Fighting Apartheid in Palestine: South Africa’s Unfinished Business

By Ramzy Baroud

The recent approval by South Africa’s cabinet to distinguish between products made in Israel and those made in illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank was both politically sound and morally consistent with the country’s anti-Apartheid legacy.

It was also a natural progression of South Africa’s policies, which have reflected impatience with Israel through the years. Israel’s policies have long been geared towards decimating Palestinian society, along with any chances for a just peace. It was clear that Israel has chosen the Apartheid option, not just as a de facto outcome of its policies, but through a decided legal and political pattern. For South Africa to have remained silent about these dangerous policies would have endangered the very essence of the country’s anti-Apartheid reputation.

South Africa’s decision, however, was not just motivated by political necessity. Veterans of the anti-Apartheid struggle have had numerous influences on the country’s civil society. Even the new generation is intoned with a freedom discourse that unites most sectors of society. ‘Freedom for Palestine’ was a natural fit in that powerful discourse, and no amount of Israeli propaganda has been enough to deter South Africans from standing in solidarity with Palestinians. The feelings are, of course, mutual.

Growing up in a refugee camp in Gaza, there was no debate as to what the anti-Apartheid struggle meant for Palestinians. There was a strong affinity that preceded the current academic and political debates about what constitutes Apartheid – well before Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu likened the treatment of Palestinians to Apartheid in 2010, or the release of Jimmy Carter‘s 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

To be a Palestinian, especially a Palestinian refugee, was in many ways to be a black South African. Later on, through my visits to South Africa, I learned that the opposite was also true. “We South Africans cannot feel free until the Palestinians are free,” were the memorable words of the great Nelson Mandela himself.

Many decades of brutal regimes, coupled with inspiring global struggles to obtain long-denied rights made Mandela’s assertion particularly heartening to many Palestinians. Unlike South Africa, Palestine is yet to obtain its freedom. In fact, the tentacles of Apartheid are being institutionalized like never before through the Israeli Knesset, with the aim of controlling every aspect of their lives. The bloody military occupation, coupled with the reality of occupation, has made life beyond unbearable for Palestinians. Because of Israel’s obsession with demographics – as in fearing that Palestinian Muslims and Christians are multiplying at a greater rate than Israeli Jews – the very existence of Palestinians is now a hot topic of debate among Israeli politicians. It is a ‘problem’ – labelled as the ‘demographic bomb’ – that must be resolved.

The motivation behind South Africa’s cabinet decision was clear and hardly removed from this reality. The response underway by Israeli officials, Zionists leaders and Jewish organizations in South Africa were predictably angry.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, accused the South African government of ‘exclusion and discrimination.’ The Israeli government clarified the notion of that ‘blatant discrimination,’ saying it was ‘based on national and political distinction.’ The South African Jewish Board of Deputies went further. “At bottom, they are believed to be motivated not by technical trade concerns but by political bias against the state of Israel. All attempts to discuss these concerns…have come to nothing.”
South Africa also did not in any way try to hide the political and ethical nature of that decision. Government spokesman Jimmy Manyi told a press briefing on August 22 that the decision was “in line with South Africa’s stance that recognizes the 1948 borders delineated by the United Nations and does not recognize occupied territories beyond these borders as being part of the state of Israel.”

In fact, even before the decision was made, South African officials have been clear on their rejection of Israel’s policies. That attitude was unmistakable when South Africa withdrew its ambassador from Israel in protest of the deadly raid in international water on pro-Palestinian civil society activists abroad the Turkish Mavi Marmara in May 31, 2011.

More, just recently, South Africa’s deputy foreign minister, Ebrahim Ebrahim, called on his country’s citizens to avoid visiting Israel. “Israel is an occupier country which is oppressing Palestine, so it’s not proper for South Africans to associate with Israel,” he told City Press newspaper.

Failing to reverse the South Africa government’s clear policies – which are likely to evolve into a complete boycott similar to the international boycott of South Africa’s Apartheid government in the past – Israeli officials are shedding diplomatic language altogether. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is accusing South Africa of exactly that which has been accused of Israel. “Unfortunately it turns out that the changes that took place in South Africa over the years have not brought about basic changes in the country, and it remains an Apartheid state,” Ayalon said (Jerusalem Post, August 23).

Interestingly, Israel was one of very few countries that provided a lifeline of support to the Apartheid government of South Africa. There are numerous volumes on this topic, but most revealing was Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. The author provided first-hand evidence of an offer of nuclear warheads made by Israel’s current President Shimon Peres to then South Africa’s defense minister P. W. Botha in 1975.

Since then, South Africa – and much of the world – has changed. Israel, however, is digressing into a dark corner where racism and Apartheid are still applied with impunity. Many Israelis are refusing to attest to their country’s fall into the abyss. A wakeup call can only arrive when the world treats the Israeli government in the same way the pariah state South Africa’s Apartheid regime was treated. The fact that South Africa is leading the charge against Israeli Apartheid in Palestine is not an irony, but actually an early sign of international justice.

– Ramzy Baroud ( is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London.)

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