Council regularly in order to defend Palestinian rights and oppose Israel’s creeping settler-colonialism are among the outstanding features of South African foreign policy. However, to discover that these substantive areas of solidarity are being undermined as a result of shameful double standards in this way is contemptible.

More damaging is the notion that in the midst of a severe pandemic hot on the heels of endemic corruption, South Africa seems to be floundering yet again with what has been called a #VisaScandal. Understandably, the media focus has been on the high Covid-19 death toll and the debate about whether or not the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa failed to anticipate the scale of the second wave has left the country ill-prepared to secure vaccines on time. It’s a debate which will continue as conflicting arguments for and against the efficacy of various forms of vaccinations enter the public domain. Indeed the bungling which has resulted in extraordinarily long delays at border crossings, particularly at Beit Bridge in the north, causing untold suffering and tragic loss of life, can’t be swept under the carpet.

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Nobody can argue that these are challenging times for South Africa. Citizens expect government officials to fulfil their needs and rights. The latter is enshrined in the constitution, and flow seamlessly through the Bill of Rights. Impacting as they do on external policies, it is reasonable, therefore, to question why double standards are applied which discriminate unfairly against the Palestinians.

It is thus understandable that leading members of civil rights movements within South Africa and overseas support the #VisaFreePalestine campaign launched by the Media Review Network to petition Ramaphosa to intervene urgently and lift the visa requirements. Individuals involved include icons of the struggle, such as the legendary Don Mattera, as well as Palestinian activists for justice, Dr Ramzy Baroud and Haidar Eid, for example. Jewish critics of Israel’s illegal occupation such as academic Richard Silverstein have also actively supported and promoted the campaign.

South Africa stands with Palestine - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

South Africa stands with Palestine – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

As the list of supporters and petition signatories grows, so does the momentum to have this senseless and embarrassing protocol changed without delay.

Although some media have raised questions on this issue, it is regrettably true that details about the circumstances related to the imposition of such double standards remain scanty. For instance, it would be important to contextualise the application of “No Visas for Israelis” and the hard-line visa requirements for Palestinians if it is a legacy of the apartheid era inherited by the ANC-led government. If this is the case, it is reasonable to ask why the post-94 democratically elected government has not only failed to reverse this injustice, but also continues to enforce it. If, on the other hand, it was introduced after 1994, we need to know why, and under whose administration: Mandela, Mbeki, Zuma or Ramaphosa?

As intriguing as it sounds, a follow-up question would be whether the conflicting standards arose from any “trade-offs” with the apartheid occupation state or anyone else. If this was the case, who was this done to appease, and why?

That these probes are necessary to unravel the mystery of the Palestine-Israel #VisaScandal, goes without saying. Hopefully, investigative journalists will rise to the occasion and help to produce some answers.

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