As a South African who has lived and suffered under Apartheid and spent nearly thirty years of my adult life in its jails for resisting it, I can and do humbly claim to know something about the meaning of Apartheid. You do not get to journey as far and as long as I have with the African National Congress (ANC) and leaders such as Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela and not recognize Apartheid when you see and experience it.
Recently I attended the Russell Tribunal on Palestine and heard moving testimony from Palestinians, Israelis and South Africans. The Tribunal concluded that Israel meets the legal definition of an Apartheid State. I am pained to admit, that, based on what I have suffered through and more importantly, on what I have learnt, l am deeply convinced that the Palestinians are experiencing life akin to—and in many respects far worse than—what we had under Apartheid in South Africa. This has also been cogently argued by Professor John Dugard, one of South Africa’s most eminent jurists.
Israel’s separate roads, de facto Mixed Marriages Act, trials by military courts, the unfair allocation of resources (particularly water), racist citizenship laws, assigning and denying rights to people on the basis of ethnicity, the destruction of the homes of indigenous people who have lived and worked the land for centuries to make way for newcomers who share a common gene pool with the rulers, the uprooting of olive trees, detention without trial, pass laws, the tiniest pieces of land given the to largest part of the population… I know of no other word for this than apartheid.
I remember how apologists for Apartheid South Africa internationally tried to argue that the South African “situation” is more complex than what the ANC wanted to suggest. Indeed, it may have been but the argument of complexity was also used as a weapon in the hands of the powerful to disarm the weak and those who act in solidarity with them.
I fear that the same may now be happening. Nelson Mandela warned us back in 1996 already:
“The temptation in our situation is to speak in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine to a state of their own. We can easily be enticed to read reconciliation and fairness as meaning parity between justice and injustice. Having achieved our own freedom, we can fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others face. Yet we would be less than human if we did so.” (4 December 1997)
Some would have us believe that the South African story is only one of dialogue and reconciliation. It was indeed about these. However, it is also about a struggle against occupation and one for justice.
Our liberation struggle has many newfound “admirers,” some who often colluded with the Apartheid regime. It’s now surprising that they not only claim to have been part of the struggle, but want to give us lessons as to what the struggle was about and how it should be applied to the Palestinian struggle for justice.
The ANC needs to address how it can concretely further support the Palestinian struggle for justice and self-determination. I believe that we must pay serious consideration to the call made by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and many others in the world today. When the University of Johannesburg (UJ) commissioned a team to investigate whether UJ should terminate their institutional relationship with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University and impose an academic boycott (which they did), Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote to them saying:
“Together with the peace-loving peoples of this Earth, I condemn any form of violence - but surely we must recognise that people caged in, starved and stripped of their essential material and political rights must resist their Pharaoh? Surely resistance also makes us human? Palestinians have chosen, like we did, the nonviolent tools of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).”
Our call tonight is not a call to violence or armed struggle – our call is one to non-violence and reconciliation. Historically the ANC has always clamoured for a peaceful negotiated settlement. We are, however, also saying that if you continue along the road of Apartheid and we cannot stop you, at the very least you will do so without our consent, our investments, economic, cultural and political agreement.
Comrades and friends, when it comes to the question of justice for the Palestinians, our solidarity with them and co-existence of all the people in that area, we can do no better than repeat the words of wisdom, spoken with such clarity, by our own leader, Nelson Mandela:
When, in 1977, the United Nations passed the resolution inaugurating the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, it was asserting the recognition that injustice and gross human rights violations were being perpetrated in Palestine. In the same period, the UN took a strong stand against apartheid and, over the years, an international consensus was build, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system. But we do know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians, without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the worlds. South Africa is proud to be part of the international consensus affirming the right of Palestine to self-determination and statehood. We are committed to playing our humble part, within the limits of our resource, to help ensure that Palestine assumes its rightful position in the global arena. (11 August 1988)
South Africans understand the suffering of the Palestinian people; Palestinians continue to suffer humiliation and economic hardship. Those who live in exile as refugees have for long been sustained by their hope for an end to the conflict and the dawning of a better future. (25 November 1998)
South African struggle stalwart, Ahmed Kathy Kathrada, spent 18 years as a political prisoner on Robben Island during which time received the ANC’s highest possible accolade, the Isitwalandwe Award. Kathrada also served as the political advisor to President Nelson Mandela and is currently the chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council.