Israeli South African Apartheid Comparison Essay

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JON SOSKE and SEAN JACOBS reflect on the utility of comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa. 

The South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee has a habit of speaking in rhetoricals. The effect, however, is that he makes his point quite clearly. This was the case recently at the Palestine Festival of Literature, which travels through Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Speaking on the festival’s last day, Coetzee noticed that “naturally people ask me what I see of South Africa in the present situation in Palestine.”

At first, Coetzee suggested that using the word apartheid to describe the occupation is not a productive step (“it diverts one into an inflamed semantic wrangle which cuts short the opportunities of analysis”). Coetzee then offered a definition of South African apartheid: “Apartheid was a system of enforced segregation based on race or ethnicity, put in place by an exclusive, self defined group in order to consolidate colonial conquest particular to cement its hold on the land and natural resources.” He continued, “In Jerusalem and the West Bank we see a system of …” and proceeded to read the same definition, ending to applause: “Draw your own conclusions.”

Although comparisons between Israel and South Africa stretch back to the early 1960s, the past decade has seen a growing recognition that Israel’s policies should be characterised as apartheid. The term apartheid (Afrikaans for separation or apartness) gained currency among Afrikaner racial theorists in the 1930s and became the basis of government policy with the election of the Nationalist Party in 1948, which coincides with the founding of Israel. Subsequent global campaigns and UN conventions declared apartheid a crime, and extended its meaning to contexts beyond southern Africa.

More recently, two separate debates have developed regarding the idea of Israeli apartheid. The first is a dispute about legal definitions: Do Israeli actions in the occupied territories (or, in some formulations, the Israeli state’s policy toward the Palestinian population, including refugees and Palestinian Israelis) amount to apartheid under the relevant international treaties? When the official statements of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign use the term, they are not making a direct analogy with the South African regime. They are arguing that Israeli policies should be condemned as the crime of apartheid under international law. The significance of this discussion is that the prohibition against apartheid is absolute under international law. In other words, a legal finding of apartheid would obligate the international community to end any aid that perpetuated the crime.

The second debate concerns the broader comparison between Israel and South Africa: to what extent can the histories of these two countries be juxtaposed? Do South Africa’s experiences of settler colonialism and apartheid provide insights that can sharpen our understanding of Israeli politics and society? Are there meaningful lessons from the anti-apartheid struggle – for example, from the global cultural and academic boycott – for Palestinian solidarity work? Does the South African political transition and the achievement of a democracy based on “one person, one vote,” whatever its shortcomings, offer lessons for Israel/Palestine?

On one level, the parallels are unmistakable. Apartheid South Africa and Israel both originated through a process of conquest and settlement justified largely on the grounds of religion and ethnic nationalism. Both pursued a legalised, large-scale program of displacing the earlier inhabitants from their land. Both instituted a variety of discriminatory laws based on racial or ethnic grounds. In South Africa itself, the comparison is so widely accepted (outside a small coterie of Zionists) that it is generally uncontroversial. Leading members of the antiapartheid struggle have repeatedly averred that the conditions in the West Bank and Gaza are even “worse” than apartheid.

At the same time, no historical analogy is ever exact.

Comparisons reveal differences even as they underline similarities. If South Africa emerged through a centuries-long process of European settlement and colonial warfare, the foundation of Israel in 1948 was preceded by one of the most singular atrocities in humanity’s history, the Holocaust. While the South African economy continues to rely overwhelmingly on the exploitation of African workers, early Zionists consciously sought to displace Arab labour and managed to build a far more closed, ethnically unified economy. However important South African exiles were during the apartheid period, nothing existed that approached either the scale of the Palestinian refugee population or the global Jewish diaspora, which today is increasingly divided over Israel’s claim to speak in its name.

The importance of the apartheid comparison is that it has assisted in fundamentally changing the terms of debate. Until recently, the Israeli government and its partisans, especially in the United States, have largely succeeded in depicting Israel as a besieged democracy defending its very existence against the threat of outside terrorism. Framing Israel/Palestine as an international conflict between two equivalent sides (Jews and Arabs), this narrative suggests that peace will only be achieved by guaranteeing Israel’s security and then adjudicating claims over “disputed” territory.

Along these lines, Israeli governments have contended that their actions in the occupied territories – including the land seizures, mass arrests, settlements, checkpoints, and the Separation Wall – are defensive measures driven by military necessity. Israel cannot reasonably be accused of apartheid, the argument continues, because the West Bank and Gaza lie outside of Israel proper. Conflating the state’s actions with defence of its Jewish population, this entire mode of debate sets up any criticism of Israel’s policies as being in and of itself “anti-Semitic.”
In challenging this account, the comparison with South Africa returns the discussion to Israel’s colonial origins and the settler project of consolidating a nation-state through the expulsion of Palestinians. By emphasising the strategic aims of current Israeli policies (the fragmentation and annexation of Palestinian territory), the comparison underlines that resistance does not somehow come from “outside,” but is the inevitable and justified response to occupation and forced displacement.

The apartheid analogy also illuminates the circularity of Israel’s security argument: since occupation generates resistance, there can be no resolution to the “conflict” short of Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories and the dismantling of its colonising infrastructure. It highlights the mendacity of the Israeli government’s pretense of negotiating for “peace” while attempting to construct a permanent regime of military control. After almost five decades of occupation, it is truly cynical to claim immunity from the charge of apartheid on the basis of a territorial separation that the Israeli government, military, and supreme court, have actively worked to undermine.

Perhaps most important, the apartheid analogy has helped to insert the staggering human costs of the occupation at the centre of global attention. In place of the Palestinian “terrorist,” the world is increasingly confronted with images of Israeli bulldozers destroying houses and olive trees, Israeli soldiers harassing and humiliating civilians at checkpoints, and the Israeli army’s indiscriminate shelling of civilians in Gaza. This shift is taking place not only in North America and Europe but also, tentatively and on a much smaller scale, within Israel itself.

In response, apologists for Israel’s policies have attempted to relocate the comparison. When measured against the civil rights records of other Middle Eastern countries, they respond, the Palestinian minority within Israel enjoys significant rights. Palestinian Israelis vote, participate in national elections through legal political parties, and sit in the Knesset—all things that would have been unthinkable for black South Africans under apartheid. When forces like the Islamic State are perpetrating systematic atrocities against minorities in Iraq and Syria, they pose, why are pro-Palestinian activists focusing on so narrowly on Israel, the “only democracy” in the region?

It is tempting to respond that this vindication tries to have it both ways by asserting that Israel upholds (if imperfectly) the standards of liberal democracy while measuring its record against regimes that are universally condemned for their disregard of basic human rights. But there is another motivation at work. South Africa’s apartheid government also accused its critics of selectivity by invoking the record of governments such as Idi Amin’s Uganda. In doing so, it represented the white settler colony as an island of civilisation surrounded by “primitive” societies unprepared for Western democracy. Its defenders could therefore imply that segregationist institutions and repressive actions, while perhaps regrettable, were necessary given the regional threats that the country faced.

When Israel’s apologists recycle this style of argument today, they are trafficking in similar forms of racism. Today, it is “terrorism,” “radical Islam,” or “Arab anti-Semitism.” The problem here is not that fundamentalism and popular anti-Semitism don’t exist. Of course they do. The basic hypocrisy of this position is that the Israeli state (not unlike South Africa during the Cold War) has supported corrupt, antidemocratic regimes in the face of popular movements that might challenge the regional status quo by presenting a radical alternative to both Islamism and military rule. The realpolitik is, in the abstract, understandable: a popularly elected government in Egypt or Jordan might well be less friendly to Israeli interests than the existing, US-backed strongmen. Nevertheless, Israel’s direct subvention of these regimes undercuts the image of a lone protagonist struggling to uphold democracy in a region hostile to human rights.

The attempt to shift the comparison from Israel/South Africa to Israel/Syria or Israel/Iran deserves scrutiny on two other levels. The first concerns the argument that the BDS campaign singles out Israel unfairly by failing to call for a boycott of Syria and Lebanon as well—countries that have long histories of marginalising Palestinians and denying civil rights to refugees. Why then, critics ask, focus solely on Israel and not on these countries as well? This particular strategy of comparison conflates cause and effect. As many historians now acknowledge, the origin of the Palestinian refugee crisis was the policy of expulsion or “transfer” pursued by Zionist forces in 1947–48. The continued existence of almost three million refugees in surrounding countries is the direct result of the fact that Palestinian claims to land and citizenship within the borders of post-1948 Israel have not been resolved. It is deliberately misleading to equate the underlying cause of the problem (the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the denial of their right to return) and its immediate consequences (the existence of disenfranchised refugees across the region and their treatment by Arab governments).

Second, it is true that Palestinians currently living in Israel (that is, those who were not expelled in 1948) possess civil rights. This fact is often cited as a refutation of the claim that Israel is an apartheid state. These claims are deceptive. Israeli law institutionalises the distinction between the Jewish population and other groups. As codified in its Basic Laws, Israel is the state of the Jewish people: non-Jewish Israeli citizens do not enjoy the same status under civil law. (It is, in fact, illegal for a political party to run for the Knesset if it questions this principle.) In contrast to Israel’s equal rights legislation regarding women and the disabled, more than fifty laws discriminate directly or indirectly against the Palestinian minority of Israel.

Palestinians face staggering levels of poverty; workforce discrimination and higher rates of unemployment; extensive restrictions on land ownership and residency; and numerous forms of educational, linguistic, and cultural marginalisation. The claim that Arab Israelis enjoy full civil rights further ignores the phenomenon of “unrecognised” Palestinian Bedouin villages. By declaring these settlements illegal, the Israeli state has deprived some 75,000 to 90,000 people of basic services, facilities, and political representation. Nor do these claims address the situation of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem (unilaterally and illegally annexed by Israel after the 1967 War). The Israeli state has stripped over 14,000 Palestinians of their residency since 1967.

Ultimately, the trumpeting of minority rights falsely detaches the discrimination endured by Arab Israeli’s from the earlier expulsion of Palestinians and its justification on the basis that Israel is a Jewish state. This point is key. Zionism’s postulation of a Jewish national identity for Israel is inseparable from the denial of Palestinian rights in much the same way that apartheid’s assertion of a white South Africa presupposed the displacement and disenfranchisement of the African majority. If the apartheid regime enfranchised a limited number of black South Africans, this fact would have altered neither the original acts of population transfer nor the status of those living in the bantustans or in exile. The enfranchisement of some Palestinians resolves neither the forced division of the Palestinian nation between exile, the fragmented occupied territories, and Israel nor the denial of self-determination to the Palestinian people as a whole.

Does the South African antiapartheid struggle offer any lessons for Palestinian solidarity work? How should we judge the South African political settlement?

While there are many lessons to be learned from South Africa, the most important are neither simple nor easily translatable into other contexts. Although the 1994 transition dismantled legal white supremacy, South Africa remains a profoundly divided society, convulsed by unresolved questions of race, class, and gender inequality. The work of fully understanding the historical experience of apartheid – and addressing its continuing legacies – is still far from complete.

Pro-BDS activists may have to get past reductive depictions of the antiapartheid struggle, particularly of solidarity politics. While simplifications are an inevitable part of activism, they can also shut down much-needed debate. There is, for example, a tendency to exaggerate the impact of North American cultural and academic boycott. On occasion, US activists go so far as to suggest that the boycott movement itself brought about the end of apartheid—a position that comes dangerously close to white saviourism. The academic boycott helped raise public awareness and force debate regarding foreign support for the South African regime. But it was one part of a much wider movement that included the massively influential sports boycott, the International Defense and Aid Fund, direct action by trade unions, and the Free Mandela campaign. This solidarity was not centred in the West, but truly global in scope. It was arguably the largest civil society movement of the twentieth century. And it was supplemental to a mass, democratic movement inside South Africa itself.

Any lessons the South African transition offers for the future of Israel and Palestine are far from simple. Many factors—internal and external, economic and geopolitical—led to the white minority’s abandonment of political power in 1994. For some activists, South Africa speaks to the possibility of a one-state solution based on universal citizenship and equal rights for all. Others see the negotiations of the early 1990s as a model for the realistic and painful compromises that would be necessary to enact a truly just two-state solution. At this level, historical comparison is more useful in sharpening questions rather than providing meaningful answers.

One lesson from South Africa is clear enough though. Whatever factors contributed to the timing and circumstances of its demise, the destruction of South African apartheid would not have occurred without a powerful, international movement dedicated to freedom for all South Africans. “Above the fray” experts might try to untangle and isolate the different strands of liberation struggle, arguing that one tactic or another was decisive. At the time, the ANC and other organisations encouraged diverse forms of resistance and continuously searched for new methods of linking internal opposition to international solidarity. They understood that different modes of struggle strengthened and reinforced each other in ways that cannot always be predicted in advance. Their lesson is clear: we must multiply the forms and points of cultural, economic, and political pressure.

Historian Jon Soske and international affairs scholar Sean Jacobs are co-editors of The Apartheid Analogy (Haymarket Books 2015).


Featured image by Safiyyah Patel

Jon Soske and Sean Jacobs

For this special forum, we invited eleven scholars of Africa and its diaspora to reflect on the analogy between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel. The American Studies Association’s decision in February 2014 to endorse the academic boycott of Israel, followed by the state violence directed against the inhabitants of Gaza this past July, has intensified the debate over Israel/Palestine in universities across North America. The international, nonviolent campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel is gaining momentum by the day. 

Most of the contributions to this forum underline the obvious similarities between apartheid South Africa and Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. As Robin D.G. Kelley writes: “That Israel and its colonial occupation meet the UN’s definition of an apartheid state is beyond dispute." Both apartheid South Africa and the Israeli state originated through a process of conquest and settlement largely justified on the grounds of religion and ethnic nationalism. Both pursued a legalized, large-scale program of displacing the earlier inhabitants from their land. Both instituted a variety of discriminatory laws based on racial or ethnic grounds. Outside of a tiny group of pro-Zionist organizations, the analogy is so widely accepted in South Africa that it draws little controversy. Indeed, leading members of the anti-apartheid struggle, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jewish struggle veterans like Ronnie Kasrils, have repeatedly stated that the conditions in the West Bank and Gaza are “worse than apartheid.”

At the same time, no historical analogy is ever exact. Comparisons necessarily reveal differences even as they underline similarities. Defenders of Israel’s record sometimes use this fact to chip away at the allegation of apartheid by underlining, for example, the civil rights enjoyed by Palestinian citizens of Israel. (Although many observers argue that these rights have always been limited and are being eroded at an alarming pace.) Such differences are important and unarguable. But generally, this mode of debate strives to deflect attention away from the illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the ongoing construction of settlements on Palestinian land, the indiscriminate bombing and shelling directed at Palestinian civilians, and the mass detention and torture of Palestinian activists. Far from exonerating the policies and practices of the Israeli state, the divergences between the two cases—as Melissa Levin so powerfully shows—more often than not speak to the incredible desperation of the Palestinian situation.

As these essays demonstrate, the work of comparison requires an attentiveness to the ethical and political singularity of each space even as it attempts to generate dialogues across multiple histories of oppression and struggle. Rather than “adding up” similarities and differences, the authors explore various aspects of the apartheid/Israel analogy, ranging from the parallels between post-apartheid neoliberalism and the post-Oslo occupied territories to the role of Israel in southern Africa more broadly. As Salim Vally emphasizes, there are a number of lessons that today’s activists can draw from the global anti-apartheid movement regarding the importance of patience, the practical work of building international solidarity, and the dangers of sectarianism. Yet as other contributors argue, most notably Bill Freund in a rather sober commentary, it is far from clear that the South African transition—itself imperfect and highly contested—can provide clear guidance for a peaceful resolution in Israel/Palestine beyond generalities. In pursuing the comparison, there may be as much to learn from the questions of liberation that the South African struggle failed to answer fully.

These essays should help refute, once and for all, the assertion that the apartheid/Israel comparison is “anti-Semitic” because it seeks to “de-legitimize” the state of Israel. If anything, this analogy reflects the principled rejection of anti-Semitism by the vast majority of pro-Palestinian activists. At the ideological heart of apartheid was the program of building an (ultimately impossible) “white South Africa” based on an ethno-nationalist appeal to self-determination. Apartheid’s forced removals, the creation of the Bantustans, and the stripping of Africans’ citizenship rights were all directed to this end. It is therefore telling that so many defenders of Israel’s practices assert the right to a “Jewish state” at the expense of Palestinian claims for justice. Whatever its considerable limitations, the defeat of apartheid represented the historic triumph of an inclusive vision of South Africa over a racially exclusive conception of nation. By drawing a parallel to the South Africa freedom struggle, the analogy targets Israel’s colonial practices, not any one group or people.   

We have published this forum to coincide with the African Studies Association meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana. In South Africa, many of our colleagues have been at the forefront of mobilizing civil society against Israeli apartheid. Until recently, however, North American Africanists have largely been absent from a public debate that hinges, in part, on the historical significance of colonialism, apartheid, and the southern African liberation struggles. The African Literature Association’s endorsement of the BDS Movement was a major turning point in this regard. Among some of our colleagues, this reticence reflects a sincere unease over the way that discussions about Israel/Palestine often mobilize South African history in a highly instrumentalist and reductive fashion. We hope that these essays show that one can think comparatively while remaining attentive to the complexity of (still ongoing) South African struggles.

Other colleagues have invoked an area studies vocabulary to argue that we have enough to worry about in “our own” backyard. South Africa has long boasted an oversized position in African studies. With everything that the continent faces, why return to debates about apartheid once again?  When protestors in Ferguson faced militarized police agencies that had received training from Israeli security forces, they were quick to draw the connection between state racism in the United States and Israel. Moreover, the firing of academic Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois illuminated the way that the orchestrated campaign of intimidation against pro-Palestinian academics has become linked to a broader erosion of shared university governance and academic freedom. As scholars based in North America, it is only possible to see Israel/Palestine as “outside our field of expertise” if we divorce the concerns of African studies from the forms of militarism, racism, and censorship that operate in our own society.

The global anti-apartheid movement was one of the largest international civil society mobilizations of the late 20th century. For all of its mistakes and internal divisions, it succeeded because it managed to connect diverse, localized struggles to a campaign against international support for the South African regime. The BDS movement is today developing a similar dynamic. We hope that this forum will encourage collaborations with colleagues in Middle East Studies (and other fields), the organization of conferences and special journal issues, and the difficult work of teaching about contemporary forms of apartheid in our courses. The editors believe that the African Studies Association should move toward endorsing the academic boycott of Israeli universities. We offer these essays as a launching point and invite our colleagues to join us in this discussion.

Contributors: Achille Mbembe, Salim Vally, Andy Clarno, Arianna Lissoni, T.J. Tallie, Bill Freund, Marissa Moorman, Shireen Hassim, Robin D.G. Kelley, Heidi Grunebaum, and Melissa Levin.

Concept: Elliot Ross

Achille Mbembe

There is no need to say much any longer. We have heard it all by now and from all parties.

We all know what is going on—it can’t be  “occupied territory” if the land is your own.

As a result, everyone else is either an enemy,  a “self hater” or both.  If we have to mask annexation, so be it. In any case, there is no need to take responsibility for the suffering inflicted to the other party because we have convinced ourselves that the other party does not exist.

Thus thuggishness, jingoism, racist rhetoric, and sectarianism.

Thus every two or three years, an all-out, asymmetrical assault against a population entrapped in an open air prison.

We each know why they do what they do—the army, the police, the settlers, the pilots of bombing raids, the zealots, and the cohort of international Pharisees and their mandatory righteousness, starting with the United States of America.

We all know what is going on: by any means necessary, they must be purged from the land.

I am willing to bet:

- In Palestine, it would be hard to find one single person who has not lost someone, a member of the family, a friend, a close relative, a neighbor.

- It would be hard to find one single person who is unaware of what “collateral damages” are all about.

It is all a gigantic mess. Rage, resentment and despair. The melding of strength, victimhood, and a supremacist complex.

I am willing to bet it is worse than the South African Bantustans.

To be sure, it is not Apartheid South African style.

It is far more lethal.

It looks like high-tech Jim Crow cum Apartheid.

The refusal of citizenship to those who are not like us. Encirclement. Never enough  land taken. And once again, the melding of strength, victimhood, and a supremacist complex. No wonder even the Europeans are now threatening Israel with sanctions.

Israel is entitled to live in peace. But Israel will be safeguarded only by peace in a confederal arrangement that recognizes reciprocal residency, if not citizenship.

The occupation of Palestine is the biggest moral scandal of our times, one of the most dehumanizing ordeals of the century we have just entered, and the biggest act of cowardice of the last half-century.

And since all they are willing to offer is a fight to the finish, since what they are willing to do is to go all the way—carnage, destruction, incremental extermination—the time has come for global isolation.

Salim Vally

The Palestinian struggle does not only exert a visceral tug on many around the world. A reading of imperialism shows that apartheid Israel is needed as a fundamentalist and militarised warrior state not only to quell the undefeated and unbowed Palestinians, but also as a rapid response fount of reaction in concert with despotic Arab regimes to do the Empire’s bidding in the Middle East and beyond.

Over the years this has included support for the mass terror waged against the people of Central and South America and facilitating the evasion of international sanctions against South Africa. 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 apartheid prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd already in 1961 when he approvingly 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 year in the resistance against Apartheid, 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 as late as 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 many 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. Israeli companies, subsidized by the South African regime despite the pittance they paid workers, were established in a number of Bantustans.

Besides providing a ready supply of mercenaries to terrorise a populace - whether in Guatemala, Iraq, or New Orleans - Israel also trains police forces and military personnel around the world, lending its expertise of collective punishment and mass terror. For instance, at least two of the four law enforcement agencies that were deployed in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown— the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Police Department — received training from Israeli security forces in recent years. 

 We have to recognise that the Israeli economy was founded on the special political and military role which Zionism then and today fulfills for Western imperialism. While playing its role to ensure that the region is safe for oil companies, it has also carved out today a niche market producing high-tech security essential for the day-to-day functioning of New Imperialism. The weaponry and technology the Israeli military-industrial complex exports around the world are field tested on the bodies of Palestinian men, women, and children.


The ‘Whataboutery’ Argument Revisited

In attempting to isolate the erstwhile South African apartheid regime, we were confronted with responses by apartheid apologists that often ended with the diversionary “what about Pol Pot?” or “what about Idi Amin?” Once again supporters of Israel and unfortunately even well-meaning liberals voice similar evasive sentiments including the indignant cousin of "whataboutery," the complaint, “Why single out Israel?”. 

Over the years the countries and groups referred to by the "whatabout" critics included Sudan, Iran, Syria, Boko Haram and now ISIS or the "Islamic State" group. Sudan was bombed and stiff sanctions implemented, Iran has been under sanctions since 1979, Syria since 2003, atavistic groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS are actively hunted by the US and other Western powers. Ilan Pappe put it succinctly: “… there are horrific cases where dehumanization has reaped unimaginable horrors. But there is a crucial difference between these cases and Israel's brutality: the former are condemned as barbarous and inhuman worldwide, while those committed by Israel are still publicly licensed and approved by Western governments.”

So the supporters of Israel miss the point. The Israeli regime is of course not the only one worthy of opprobrium and censure but in the past it would’ve been absurd and foolhardy to have a boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) strategy against the genocidal and isolationist Pol Pot regime or today against the horrific Boko Haram or ISIS. BDS is not a universally appropriate strategy—it is a particular tactic chosen because of its potential effectiveness in a particular situation. As the writer and journalist Mike Marqusee explains:

Arguing that one should ignore this specific call for BDS [against Israel] because it is not simultaneously aimed at all oppressive regimes is like arguing you should cross a picket line because the union in dispute is not simultaneously picketing all other bad employers.

The demand of the BDS campaign is not that Israel should be better than other countries, but that it should adhere to the very modest minimum standards of human rights and international law. It is an attempt to end the impunity given to Israel. In fact, Israel is singled out by Western powers for special treatment. The US provides Israel with massive aid, including military support as well as diplomatic and political cover. The EU provides preferential trade agreements and even the football body FIFA treats Israel as if it were a European country. The pampering and material support the Israeli state has received has not tempered its vile crimes, but instead made it more vicious. It should be seen in all its nakedness as a pariah state like Israel’s dear and unlamented former friend, apartheid South Africa.


Lessons from the Campaign to Isolate Apartheid South Africa

It will be helpful to draw activists’ attention to some of the lessons from the campaign to isolate apartheid South Africa.

First, it took a few decades of hard work before the boycott and sanctions campaign made an impact. Despite the impression given by many venal government leaders that they supported the isolation of the apartheid state from the outset, this is just not true. Besides the infamous words of Dick Cheney, when as a US senator he called for the continued incarceration of Nelson Mandela because he was a “terrorist,” and the support given by US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Thatcher, together with Pinochet’s Chile, Israel and others, most multilateral organizations and even unions were hesitant for many years to fully support the campaign. The Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) was formed in 1959 and the first significant breakthrough came in 1963 when Danish dock workers refused to off-load South African goods.

The rise of the AAM must be seen in the general effervescence of liberation struggles and social movements in the turbulent 1960s/early 1970s and in the context of, whatever our opinion was of the USSR and its motivations, a counterweight to the US hegemon. The post-9/11 climate of fear, silencing dissent, and Islamophobia (together with the viciousness of the pro-Israeli lobby and its opportunistic reference to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism) makes the task of isolating apartheid Israel more difficult. Despite these seemingly daunting obstacles, the movement for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel is gaining momentum and already some significant gains have been made, gains which would have been difficult to imagine just a few years ago.

Second, arguments opposed to the boycott related to the harm it would cause black South African themselves and the need for dialogue and “constructive engagement” was easily rebuffed by lucid and knowledgeable arguments. The disingenuous argument that black workers in South Africa would be harmed by sanctions was given short-shrift by the democratic movement who argued that if sanctions hastened the end of apartheid then any short term difficulties would be welcomed. The Israeli economy depends even less on Palestinian labor than the South African economy depended on black South Africans so the argument that “Palestinians will also suffer” from a BDS campaign is just not true. The South African regime, like the Israeli regime today, used Bantustan leaders and an assortment of collaborators to argue the case for them. Careful research played an important role in exposing the economic, cultural, and armaments trade links with South Africa to make our actions more effective as well as to “name and shame” those who benefited from the apartheid regime.

Third, sectarianism is a danger that we must be vigilant about and principled unity must be our lodestar. Some in the AAM favored supporting only one liberation movement as the authentic voice of the oppressed in South Africa. They also aspired to work largely with “respectable” organizations, governments, and multilateral organizations and shunned the much harder and patient linking of struggles with grassroots organizations. During the South African anti-apartheid struggle, sectarian attitudes resulted in debilitating splits. In England, for instance, the biggest chapter of the AAM in London, which supported the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland and was part of the "Troops Out Movement," was ostracized by the official AAM. The latter was also keen not to annoy the British government by taking a stronger stance against racism in Britain.

At a huge Palestinian solidarity rally in South Africa, members of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign were asked by officials from the Palestinian ambassador’s office to pull down the flag of the Western Sahara Republic because they feared this would alienate the ambassador of Morocco. We refused this request. Similarly, Palestinian solidarity must take a stand against oppression in all its forms and as far as possible be active in solidarity with other struggles locally and globally.

Fourth, we should actively oppose any sign of anti-Semitism, whether overt or covert, and its manifestations should be challenged immediately. Utmost vigilance around this is necessary. There have been attempts by agent provocateurs to encourage and bait people so that the charge of anti-Semitism could be used to discredit our movement. These instances should be studied and the culprits exposed. Fully cognizant, of course, that the canard of "anti-Semitism" is used opportunistically by the supporters of Israel against anyone opposed to Israel’s policies. 

Fifth, the campaign for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions must be in concert with supporting grassroots organizations in Palestine as a whole and in the Palestinian diaspora. This can take many forms and shapes including "twinning" arrangements, speaking tours, targeted actions in support of specific struggles, and concrete support.

Finally, the sanctions campaign in South Africa did produce gatekeepers, sectarians, and commissars but, as Shireen Hassim observes in her contribution to this forum, they were also challenged.  


Palestinian Solidarity in South Africa Today

On August the 9th of this year, between 150,000 to 200,000 South Africans marched in Cape Town against the recent atrocities in Gaza and for full sanctions against Israel. It was the biggest march in South Africa’s history and continues solidarity activity since 1994. The highlights of these activities include: a ten thousand strong march in Durban during the World Conference Against Racism in 2001 where the “Second Anti-Apartheid Movement” was declared and a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against ‘Apartheid Israel’ adopted; an equally strong march at the World Summit on Sustainable Development Summit in 2002 in support of the Palestinian struggle and against the presence of an Israeli delegation including former Israeli president Shimon Peres; the refusal of dock workers in Durban to offload an Israeli ship in 2009 in the wake of Israel’s ‘Cast Lead’ assault on Gaza and in 2011 the decision by the Senate of the University of Johannesburg to sever ties with Ben Gurion University. 

Despite the ANC’s support for a sanctions campaign against apartheid South Africa during our liberation struggle, the postapartheid South African government has facilitated increasing trade with Israel since 1994 (as this dossier shows). The dossier also reflects Palestinians’ dashed hopes about the new and “progressive” ANC government. In a response to the overwhelming sentiment of South Africans to expel the Israeli ambassador during the latest outrage in Gaza, our deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said “It’s often best when you want to solve problems to remain engaged so that you can have some leverage and this gave our president leverage to be able to send the two special envoys.” For many this was a variation of the ‘constructive engagement’ espoused by the likes of Thatcher and Reagan. Many activists are simply fed-up with the empty posturing and what they correctly perceive as lucre trumping principle.  Trade has increased since then. Bilateral trade between the two countries now stands at R12 billion up from R4 billion in 2003.

Palestinians despite their tremendous respect for South Africans are increasingly expressing the view that statements and symbolic gestures of solidarity, as have been coming from the South African government are no longer enough in the face of Israel’s acts of terror in Gaza. Despite attempts to promote collective amnesia, some of us remember the tremendous practical support and succor the Israeli state provided to our erstwhile oppressors, while many Palestinians shared trenches with South African freedom fighters.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) consciously makes connections to the South African struggle.  Other writings have justified the need for this strategy, so it will suffice here to quote Virginia Tilley, an American political scientist who lives in South Africa, who in the aftermath of the cluster bombing by Israel of Lebanon in 2006, wrote:

It is finally time. After years of internal arguments, confusion, and dithering, the time has come for a full-fledged international boycott of Israel. Good cause for a 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. A coordinated movement of divestment, sanctions, and boycotts against Israel must convene to contain not only Israel’s aggressive acts and crimes against humanitarian law but also, as in South Africa, its founding racist logics that inspired and still drive the entire Palestinian problem.

Andy Clarno

In early September 2001, the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa, placed the Palestinian struggle at the heart of the global movement against racism, neoliberalism, and empire. The NGO Forum issued a powerful declaration that marked Israel as an “apartheid state.”  Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Durban wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: “APARTHEID IS/REAL.”  By no means the first time Israel was likened to South Africa, the WCAR was instrumental in globalizing the discourse of Israeli apartheid.  

Since 2001, activists and scholars have increasingly turned to South Africa to make sense of current conditions in Palestine/Israel, to explore strategies of resistance, and to conceptualize possible futures. For many observers, South Africa represents a principled rejection of settler colonialism, a model of a one-state solution, and a vision of reconciliation and multiracial democracy based on a common humanity.  In addition, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has made tremendous gains building on the tactics of the South African anti-apartheid movement.  In short, studying the success of the South African struggle has been highly productive for the Palestinian freedom movement. 

Building on this work, I want to suggest that understanding the limitations of liberation in post-apartheid South Africa could also prove productive. Overthrowing the apartheid state freed black South Africans from the confines of the white supremacist regime. This extraordinary victory has been rightfully celebrated and South Africa has become a beacon of hope for millions.  Yet South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world.  A small black elite and a growing black middle class have emerged alongside the old white elite, which still controls the vast majority of land and wealth in the country.  Poor black South Africans have been relegated to a life of permanent unemployment, informal housing, and high rates of HIV/AIDS in the townships and shack settlements of the urban periphery.  While rooted in the history of colonialism and apartheid, these conditions cannot be dismissed as simply the lingering effects of the old regime. Waves of strikes, social movements, and popular uprisings have made clear that the struggle in South Africa continues.

Until now, nearly every comparative study has focused on apartheid-era South Africa and contemporary Palestine/Israel.  Yet the continuing crises and ongoing struggles in South Africa have important implications for the Palestinian struggle.  The crises serve as a reminder that democratizing a settler state does not entirely eliminate inequality, segregation, or even racism. And the struggles make it possible to deepen the connections between social justice movements in Palestine/Israel and South Africa today.  My own work draws out these implications through a comparative analysis of contemporary South Africa and contemporary Palestine/Israel, focusing on the simultaneous transitions that have taken place in both countries since the early 1990s.

The end of formal apartheid in South Africa and the Oslo “peace process” in Palestine/Israel were fundamentally neoliberal projects connected to the restructuring of global political/economic relations at the end of the Cold War.  While the South African state was democratized and deracialized, the formation of the Palestinian Authority allowed Israel to introduce a form of indirect rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to expand its colonial domination over the entire territory.  Each of these transitions, however, was closely connected to the rising global hegemony of neoliberal capitalism.  Promoting market-based policies such as privatization, de-regulation, entrepreneurialism, and free trade, neoliberal restructuring has enabled the rise of multi-national corporations, the growth of finance capital, the concentration of wealth among the elite, the deepening marginalization of the poor, and the expansion of security forces to manage these surplus populations. In both Palestine/Israel and South Africa, neoliberal restructuring has intensified race and class inequality and generated new struggles and social movements.   

The transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa was accompanied by the consolidation of neoliberal capitalism.  Building on economic reforms initiated by the apartheid regime, the African National Congress (ANC) adopted a series of market friendly policies to win the support of the South African and global business elites.  Most importantly, the ANC accepted constitutional protections for the existing distribution of private property, despite the fact that it was ultimately acquired through conquest and violent dispossession.  Within two years of coming to power, the ANC government adopted an explicitly neoliberal economic strategy.  In addition, it took on the debt accumulated by the apartheid regime and gave up on proposals to nationalize the banks and the mines.  As a result, black South Africans gained equal rights, the black middle class became more secure, and a few black families with close ties to the new regime amassed great fortunes. But the old white elite and their corporations have largely retained control over the country’s vast wealth.

For millions of black South Africans, the neoliberal liberation has meant the elimination of jobs and the commodification of basic services.  Economic restructuring has led to the collapse of industrial employment, the increasing precariousness of waged labor, and growing levels of permanent structural unemployment. The privatization of water, electricity, education, health care, and housing has made these services increasingly difficult to afford. And the official “land redistribution” program – guided by market-based “willing seller, willing buyer” principles – has led to the redistribution of only 8% of South African land. Hardest hit by these changes, of course, are the poor, black communities that led the struggle against apartheid and are now being devastated by poverty and HIV/AIDS.  The gulf between the wealthiest and poorest South Africans has grown so wide that post-apartheid South Africa is now ranked as one of the three most unequal countries in the world.

Unlike black South Africans, Palestinians have not achieved political freedom or legal equality. The Oslo negotiations established the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a limited self-governing body for Palestinians in a series of isolated enclosures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The PA was granted partial autonomy over civil affairs – such as education and health care – in exchange for working with Israel to police the Palestinian people and suppress resistance. The State of Israel retains full sovereign control over the entire territory and has continued to colonize Palestinian land while concentrating the Palestinian population into isolated and enclosed zones of abandonment and death.

From the start, Oslo has been a deeply neoliberal process.  The Oslo negotiations were promoted by Israeli business elites concerned that political instability would impede their ability to attract foreign investors and multi-national corporations. They were shaped by former President Shimon Peres’s vision of a “New Middle East” – a regional free-trade zone that would open the markets of the Arab world to US and Israeli capital. Trade accords with neighboring countries allowed Israeli businesses to outsource production to low-wage industrial zones in Egypt and Jordan. And the economic policies of the PA, closely linked to those of Israel through the 1994 Paris Protocol, were shaped from the start by the World Bank and IMF. The PA is also highly susceptible to donor pressure because its budget depends heavily on grants and loans from donor states. From 2000-2013, Salam Fayyad, a former IMF employee, was installed as PA Minister of Finance and later Prime Minister and tasked with implementing neoliberal projects.  With support from the Palestinian elite, these projects have amplified the class divisions within Palestinian society.

Neoliberal restructuring has enabled Israel’s policy of separation and enclosure by greatly reducing Israeli reliance on Palestinian labor. Israel has undergone a major transition from a labor-intensive economy centered on production for the domestic market to a high-tech economy integrated into the circuits of global capitalism. This shift has undermined the basis of agricultural and industrial labor, eliminating the need for Palestinian workers and crippling both Palestinian and Israeli labor unions. Since the early 1990s, Israel has largely replaced Palestinian workers with hundreds of thousands of low paid migrant workers. And Palestinian industries in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been devastated by Israeli restrictions (and airstrikes), cheap imports, and outsourcing to Jordan and Egypt. As a result of these changes, Israeli – and some Palestinian – business elites have garnered tremendous wealth while the Palestinian enclaves have become sites of concentrated inequality. A small Palestinian elite with close ties to the PA has grown rich while the majority of Palestinians confront deepening poverty, land confiscation, and constant repression.  Two of the main sources of income for Palestinian workers in the West Bank today are building Israeli settlements on confiscated Palestinian land or joining the PA security forces – trained by the United States and charged with ensuring Israeli security.

Post-apartheid South Africa demonstrates the limitations of a liberation strategy that does not extend beyond the de-racialization of the state apparatus. The South African left used to describe apartheid as a system of “racial capitalism” built to maintain not only white supremacy, but also access to cheap black labor for white owned businesses. Unless racism and capitalism were confronted together, they insisted, post-apartheid South Africa would remain deeply divided and unequal. This analysis emerged out of decades of scholarship and struggle and is widely shared among South African scholars today. The ANC preferred a two-stage revolutionary strategy that prioritized the struggle against racism and promised that the struggle against capitalism would come later. By the 1990s, this strategy brought about a transition to democracy, but at the cost of institutionalizing neoliberal capitalism and protecting the wealth of the old white elite. In the words of the late Neville Alexander, “what we used to call the apartheid-capitalist system has simply given way to the post-apartheid-capitalist system.”

Like most critical work on Palestine/Israel, the analysis of Israeli apartheid has largely overlooked the relationship between colonial domination and racial capitalism. Drawing on the UN definition of apartheid as a regime of racial discrimination and segregation, scholars and activists have focused on the forms of legal discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, the dual legal system in the Occupied Territories, the colonization of Palestinian land, and the system of identity documents and permits used to classify and control Palestinian movement. In recent years, scholars have increasingly adopted political-economic approaches for the study of Palestine/Israel – highlighting the relationship between neoliberal restructuring and the Oslo process. Yet these perspectives have not yet been fully incorporated into the analysis of Israeli apartheid.

During an age of industrial expansion, South African factories, farms, and mines were absolutely dependent on black workers.  The Israeli strategy of separation and enclosure, on the other hand, has emerged during an age of neoliberal hegemony and involves the steady eradication of work for Palestinians.  Some observers recognize the divergent relationship between capitalism and racism in apartheid-era South Africa and contemporary Palestine/Israel as simply a manifestation of contextual specificity in the operation of apartheid.  But this is more than just an academic question of similarities and differences.  It goes to the heart of the crisis confronting Palestinians and South Africans today.

A familiar story throughout the world, the globalization of production made possible by neoliberal restructuring has generated surplus populations in both South Africa and Palestine/Israel: permanently unemployed, too poor to consume, and abandoned by the neoliberal state.  In Palestine/Israel, neoliberalism has intensified a colonial dynamic already operating to turn Palestinians into a surplus population that can be enclosed, expelled, encouraged to kill one another, or simply slaughtered—as Israel has made clear in Gaza over the last two months.  This raises important questions about the possibilities for forging movements to challenge a capitalist system that is increasingly producing surplus populations across the planet.

Over the last 10 years, the Palestinian solidarity movement has made extraordinary gains, especially through BDS campaigns. Yet Palestinian movements on the ground face intense repression and fragmentation.  At the same time, South Africa has witnessed widespread struggles against neoliberal capitalism – from service delivery protests to community based social movements to independent labor unions. And throughout the world, people have risen up against neoliberal capitalism, corporate power, war, and racism.  Global convergences of these social justice movements – from the World Conference Against Racism to the World Social Forum – have provided opportunities for Palestinians to forge connections with organizations and activists from South Africa and around the world.  Understanding the ways that Palestine/Israel, like South Africa, is implicated in global processes of political-economic restructuring could contribute to the constitution of broader movements against global, neoliberal apartheid.

Arianna Lissoni

It would be hard for present-day visitors of Mafikeng, the administrative capital of South Africa’s North West Province, to miss the sight of its massive stadium on the otherwise flat landscape. The Olympic-standard football stadium, which can accommodate up to 60,000 spectators, is inactive and was not deemed suitable to host any 2010 FIFA World Cup games. What would not be immediately evident to the eye, however, is that Mahikeng’s white elephant – known in its heyday as the Independence Stadium - was planned by Israeli architects and built by an Israeli construction firm during the bantustan era in apartheid South Africa.

Kept under cover for a long time, the full extent of Israeli-South African collaboration on nuclear and military matters has recently been exposed in Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s The Unspoken Alliance (2010).[1] Yet there is another relationship between these two countries (which started as an offshoot of the Pretoria-Jerusalem axis and of which Mahikeng’s stadium is one of the material remains) that was very public in its days, but appears to have been largely forgotten: the one between Israel and South Africa’s bantustans.

That this relationship has been forgotten is surprising, given the parallels between South Africa’s apartheid policy and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians (where the bantustans are often compared to the Palestinian territories as politically and economically unviable ‘dumping grounds’ for black South Africans and Palestinians respectively). The ties between the former bantustans and Israel complicate this analogy and twist it into new directions that are explored below. Moreover, Israel’s extensive relations with the bantustans reveal the country’s historical involvement (beyond the level of military and nuclear cooperation) in supporting one of the cornerstones of apartheid ideology.

‘Home, Sweet Homeland’

In 1973, the Organization of African Unity passed a resolution urging its member states to sever diplomatic ties with Israel in condemnation of its continued occupation of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula after the Yom Kippur War. Apartheid South Africa, along with a small group of reactionary African countries headed by Zaire, had no qualms about establishing relations with Israel—at a time when Israel was beginning to lose international credibility and the majority of African states were breaking theirs off. South African Prime Minister John Vorster’s famous visit to Israel in 1976 not only placed the diplomatic seal on a ‘much bigger deal’ between the two countries (by 1977 South Africa had become Israel’s largest arms customer),[2] but also paved the way for a whole other series of diplomatic and economic relations which had as partners South Africa’s so-called ‘homelands’. From 1980 onwards one after another ‘homeland’ ruler, including Bophuthatswana’s “president” Lucas Mangope, travelled to Israel on official visits.

Heavily reliant on Pretoria’s handouts for their economic survival and denied international recognition, the bantustans granted attractive tax concessions and other financial reliefs (integral to South Africa’s policy of industrial decentralization) in order to attract foreign investment into their territories. The absence of black trade unions, wage subsidies, and guaranteed supplies of cheap black labor provided further incentives for foreign companies to do business with the bantustans. According to a newspaper title, it was ‘Home Sweet Homeland for Israeli Businessmen’.[3]

Although the bantustans’ economic dependence on Pretoria has been well documented, the role which foreign (often limited to Israeli and Taiwanese) investment played in developing the bantustans’ infrastructure, helping in turn to prop up their illegitimate governments, has not been investigated. Likewise, the extent to which such investment injected new blood into a suffering Israeli economy – thus contributing to the survival of the Israeli state–remains an open question. Even if it is unlikely that the profits derived from these ‘legitimate’ business operations ever matched those involved in the secret arms trade between Israel and South Africa, they were by no means insignificant. Moreover they had important political ramifications.

The only state with an official flag of Bophuthatswana

Bophuthatswana was neither the first nor the last ‘homeland’ to establish ties with Israel, but the relationship between the two appears to have been the most lucrative and pervasive of the lot. By 1983 Israeli investment in Bophuthatswana totalled US$250 million.[4] Around this time, Shabtai Kalmanovich, a Russian-born Israeli businessman with dubious credentials introduced to Mangope by Sol Kerzner (the uncrowned king of the casinos and hotels empire in Bophuthatswana who later established himself in the US), was appointed Bophuthatswana’s trade representative in Israel. Kalmanowitch became responsible for arranging and coordinating business deals as well as diplomatic contacts for Bophuthatswana – while amassing a huge fortune for himself.

Through Kalmanowitch, Bophuthatswana purchased a four storey building at 194 Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv to house its Trade Mission. The building stood ‘in one of the most beautiful spots in Tel Aviv opposite the Hilton Hotel and the Independence Park – with a fascinating view of the sea’.[5] An Israeli firm of architects, Barchana, was contracted in 1984 to undertake the renovation works, which cost one million USD. Bophuthatswana House, as the building (featuring marble floors and decorative ceilings, imported Italian furniture, and a Presidential suite) was renamed, functioned in practice like an embassy and became the only place in the world outside South Africa to fly Bophuthatswana’s flag.

By the mid-1980s, Israel received approximately official 100 visitors from Bophuthatswana every year and vice versa – involving government representatives from a vast spectrum of departments on both sides, as well as numerous private Israeli citizens. In the period 1984-85, 79 business projects were submitted to the Bophuthatswana government – ranging from housing, the construction of the stadium, a tennis center, irrigations projects, security systems, television programming, the purchase of tractors, aviation, diamonds manufacturing, a shoe factory, a meat processing plant, and a crocodile farm. Israel also became a valuable source of expertise, with professionals in various fields recruited to work in Bophuthatswana by the Tel Aviv Trade Mission.[6]

‘Humanitarian’ Relations

Before corruption charges could be brought against him in relation to the 18 million USD stadium deal, Kalmanowitch exited the Bophuthatswana scene to seek new profits in Sierra Leone’s diamond trade. His former secretary Tova P. Maori, was appointed to head a new office in Tel Aviv (it is unclear what happened to Bophuthatswana House, which disappeared with Kalmanovich). The period that followed was largely one of consolidation of the initiatives that had been started by Kalmanowitch and saw their penetration into the cultural and social fabric of the bantustan. The political implications of this process - especially for Bophuthatswana’s survival into the 1990s - were far reaching.

Under Tova’s direction, the new Trade Mission office started cultivating not only business exchanges but also what were then called ‘humanitarian’ exchanges in fields such as tourism, education, sports and culture. In 1989 the Israel/Bophuthatswana Friendship Society was set up in Israel (with an active membership of approximately 150 people) ‘as a forum for cultural exchanges and networking between the people of Israel and Bophuthatswana’.[7] Mangope’s daughter-in-law Rosemary, who had studied in Jerusalem, drew inspiration from the Women’s International Zionist Organisation’s (Wizo) programs in Israel to set up a cultural center (of which she became Executive Director) called Mmabana (‘mother of the children’). Israeli tennis and football coaches were contracted to contribute to the development of these sports in Bophuthatswana, whose teams were invited to play in Israeli tournaments.

 “Africa’s Little Israel”

The negotiations over South Africa’s political future in the early 1990s brought the future of the TVBC (Transkei-Bophuthatswana-Venda-Ciskei) states and their reincorporation into South Africa under the spotlight. In 1990, after Mandela’s release and the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) and other political parties, Mangope announced that Bophuthatswana would ‘remain an independent state one hundred years from now’, refusing to take part in the negotiations at CODESA.

In a desperate bid to retain ‘independence’ and with Pretoria’s support withdrawing, Bophuthatswana increasingly looked to the outside world for friends. The early 1990s saw a vigorous expansion of Bophuthatswana’s diplomatic efforts (with the satellites of the former Soviet Union proving especially receptive) as the bantustan tried to project internationally the image of a stable, moderate, multi-racial, Christian country firmly set in the capitalist economy.

Israel’s friendship to South Africa’s bantustans remained steadfast in this critical period, as Bantustan leaders continued to be envisaged as allies in the future geo-political reconfiguration of the region (against the prospect of the coming to power of the ‘pro-Soviet’ and ‘pro-Palestinian’ ANC). Relations with the bantustans were used by Israel as evidence of its abhorrence of apartheid. Bophuthatswana, on the other hand, looked to Israel’s ethno-nationalism as ‘an example, similar to their own, of a young country that has achieved independence as a result of their cultural and historical ties to the land’.[8] It also began to display signs of Israel’s (and South Africa’s) ‘siege mentality,’ with senior officials speaking of their ‘beleaguered’ homeland as ‘the litte Israel of Africa’[9].


The final collapse of Bophuthatswana and the coming to power of the new ANC government in 1994 at last put a halt to this hive of activities – commercial, sports, educational, cultural, ideological and ultimately political – between the former bantustan and Israel. Mangope fought to the bitter end for Bophuthatswana to retain its ‘independence’ and Israeli support – which always remained short of official but came to encompass a vast range of relations – played a critical role in helping Bophuthatswana to survive for as long as it did. It can be argued that this relationship was essentially an opportunistic one: to be sure, Israelis made huge profits by doing business with Bophuthatswana (and other bantustans). Economic ties paved the way for other types of links which together contributed to upholding a political project, that of the bantustans. Israel’s engagement with apartheid practices is thus much deeper than its present policy-making context. On the other side of the relationship, Bophuthatswana desperately needed allies such as Israel for the development of its infrastructure. This in turn provided the foundation on which Bophuthatswana’s claim to a separate identity in the new South Africa could be based. Israel also became a cultural and ideological model from which the bantustan could draw on to shape its own ethno-nationalist project and in articulating its right to exist.

[1] S. Polakow-Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa (Auckland Park, South Africa: Jacana, 2010).

[2] Ibid.,pp. 95, 105.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., note 10, p. 278.

[4] ‘Heavy investments in Bophuthatswana’, Hadashot, 20 June 1984.

[5] North West Provincial Archives (NWPA), Bophuthatswana Papers (BP), CN 13/2, ‘Letter from Barchana Architects translated from Hebrew into English’, 28 October 1984.

[6] NWPA, BP, Trade Mission Office, Tel Aviv, ‘Annual Report: 1984’ and ‘Annual Report: 1985’.

[7]Bophuthatswana Pioneer, 14, 1 (992), p. 21.

[8]Bophuthatswana Pioneer, 14 (1), 1992, p. 20.

[9]Ibid., p. 24. This first appeared in the title of an editorial in the Jerusalem Post.

T.J. Tallie

The Israeli apartheid analogy is a complex one, particularly for me as an African-American historian whose work focuses on histories of race, gender, and conflict in South Africa. In many ways, the structure of apartheid as a governmental system and overlapping series of exclusionary laws and policies does indeed resemble that of contemporary of Israel, as figures like Desmond Tutu have made clear time and again.  Historically, the partnership between Israel and the apartheid government in South Africa was a contested but close one, made stronger by both governments’ view that they were bastions of Western, anti-communist order in a region surrounded by hostile native peoples.  Die Burger, a newspaper in the Cape Province (now Western Cape) that frequently served as a mouthpiece for apartheid’s National Party, intoned this connection most starkly in May of 1968:

Israel and South Africa have a common lot.  Both are engaged in a struggle for existence, and both are in constant clash with the decisive majorities in the United Nations.  Both are reliable foci of strength within the region, which would, without them, fall into anti-Western anarchy.  It is in South Africa's interest that Israel is successful in containing her enemies, who are among our own most vicious enemies ... The anti-Western powers have driven Israel and South Africa into a community of interests which had better be utilized than denied.

Indeed, the structural parallels of apartheid and Zionism in Israel are strikingly visible in multiple forms from ruthless expulsions of peoples, to the claims of newly arrivant peoples to authentic indigeneity, to religious justifications, to hypermilitization. 

The similarities between the two state systems led South African exile Alfred Tokollo Moleah, then a professor in Pan African Studies at Temple University in Pennsylvania, to write a scathing indictment of both Israel and South Africa in 1979, where he called both countries:

the manifestation of a shared ideology, a common worldview.  Both Israel and South Africa feel that they have a religious calling; both see themselves as Western outposts in a sea of barbarism.  They both see their states and the political programs as the unfolding of a divine drama ...When a divine injunction rests on privilege, floats on oil, is gilted as well as festooned with diamonds, and is girded by uranium, chrome and platinum group metals, you then have a most explosive mixture.

Yet as a historian, I do feel compelled to point out that the comparison is not without its flaws.  The word apartheid itself and its origins have much to do with a specific regional, temporal, and cultural context within southern Africa.  Using the word apartheid as an analogy is a decisive mobilization of the term in order to link Israel’s policies with a now entirely discredited regime of exclusion and oppression in South Africa.  To make the analogy provides rhetorical power but it also can flatten considerable historic differences between both regions. 

While Israeli exclusion of ‘legitimate’ Palestinian recognized political spaces to the West Bank and Gaza is in some ways reminiscent of the infamous ‘bantustans’ of South Africa in the 1970s, they are not identical.  Although the Israeli state and the National Party’s assumption of government in South Africa share the same year of origin (1948), their preceding histories are not the same.  Apartheid’s origins are rooted substantially in the particularities of settler colonialism in southern Africa, in the mutual antagonisms between English and Afrikaans speaking white minority populations, and the histories of oppressive rule these two populations tried to establish over numerically superior African populations between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries.  Apartheid as a political and cultural project sought to create a modern, industrial nation-state that specifically served only the white minority population. 

The creation of the state of Israel and its relationship to the Palestinian population is different historically, albeit no less problematic.  The initial creation of a Jewish state in a region where Jewish people were not the majority population also contains within it the inherent problems of minority rule and the use of oppression to maintain this order.  Significant claims of historic origin notwithstanding, the majority of Israel’s Jewish population has arrived in the region within the last century.  These are but a few of the immediate material differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa.  Yet, the analogy between the two countries remains significant as both of their governmental systems, from the point of view of the colonized, are oppressive minority regimes.  Both regimes use recourses to broader nationalism or disingenuous claims to universal democracy to only allow full citizenship and access to power for a significant minority of the population.  The majority of the population in both countries, then, has been locked outside of institutional access to power and resources even as the minority regime justifies itself through claims of democracy.  It is therefore understandable why critics of Israel’s continued oppressive regime wish to use the label apartheid in order to link it to the universally discredited South African government.

In thinking through these comparisons, I am reminded of the extra-judicial killing of Black Consciousness Movement leader and anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in 1977 by South African police forces.  When Jimmy Kruger, the Minister for Justice and the Police under Prime Minister John Vorster, first spoke of the death at a National Party meeting in the Transvaal, he commented abruptly, “Dit laat my koud” (It leaves me cold).  Kruger’s comment feels an apt exemplar of the institutionalized brutality and quotidian indifference in the face of suffering that marked life under the apartheid regime.  It is a form of calculus that decides which lives are grievable, and which are not to be lamented in the name of a regime’s survival. 

The Kruger quote inevitably came to mind as I sat riveted to online news coverage of the continued Israeli assault on Gaza this past summer, particularly after the deaths of four children on a beach in Gaza (itself an echo of an earlier killing of a Palestinian family on the beach in 2006).  While the Israeli military declared that it was a ‘tragic outcome,’ there is a certain measure of coldness to the killing of civilians in what now seems an indiscriminate choice of targets.  It remains very apparent that while Palestinian deaths are lamentable, they are deemed necessary, collateral damage for an operation aimed at securing a ‘protective edge’ for an oppressive settler regime.

But again, I am reminded that this rhetoric is neither new nor unique to the South African or Israeli contexts.  As Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd has addressed, my own country, the United States, is built upon a history of the ungrievable Indian, a necropolitics that decides that while unfortunate, the death and clearing of indigenous peoples is a regrettable necessity for securing the settler state.  Settler societies, one in which colonists come to stay, occupying the land and in a dark irony claiming that land as their own to the exclusion of the earlier inhabitants, share many similarities. 

As anthropologist Patrick Wolfe has argued, settler colonialism is a structure rather than an event.  It constantly shapes the daily, lived realities of the people within the settler state (be it the United States, Israel, South Africa, Australia, Canada, or other similar countries).  Those in the population of settlers come to view their expansion as ‘inevitable,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘right.’ The constant, oppressive violence that structured the lived reality of earlier inhabitants is regrettable yet ‘necessary.’  As an American I must reflect on how often our history is taught as the regrettable violences of occupying indigenous lands and the unfortunate destruction of earlier occupants in order to expand an empire of liberty, one that increasingly brings new groups of people into an ever widening circle of freedom.  (This freedom becomes a terrible, powerful, and un-refusable gift for subjected peoples, as theorist Mimi Thi Nguyen has argued so well).

This intersection is where I find myself as an African-American scholar of South African history, viewing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I am intellectually struck by the similarities of settler logics in Israeli repressive measures against Palestinians, the simultaneous fear and resentment of peoples who are themselves locked in cycles of repression and violent occupation, to those I have spent much of my career reading about in colonial South Africa and more aptly in its apartheid iteration.  Yet I remain profoundly aware of the privilege provided by both distance from both South Africa and Israel and by the naturalization of our own settler violences here in the United States.  As a non-native person of color, I understand very well the constant and disproportionate violence meted out to nonwhite peoples within the United States.  Although these moments of repression are still shaped by complicated relationship to a settler nation-state; the very claims I make to belong to a body politic, to push against oppression, are often done through recourse to an American identity that exists only through the oppression and marginalization of indigenous North Americans.

I do think that I have an obligation to continue to articulate the similarities between institutional Israeli settler repression and that codified in twentieth-century South Africa.  While apartheid is a historic and culturally specific political system with a specific frame of reference, many of its political, social, and psychological impacts seem very similar in the Israeli context.  Yet I feel that as an American historian I am equally called to a systematic and searching reflection on my own political and social contexts as an academic and as a researcher.  My observation of these phenomena is not neutral, and it too is shaped by my own experiences of settler violence. 

I believe that a critical assessment of Israeli apartheid that does not also involve self-reflection upon American anti-indigenous genocide and historic anti-black segregation runs the risk of being myopic and self-serving.  It all too easily reinscribes the unfortunate American trait of advocating for political justice in other locations while obfuscating historical oppressions in which we are imbricated. This is not simply a call for navel-gazing, self-flagellating scholarship in the place of incisive and productive comparative work.  But I do think that as a historian I am required to remember my own contexts in writing as much as the place I seek to write about.  That is why even as I critically engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by reflecting upon my work in a colonial South African context, I seek to think through how settler colonialism operates more broadly, naturalizing oppression, othering and marginalization as essential parts of a national story.  I hope to never take my own location within a contemporary settler state for granted as I critique the histories and daily realities of others like Israel and South Africa.

Indeed, the connections between settler regimes and oppressive violence run very deep between Israel and the United States.  The brutal killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in the streets of Missouri shocked many with the revelations of systemic state brutality against people of color.  Yet the St. Louis Police Department, like many departments across the country, have been marked by a profound militarization in tactics, one that treats civilians as ever-constant threats, as expendable lives to be removed.  It is not surprising, then, to learn that Joseph Mokwa, the former chief of the St. Louis Police Department, traveled to Israel in 2008 as part of a law-enforcement exchanged program designed to teach police advanced counter-terrorism methods. 

While the United States, Israel, and apartheid-era South Africa all have significantly different historical origins, the rhetoric of settler rule and hypermilitarized repression is shared between them.  Indeed, as the case in St. Louis demonstrates, these regimes share information, building their logics of oppression and violence in relation to each other.  Due to this shared logic of oppression, analogy is a useful tool of critique and response; it allows us to see how certain systems are oppressive, and how they relate to and inform others.  Nowhere is this more apparent than the response of besieged Palestinians in the immediate wake of Michael Brown’s death and the chilling militarized occupation of Ferguson, Missouri.  From Gaza and beyond, Palestinians released a statement of solidarity with protestors in Missouri, proclaiming

We recognize the disregard and disrespect for black bodies and black life endemic to the supremacist system that rules the land with wanton brutality. Your struggles through the ages have been an inspiration to us as we fight our own battles for basic human dignities. We continue to find inspiration and strength from your struggles through the ages and your revolutionary leaders, like Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Kwame Ture, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, Bobby Seale and others.

Analogies can cut both ways.  Just as the Israel/apartheid analogy exposes similar structural disadvantages for populations, so too can the struggles of African-Americans within white supremacist institutions in the United States inspire and shape Palestinians fighting what they view as an ever-constant Israeli occupation.  So too, can these analogies reverberate in ostensibly post-apartheid South Africa, itself reflecting on the two year anniversary of brutal police violence against striking miners at Marikana.  The prevailing logic of these state actions presumes that civilians exist as ever constant threats to be eliminated, lives to be cheaply disposed for state power.  As the South African political scientist Richard Pithouse observed in August 2014, “The impunity of the Israeli state, like the impunity of the American state, like the impunity with which our own state increasingly uses murder, and legitimates the use of murder as a tool of social control, must be smashed. The militarization of social questions must be smashed everywhere.”  While profoundly imperfect, analogies offer a point of reference, of common understanding, to challenge extant oppressive systems from South Africa to Israel to the United States.

Bill Freund[1]

In comparing Israel and South Africa, I would like to make a few preliminary comments which might preempt off some otherwise justified criticisms.  The first is “apartheid,” a word that is bandied about to stop discussion. Apartheid becomes some kind of horror vaguely used to cover many things happening during a fairly long period in South African history. Its foreign sound for English speakers is deliberately intended to give it a particularly sinister ring unlike its popular predecessor segregation, used for a long time in South Africa even by those who called themselves liberals, and deliberately copied from its usage in the American South. As Mahmood Mamdani pointed out, and I note that Mamdani is a figure with a deep sympathy for African nationalism, South African racial policies emanated out of the history of European colonialism in Africa and were very typical of policies in which all the European powers, including those with conventionally democratic governments, once engaged. These policies are no longer acceptable in recent decades but they certainly once were. Carrying this edifice through in tandem with the emergence in mid-twentieth century of a consumer society built on a significant industrialisation project was the unique path that made late twentieth century South Africa anomalous. Once an anti-apartheid struggle existed in earnest, the defence against it took the form at times of a dirty war but that hardly explains a whole deeply rooted social, cultural and economic system. 

Consequently exactly what one is comparing in Israel with what aspect of South African politics or society becomes important if one is searching for more than movement hyperbole. Israel did much to assist South African militarization in the final decade and a half of apartheid but this mostly reflected a convenient alliance between two countries with polecat status for some rather than any deep inner logic; the Israelis were essentially strategic opportunists who had put themselves forth earlier as model anti-colonial nationalists.

Some years ago I read what I thought was a remarkably comprehensive and intelligent comparison of the two systems made by the British journalist Robert Fisk, one of the most trustworthy sources on what really goes on in and about Israel, syndicated in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian. I could add little to his magisterial and detailed treatment. The essence of what Fisk had to say was a bifurcation. Policies towards Palestinians and indeed towards the non-Jewish world of Israel as it exists within the 1948-67 frontiers are inconsistent. On the one hand, Israel has a liberal “virtual” constitution with civil rights elements quite unlike the old South Africa. On the other, security fears and chauvinistic attachment to an old-fashioned nation-state concept are equally striking and enshrined in some key legislation. The current prime minister Netanyahu’s openly stated position that an independent Palestine must never be allowed to have an independent military force and that no negotiations can take place without the Palestinians first recognizing that Israel is a ‘Jewish state,’ would be a good illustration of the values that percolate through Zionism. So would the outpouring of Israeli Jewish sentiment at the recent death of his unlovable and corrupt hardline predecessor Ariel Sharon, an event which for good reasons attracted few foreigners, not even President Barack Obama.

Non-Jews vote and sit in the Knesset. The Labour Party when in power placed a few Arabs in cabinet positions but rarely do they serve on the judiciary or in the diplomatic corps. Apart from certain groups who fought alongside the Zionists in the war for Israeli independence, they are not trusted enough to be eligible for conscription. Yet I am told that in areas such as cultural performance, sport, access to higher education, the secular and pro-citizen aspect has tended to strengthen in Israel over time, albeit unevenly, often with the support of the courts. A fair account has to point out moreover that many predominantly Muslim and other states behave no better, indeed often far worse, to their minorities. I am struck at the absence of Muslims in South Africa and elsewhere being very excited about the fate of Kashmir, the Copts in Egypt, or of Muslims in Burma or Thailand, to take some obvious examples compared to the great cause of Palestine. Israel is very far from the worst example of minority treatment or discrimination in our world although it is also far from a model of fairness.

In Israel within these pre-1967 borders, the war for Israeli independence was marked by deliberate ethnic cleansing that drove most of the resident Arab population out of the territory won by the Jews, a territory that exceeded what they had been awarded by the new UN and that in turn exceeded what they might be thought entitled to through a population count. Even the UN territory allocated on the map to Jews had a population where Arabs were close to half the population; this problem for Zionism was solved by the war. Very few Arab refugees were allowed to return to their homes as many would have liked. The essence of the Zionist project was to extrude Arabs and create a Jewish majority, not to exploit Arabs. In this way Israel was more like a typical settler colony such as Canada, Australia or the thirteen colonies that came to make up the future USA.

There is consequently, as Fisk of course pointed out, a second terrain that needs to be discussed: the remaining territory that had belonged to the Palestinian mandate of the British previously and which had then been occupied by Egyptian and Jordanian troops and ruled as though it belonged to those two countries. Here were crowded together from 1948 the largest number of refugees; in the Gaza strip especially, militancy is particularly fuelled by their poverty and they are the majority population. In the 1967 war, this remnant of Mandate Palestine was occupied in a mere few days by Israel, almost all of it still being the so-called Occupied Territories, and few of the inhabitants were expelled or fled. Yet here too with the collusion of the authorities much land has been alienated to Jewish settlers.  Golda Meir was particularly striking as an Israeli leader in her rhetoric about the importance of ‘facts on the ground’. It seems fair comment that the Israeli establishment initially hoped to use these territories as a bargaining chip to get what it wanted from Arabs in a one-sided treaty. However, since this has never happened, these territories, as Fisk pointed out, have become something like Bantustans with no clear future and visitors of many stripes find the situation of their population pretty distressing, perhaps especially in the Gaza strip, which houses more than 1 million people in an impoverished city-state surrounded by Israel except for a usually closed border with Egypt. Israel is not in a position to expel this population; its political elite has come to the view over time—reluctant for some—that therefore some kind of Arab sovereignty will have to be granted if it can be done in a way that represents no threat to Israeli security. Here, as Fisk wrote, there are real similarities to the Bantustan policy that really represented the one striking original policy feature of the 1948-94 Afrikaner nationalist government compared to its predecessors, which in my view defines apartheid.

From two perspectives, I wish it were possible to find what is usually called a one-stage solution to this conundrum. The first is my background in economic history and political economy. The whole of the old Palestine is a small territory and the division into these two parts artificial and impractical. The only excuse for it is that Jews and Arabs largely fail to embrace the idea of a union. The official Israeli position in this regard is very clear—the maximum territory with the fewest Arabs is the desideratum—even though no more than three-fourths of the Israeli population within the pre-1967 boundaries is Jewish, while the official Arab position is more ambiguous.

The second is that I do believe in the idea that South Africa crossed a huge historical threshold in getting rid of the Bantustans and taking a step towards becoming one nation for all its people, a task at which much work remains necessary but which was the right thing to do in terms of building a stable developed country in southern Africa. It is not exactly a question of democracy. For whites the old apartheid South Africa was by no means a dictatorship and for Jews in Israel, democracy seems manifest. It is the national question - which is quite separate as an issue; it means overcoming the older definition of who constitutes the nation. Working towards a common South African society has however become so associated with democracy, with fairness, with a good national future, that the contrast could not be stronger. Visionaries and intellectuals on both sides in the Middle East conflict share these values but while they deserve a lot of credit, they don’t win elections. Tony Leon and FW de Klerk are among the not especially radical visiting South Africans I can recall making these points in the press.

Nation-states of the old stripe are not the future. Zionism has its roots in the kind of nationalism usually initially associated with the Germans, that emphasized ancestry, origins and cultural identity as opposed to the nationalism that became dominant in the political discourse of revolutionary France and then Italy, of the British Empire and of the USA where there was a much stronger sense of common ideals, of an ability to absorb immigrants and people of varying origins, however this thrust was countered at times (and of course its roots are also European). Zionism had a religious element insofar as the early Zionists insisted after early internal conflicts that the territory, where Jews could develop as a modern people and form in time a nation-state, should be the land which was the site of the Old Testament. Otherwise though, it was in general militantly secular and internally shot through with ideas we associate with the Left. In the right circumstances, nationalism, even with a strongly racist charge, can co-exist with progressive ideas about social organization and the politics of the in-group. After all, the white Voortrekkers in the Orange Free State adopted a constitution modeled not on old Holland or Britain but the new US Republic. 

Behind this lay and continues to lie a deep commitment on the part of most Israeli Jews to keep Israel a country where no Gentile run government could ever block Jewish immigration, could ever say there are too many clever Jews in the universities, the media or the government or could insist that jobs must be based, as South Africans like to put it, on the ‘demographics.’  This feeling was certainly intensified by the Holocaust, enshrined and cultivated as national motif in Israel and still a governing one. Of course, this vision would be undermined by a one-state solution.


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