Palestine’s big sister South Africa: precedents and pitfalls

August 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

On August 10th South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation announced that it would cancel visits to Israel by mayors and other members of municipalities in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Province. As usual, SA is setting precedents when it comes to foreign relations with Israel, but Palestinian and Israeli visionaries should be wary of how they utilize the SA model when strategizing for decolonization.


In 1994 South Africa became Palestine’s older sister/brother. However, economic inequality and a capacity for violence stand out as contradictions of the Rainbow Nation.

SA cancels officials’ visits to Israel

The decision is perceived as a win for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign and as a setback for the pro-Israel South African lobby: SA-Israel Forum, who had advocated for and organized the trips. The SA-Israel Forum had sought to promote agricultural and technological cooperation between the South African community and the Israeli State.

Pro-Israeli South Africans demonstrated against the decision suggesting prejudiced intentions behind the cancelation, singling out Israel over countries with questionable human rights records such as Myanmar or Syria.

Following the cancellation Deputy of International Relations, Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim, said to the Mail and Guardian weekly newspaper: “Israel is an occupier country that is oppressing Palestine, so it is not proper for South Africans to associate with Israel. We discourage people from going there, except if it has to do with the peace process.”

The statement received numerous letters of support from South African, international, Israeli and Palestinian anti-Occupation organizations who considered the planned visits part of a branding campaign seeking to normalize perceptions of Israel.

Visionaries seeking justice for Palestinians continue looking to South Africa for leadership in the international community.

Killings at Lonmin: A haunting past

On Thursday the 16th South Africa witnessed a horrifying massacre of 34 during a workers’ strike at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana. Armored police vehicles herded demonstrators who then charged them. Reuters’ video cameras documented police gunning down the group in a haze of dust.

South Africans have compared the act to police violence during the apartheid-era, particularly the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. The massacre on Thursday flaunted the State’s shameful capacity for violence even in the “new” South Africa. A struggle for higher wages and better working conditions provoked horrendous State reprisal. Including two police officers, a total of 44 people were killed in the past days.

Citizens are looking for someone to blame. President Jacob Zuma declared a week of national mourning for those killed in addition to calling for a commission of inquiry.

Unlike apartheid South Africa, the African National Congress, the leading resistance organization during the apartheid era that has led every government since 1996, can be voted out of office.

The “new” South Africa

Nelson Mandela promulgated the new South Africa’s constitution in 1996 following the end of the transitional government. SA’s constitution is regarded as the most progressive in the world largely because of its robust human rights guarantees including socio-economic rights such as the right to housing, health and education.

Implementation and enforcement of these rights is another matter. While cases of inadequate housing or access to water sources are regularly litigated in courts and South Africa has reduced poverty to 50% (an improvement from 1993), inequality is sharper than ever and unemployment is above 25% (close to West Bank unemployment rates). The proportion of blacks, coloureds and Indians in the middle and upper class has grown, but so has the white poor. On the whole, however, class divisions retain a similar shape to their apartheid past.

Furthermore, massive migration weighs heavily on the economy and society. Virile xenophobia manifests in violent episodes such as the riots of May 2008. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in 1996, but the Rainbow Nation’s need to address historical wrongs is far from over.

Lessons from an older sibling

South African Minister Ebrahim’s decision to stuff Israel-branding trips from KZN province are symbolically important given the context of Israel’s apartheid regime and SA’s post-transition inequality.

First, motivated by moral objections, South Africa leads an emerging international trend towards boycotting Israeli institutions. SA has consistently set precedents for responding to Israeli policies of discrimination such as the 10 August announcement discouraging visits to Israel. In May, SA’s Minister of Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, issued a ban on products originating from the Occupied Territories labeled as “Made in Israel,” a precedent that the European Union has begun leaning towards. The SA cabinet approved the “Occupied Palestinian Territory” labels on 22 August 2012. Additionally, leading the movement for academic boycott, the University of Johannesburg was the first academic institution to sever ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University in April 2011.

Second, South Africa serves as an important symbol for liberation movements as well as transitional justice. Palestinians and Israelis struggling for a legal system based on principles of equality often look to the SA anti-apartheid movement to inform their work. Unfortunately, examples such as the massacre last week are persistent reminders of a deeply divided and unequal society. Many South Africans insist that the 1994 – 1996 transition was imperfect. Since then the fault lines have grown into fissures.

South African history, therefore, might also serve as a warning. With Gaza on the brink of survival, neo-liberal structural adjustment programs in the West Bank and a stratified Israeli society, an end to occupation may still leave an opening for perpetuating Palestinian inequality under a new form.

South Africa offers Israel-Palestine a conflicting vision and its lessons are complex. Foresight is required in order to replicate SA’s successes and learn from her ongoing struggle for equality. 

*This article was originally published by the Alternative Information Center on 23 August 2012.  


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