Throughout the Apartheid years in South Africa there were individuals and groups who identified and stood in solidarity with the Palestinian people and their struggle for freedom. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) became a symbol of resistance for most South Africans. South Africans struggling against apartheid policies and realities agreed with Hendrik Verwoerd (considered the architect of South African apartheid) when he stated that “Israel like South Africa is an apartheid state.” Unlike Verwoerd, they considered this a violent abuse of human rights and not a reason to praise Israel. In 1976, a watershed in the resistance against Apartheid where, according to some estimates, 800 mostly young people were killed when the Apartheid regime sought to repress the June 16th Soweto Uprising, the Apartheid prime minister John Vorster was invited to Israel and received with open arms by the likes of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Perez.
In addition to identifying with the struggle of Palestinians, South Africans also recognized that Israel was playing a role in their own oppression. For instance, Israel was an important arms supplier to Apartheid South Africa despite the international arms embargo, and by 1980, 35% of Israel's arms exports were destined for South Africa. Israel was loyal to the racist state and clung onto the friendship when almost all other relationships had dissolved. During the 1970s this affiliation extended into the field of nuclear weaponry when Israeli experts helped South Africa to develop at least six nuclear warheads; and in the 1980s, when the global anti-apartheid movement had forced their states to impose sanctions on the Apartheid regime, Israel imported South African goods and re-exported them to the world as a form of inter-racist solidarity.
The nature of the South African apartheid regime made it difficult to organize and speak out against worldwide oppression. This was clear in 1982 after the Sabra and Shatila massacres when South African students protesting the massacre were arrested at even supposedly “white liberal” universities. State and university apparatuses as well as Zionist lobby groups such as the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) were involved in the repression of these demonstrations. As a student organizing on a South African university campus today it is evident that the identical bodies (despite regime change and the passing of time) are responsible for suffocating legitimate protests and campaigns.
Whilst the Palestine Solidarity Committee of South Africa (PSC) was formed before 2001, this was the year when Palestine solidarity work in South Africa transformed at many levels. The reasons for this transformation are nuanced but include the formation of the PSC itself, a secular organization started by respected South African anti-Apartheid activists involved in the liberation movements and contemporary social movements. A further factor was the WCAR and specifically the United States' refusal to equate Zionism with racism or to put Palestine on the conference agenda. Furthermore, South Africa became a greater focus for secular Palestinian organizations and a few anti-Zionist South African Jews began to speak out against Israel.
Solidarity began to be viewed on the basis of human rights and national liberation rather than as a “Muslim” issue. Those working on other social justice and civil rights issues began to discuss Palestine within their contexts. Na'eem Jeenah, spokesperson for the PSC, says of the WCAR and the changing face of South African solidarity with Palestine that While Palestinians learnt to toyi-toyi and saw reflections of their own refugee camps in the townships around Durban, South Africans discovered just how similar apartheid South Africa and Zionist Israel really were. The fact that many of the Palestinian groups in Durban were secular NGOs or political groups broke down the image for many South Africans of Palestine as simply a Muslim issue. And when Palestinians participated in the Landless Peoples' Assembly, joined the protests of the Dalits and cheered with South Africans for Cuba's Fidel Castro, the need for increased Palestinian solidarity work in South Africa became clearer to South African activists.
The role played by non-governmental organizations in the Arab world that linked with Palestinian groups in the 1948 areas and the Diaspora as well as those in the West Bank, Gaza and Golan played a pivotal role in the success of the Durban WCAR conference. These organizations spent months in preparatory work and liaised with South African civil society.
Although the bombings of the Twin Towers in New York had the effect of overshadowing the significant gains made at Durban, the years 2001-2002 saw a proliferation of Palestine solidarity groups in almost every major South African city and many towns. When the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) came to Johannesburg in 2002, these solidarity organizations and social movements were prepared. Taking advantage of the presence of a number of Palestinian groups, the PSC held a rally at the Johannesburg City Hall of thousands of people. Prominent speakers included representatives from Stop the Wall, Badil, Ittijah, PARC and other Palestinian and international civil society organizations.
These representatives were also involved in the 10,000 people march in Johannesburg during the WSSD organized by the PSC and various social movements. Reflecting tensions among South African organizations, the ANC alliance organized a separate and much smaller march. These tensions came to a head when Shimon Perez spoke in Johannesburg. The PSC- organized demonstration against Perez was brutally suppressed by a heavily armed contingent of the notorious and largely unreformed branch of the South African police. A leading member of the PSC was singled out by plain clothes men, whose clear purpose was to protect Perez, and handed over to the police. He was subsequently detained overnight.
The South African government, while paying lip-service to the injustices against the Palestinian people due to the historic connection between the two struggles, sees investment by high-tech industries from Israel as a priority because of the neo-liberal capitalist path they have chosen. In this sense, profits are put before solidarity. Trade with Israel, particularly around minerals, metal and coal continues; South Africa is Israel's principal trading partner in Africa. Trade between the two countries was worth about R4 billion in 2003, up from R3.8 billion in 1999. The diamond trade alone was worth R4.4 billion between 1999 and 2003. Salim Vally, a spokesperson of the PSC, says of a facet of the Israel-South Africa relationship that people around the world have taken their inspiration from our struggle against Apartheid. People see the links between Apartheid South Africa and apartheid Israel. It's a way of really undercutting that link and undermining it and it's a huge propagandistic coup for Israel if they can get it right.
Despite the parallels that resonate between apartheid South Africa and Israel, there are still Israeli investments and supporters in South Africa. Ehud Olmert visited South Africa in October 2004 and met with the Minister of Trade and Industry, Mandisi Mpahlwa who called the encounter “an extraordinary success.” While this extraordinary success was underway, Palestine Solidarity Committee protesters accompanied by members of various groups such as the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF), one of the largest social movements in South Africa today demonstrated in opposition to the meeting. Protesters were manhandled by police and put into “hippos,” vehicles that used to trawl the townships during Apartheid, and thrown into jail.
More recently, with the undeniable and growing track record of Israeli investment and involvement in South Africa, a contract has been awarded to an Israeli company to work with Transnet Freight Rail, an international rail operator in South Africa. The project will involve the railway connection of three major South African cities (spanning 34 000 kilometers) including the installation of surveillance cameras, digital video recorders, access control systems, fire systems, and electrical fence sensors. This action has been strongly condemned by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) who sent out a press release confirming the “need to send a clear message to all oppressors that our country will not be used by countries which oppress peoples for greedy commercial interests.”
The PSC mirrored this sentiment and Salim Vally went on to say that ...we don't think they [Israeli business and government investment] will succeed. We think our government have miscalculated; they don't understand the level of support Palestinian people have in our country. And when civil society and social movements understand this, they will see it as a betrayal and it will come to haunt this government, which continues rhetorically to say they support the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.
Fortuitously, Leila Khaled, a hero to many South Africans who identified with the legitimate right to resist, was in South Africa during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. During this period, differences amongst ANC-aligned organizations were apparent. At a press conference the PSC, COSATU and the South African Council of Churches for the first time called for the BDS campaign. Voicing her support for BDS, Leila Khaled was featured on major television and radio programs and in a wide range of South African newspapers. She spoke across the country in communities that were themselves living under the heavy legacy of apartheid. The same support from social movement groups that was highlighted in 2001 at the WCAR was echoed during the visit.
COSATU, who organize 1.8 million South African workers under their banner, came out strongly with resolutions against apartheid Israel. Workers organized in COSATU drew comparisons between the two apartheid regimes. Their resolutions included expressing outrage at the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands in blatant violation of international law and human morality and condemning in the strongest possible terms the violence perpetrated by the Israeli occupation forces which includes extra-judicial killings, the wanton destruction of infrastructure, government installations and Palestinian homes.
The former president of COSATU, Willie Madisha, wrote in his letter of support to CUPE Ontario (Canadian Union of Public Employees) after the passing of their resolution to launch a BDS campaign against Israel (Resolution 50) that
I say with confidence that Israel is an apartheid stateةWhen the governments of the world turn a blind eye to these injusticesةthen it is time for the global workers' union to stand firm against hypocrisy and double standards.
The passing of resolutions and general education around Palestine is undeniably important. The significant role of these measures is multi-faceted and includes popular education as well as a global solidarity and awareness campaign. However, it is critical that resolutions are substantiated by action. BDS is a tool of resistance that has been proposed by those sectors of Palestinian society that have the most resonance with workers, students, and activists worldwide. We do risk the passing of hundreds of resolutions without any practical strategies.
Virginia Tilley, a professor of political science currently working in South Africa says of boycott
Good cause [for boycott] has, of course, been in place for decades, as a raft of initiatives already attests. But Israel's war crimes are now so shocking, its extremism so clear, the suffering so great, the UN so helpless and the international community's need to contain Israel's behavior so urgent and compelling, that the time for global action has matured.
In South Africa, mass struggle resulted in the end of legislated apartheid, but the global solidarity movement was the essential support that South Africa needed and requested from abroad in order to isolate the regime and ensure that it and its institutions were not welcome anywhere. BDS was a long and often turbulent global act of resistance and needed to constantly be revised and reenergized. This global resistance campaign was and is most effective when groups around the world know they are supported and can support one another. During the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, “Amandla! Awethu!” (Power to us, the people) was called in unison. Today, around the world, BDS activists chant “Amandla! Intifada!” (Power to the Intifada)- in their call to heed the request of Palestinians and be at their side.