[News] Palestine: the view from South Africa

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Aug 21 10:41:01 EDT 2009

Palestine: the view from South Africa

Gaza, One More Bantustan

August 21, 2009

By Alain Gresh

During the Gaza war, South Africa expressed 
strong solidarity with the Palestinians. No one 
here has forgotten the collaboration between 
Pretoria and Israel under apartheid, and many see 
parallels between the Palestinian situation today 
and that of black and coloured South Africans back in the days of white rule.

Ronald "Ronnie" Kasrils looks just like the 
caricature of him drawn by the cartoonist Zapiro 
in November 2001. It showed him at the head of a 
line of Jews, including the Nobel Laureate Nadine 
Gordimer and Zapiro himself, escaping from a 
fortress. Kasrils has a big smile on his face. 
The fortress is emblazoned with the words 
"unconditional support for Israel". The jailers 
are shouting "Catch them! Catch them!"

Kasril's smile is the same today, as is his 
determination; his is a life that's been devoted 
to moving mountains. He was born in South Africa 
in 1938, the son of Jewish immigrants from the 
Baltic states. It was not long before he 
encountered racism, notably in the Sharpeville 
Massacre on 21 March 1960, when the police fired 
on unarmed black demonstrators, killing dozens of 
people. The international reverberations of the 
massacre - the prelude to South Africa's drift 
towards dictatorship, were all the greater as 
1960 was the year in which the majority of 
African nations gained their independence.

Kasrils was unable to turn his back on the 
oppression so reminiscent of the pogroms in 
eastern Europe which his parents had described. 
He joined the Communist Party and the African 
National Congress (ANC) and began a 30-year 
journey of secrecy and exile. As head of 
intelligence for the ANC's armed wing, he 
accepted being labeled a terrorist. "Armed and 
dangerous" was how the authorities referred to 
him when they showed his picture on television in 
the 1970s. After his return to the country in 
1990 and the subsequent end of apartheid, he held 
several ministerial posts until he left the 
government at the end of last year.

As an activist who fought apartheid, and as a 
communist and a Jew, he was sensitive to the 
Palestinian issue from early on. In February 2004 
when he was a minister, he visited Yasser Arafat, 
surrounded by the Israeli army in the Muqata 
complex in Ramallah. "Arafat showed me the view 
from the window saying 'this is nothing but a 
Bantustan!' I replied: "No! No Bantustan has been 
bombed by warplanes, pulverized by tanks...the 
South African government pumped funds, 
constructed impressive administrative buildings 
and even allowed Bantustans airlines so as to 
make them recognized by the international community'."

Cattle through a dip

The shock waves of the events in Gaza in December 
2008 and January 2009 were quickly felt in South 
Africa. They gave rise to mass popular protest 
and demonstrations. The powerful Congress of 
South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which had 
already stopped an Israeli arms shipment destined 
for Zimbabwe being unloaded in April of 2008, 
called for a boycott of Israeli shipping.

"At the grassroots level," said Adam Habib, 
vice-chancellor of Johannesburg University 
responsible for research and innovation, "there 
is an implicit sympathy for the Palestinians 
because everyone understands the parallel between 
Palestine and South Africa, Gaza and Transkei or Ciskei."

The South African government condemned 
"unequivocally and in the strongest possible 
terms the escalation of violence on the part of 
Israel brought about by the launching of a ground 
invasion into Gaza." It called on Israel to halt 
its "massacre" and to withdraw its troops 
"immediately and unconditionally". In a meeting 
with the Israeli ambassador, South African 
members of parliament asserted that the army's 
abuses "made apartheid look like a Sunday school 
picnic" and the president of the foreign affairs 
commission, Job Sithole, compared the treatment 
of Palestinians at checkpoints to that of "cattle through a dip."

In these circumstances, the support for Israeli 
policy from leaders of South African Jewish 
organizations provoked criticism and 
condemnation, including from Jewish intellectuals 
who had campaigned against apartheid. "The 
loudest defender of Israel", says Adam Habib with 
regret, "is not the embassy but the chief rabbi, 
Warren Goldstein, who has supported the bombings 
of Gaza without qualification, which nobody can understand."

At the height of the Gaza conflict, the Board of 
Deputies said in a statement that South Africa's 
Jewish community "firmly supports the decision of 
the government of Israel to launch a military 
operation against Hamas in the Gaza strip." It 
was outraged a few days later that its own 
elision of Jews and Israel had given rise to 
antisemitic calls on the internet for a boycott 
of Jewish shops. These calls were roundly 
condemned by the South African government, the 
ANC, Muslim intellectuals and pro-Palestinian organizations.

The strength of feeling provoked by a conflict 
thousands of miles away is not entirely 
surprising, however. It stems from the peculiar 
nature of the links between South Africa and 
Israel. By a quirk of history, just a few weeks 
separate the creation of Israel in May 1948 and 
the electoral victory of the National Pary in 
South Africa. That election result took the 
existing racial segregation to a new level by 
bringing in the policy of apartheid or "separate 
development." The leaders of the National Party 
were known Nazi sympathizers (John Vorster, its 
leader and later prime minister, was imprisoned 
on this account during the second world war), but 
they were nonetheless able to forge increasingly close relations with Israel.

'Tough and resilient'

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, who teaches at the 
University of Haifa, explained the paradox: "One 
can detest Jews and love Israelis, because 
Israelis somehow are not Jews. Israelis are 
colonial fighters and settlers, just like 
Afrikaners. They are tough and resilient. They 
know how to dominate. Jews are different. They 
are, among other qualities, gentle, non-physical, 
often passive, intellectual. So one can go on 
disliking Jews while admiring the Israelis."

Cooperation began between two states that seemed 
to have nothing in common. Moshe Sharett, the 
Israeli foreign minister, made his first visit to 
South Africa in 1950. In November 1984, when the 
UN had decided on sanctions against the apartheid 
regime, South African foreign minister Roelof 
Frederik "Pik" Botha visited Israel. Yitzhak 
Rabin was then Israel's prime minister. Le Monde 
wrote of "the close ties between the two 
countries" and noted that Israel was the only 
country in the world to have relations with the 
puppet Bantustans, some of which were even 
twinned with Israeli West Bank settlements.

The bedrock of the relationship between the two 
countries was in the first instance economic, 
under the aegis of the Histadrut (the "socialist" 
trade union congress), which controlled a 
significant part of the Israeli economy during 
the 1970s and 1980s. Through the Hevrat Haovdim 
company, it enjoyed a quasi-monopoly over trade 
with South Africa. The kibbutzim played a part 
too: the Lohamei Hagetot ("fighters of the 
ghetto") kibbutz, founded by Jews from eastern 
Europe who had fought the Nazis, ran the Kama 
chemical plant in the Kwazulu Bantustan.

When it came to the military and security, the 
alliance between the two countries took on a 
strategic dimension. Israel helped South Africa 
become a nuclear power. The Israeli military 
attaché in Pretoria who was a member of the 
General Staff Forum (the only other Israeli 
military attaché to hold such high rank was based 
in Washington). Israeli arms were manufactured under license in South Africa.

'Beast of Soweto'

The two countries' intelligence services had no 
qualms about collaborating to fight communism 
and, even then, to combat "terrorism" - whether 
it came from the ANC or the PLO, the liberation 
movements in Portuguese colonies (Angola and 
Mozambique) or the South West Africa Peoples' 
Organization (Swapo), which was fighting for 
independence for Namibia, then under South African occupation.

Brigadier "Rooi Rus" Swenenpoel, the main 
interrogator in the Rivonia trial of 1964 at 
which Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life 
imprisonment, was a regular guest of the Israelis 
in the 1970s. Swanepoel, who set up the 
counter-insurrection squads in Namibia, was known 
as the "beast of Soweto" for the way in which he 
crushed the revolt in the township leading to the 
loss of hundreds of lives. Uri Dan, meanwhile, a 
journalist and advisor to Ariel Sharon, 
proclaimed his admiration for the South African army.

Ronnie Kasrils believes that, beyond the obvious 
differences between the two systems - Israel for 
example doesn't need an indigenous workforce and 
has granted the vote to its Arab minority - there 
are pronounced ideological similarities: "The 
early Dutch pioneers, the Africaners, had used 
Bible and gun as colonizers elsewhere. Like the 
biblical Israelites, they claimed to be 'God's 
chosen people', with a mission to civilize."

The collusion between Israel and South Africa 
didn't give rise to criticism from the Jewish 
community, though it ostracized its members who 
were involved with the communists and the ANC. 
Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC member of 
parliament who lost some of his family in the 
Nazi death camps, managed to get the new South 
African parliament to devote a session to the 
Holocaust in May 2000 for the first time in its history.

He explains that, like most white South Africans, 
the country's 100,000 Jews remained silent during 
the apartheid years, even though "there are clear 
parallels between the policies imposed on the 
Jews by the Nazis between 1933 and 1939 and those 
imposed on the majority of South Africans during 
the apartheid era." He mentions Percy Yutar, the 
chief prosecutor who called for the death penalty 
at Mandela's trial. Yutar was later elected to 
lead Johannesburg's most important orthodox 
synagogue and lauded by community leaders as a "credit to the community."

After this collaboration between Israel and the 
apartheid regime, relations between the two 
countries worsened significantly after Nelson 
Mandela became president in 1994. The new 
government suspended military cooperation 
(although it honored its contracts until they 
expired in 1998) and gave its full backing to the 
PLO and Arafat. It maintains its relations with 
them after the declaration of the second intifada 
in 2000, in the face of pressure from countries 
such as the US (as well as Israel) which had 
colluded with apartheid. When Arafat died in 
2004, Mandela called him "one of the outstanding 
freedom fighters of his generation".

That said, as Azziz Pahad, a former SA deputy 
foreign minister with responsibility for the 
Middle East, freely admits, the demands of 
realpolitik cannot be ignored nor "the 
contradiction between the realism of official 
foreign policy and the positions of principle 
taken by the ANC [support for Palestine and 
independence of the western Sahara]".

This realpolitik outraged Palestinian support 
groups, as is clear even from the title of a 
report from the Stop the Wall campaign: 
"Democratic South Africa's complicity in Israel's 
occupation, colonialism and apartheid." Na'eem 
Jeenah, director of the Afro-Middle East Centre 
in Johannesburg, believes that former president 
Thabo Mbeki was "in favor of a normalization of 
relations with Israel. Trade between the two 
countries has increased 15-20 % this year, 
especially in the field of security equipment. 
There have even been attempts to revive military 
relations." And imposing sanctions on Israel is 
no longer on the agenda, even though Richard 
Goldstone, the judge who chairs the UN commission 
on crimes committed in Gaza, is a South African.


From: Z Net - The Spirit Of Resistance Lives

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