[News] Bantustans and the unilateral declaration of statehood

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Nov 20 11:46:56 EST 2009

Bantustans and the unilateral declaration of statehood

Virginia Tilley, The Electronic Intifada, 19 November 2009


 From a rumor, to a rising murmur, the proposal floated by the 
Palestinian Authority's (PA) Ramallah leadership to declare 
Palestinian statehood unilaterally has suddenly hit center stage. The 
European Union, the United States and others have rejected it as 
"premature," but endorsements are coming from all directions: 
journalists, academics, nongovernmental organization activists, 
Israeli right-wing leaders (more on that later). The catalyst appears 
to be a final expression of disgust and simple exhaustion with the 
fraudulent "peace process" and the argument goes something like this: 
if we can't get a state through negotiations, we will simply declare 
statehood and let Israel deal with the consequences.

But it's no exaggeration to propose that this idea, although 
well-meant by some, raises the clearest danger to the Palestinian 
national movement in its entire history, threatening to wall 
Palestinian aspirations into a political cul-de-sac from which it may 
never emerge. The irony is indeed that, through this maneuver, the PA 
is seizing -- even declaring as a right -- precisely the same 
dead-end formula that the African National Congress (ANC) fought so 
bitterly for decades because the ANC leadership rightly saw it as 
disastrous. That formula can be summed up in one word: Bantustan.

It has become increasingly dangerous for the Palestinian national 
movement that the South African Bantustans remain so dimly 
understood. If Palestinians know about the Bantustans at all, most 
imagine them as territorial enclaves in which black South Africans 
were forced to reside yet lacked political rights and lived 
miserably. This partial vision is suggested by Mustafa Barghouthi's 
recent comments at the Wattan Media Centre in Ramallah, when he 
cautioned that Israel wanted to confine the Palestinians into 
"Bantustans" but then argued for a unilateral declaration of 
Palestinian statehood within the 1967 boundaries -- although nominal 
"states" without genuine sovereignty are precisely what the 
Bantustans were designed to be.

Apartheid South Africa's Bantustans were not simply sealed 
territorial enclaves for black people. They were the ultimate "grand" 
formula by which the apartheid regime hoped to survive: that is, 
independent states for black South Africans who -- as white apartheid 
strategists themselves keenly understood and pointed out -- would 
forever resist the permanent denial of equal rights and political 
voice in South Africa that white supremacy required. As designed by 
apartheid architects, the ten Bantustans were designed to correspond 
roughly to some of the historical territories associated with the 
various black "peoples" so that they could claim the term 
"Homelands." This official term indicated their ideological purpose: 
to manifest as national territories and ultimately independent states 
for the various black African "peoples" (defined by the regime) and 
so secure a happy future for white supremacy in the "white" Homeland 
(the rest of South Africa). So the goal of forcibly transferring 
millions of black people into these Homelands was glossed over as 
progressive: 11 states living peacefully side by side (sound 
familiar?). The idea was first to grant "self-government" to the 
Homelands as they gained institutional capacity and then reward that 
process by declaring/granting independent statehood.

The challenge for the apartheid government was then to persuade 
"self-governing" black elites to accept independent statehood in 
these territorial fictions and so permanently absolve the white 
government of any responsibility for black political rights. Toward 
this end, the apartheid regime hand-picked and seeded "leaders" into 
the Homelands, where they immediately sprouted into a nice crop of 
crony elites (the usual political climbers and carpet-baggers) that 
embedded into lucrative niches of financial privileges and patronage 
networks that the white government thoughtfully cultivated (this 
should sound familiar too).

It didn't matter that the actual territories of the Homelands were 
fragmented into myriad pieces and lacked the essential resources to 
avoid becoming impoverished labor cesspools. Indeed, the Homelands' 
territorial fragmentation, although crippling, was irrelevant to 
Grand Apartheid. Once all these "nations" were living securely in 
independent states, apartheid ideologists argued to the world, 
tensions would relax, trade and development would flower, blacks 
would be enfranchised and happy, and white supremacy would thus 
become permanent and safe.

The thorn in this plan was to get even thoroughly co-opted black 
Homeland elites to declare independent statehood within "national" 
territories that transparently lacked any meaningful sovereignty over 
borders, natural resources, trade, security, foreign policy, water -- 
again, sound familiar? Only four Homeland elites did so, through 
combinations of bribery, threats and other "incentives." Otherwise, 
black South Africans didn't buy it and the ANC and the world rejected 
the plot whole cloth. (The only state to recognize the Homelands was 
fellow-traveler Israel.) But the Homelands did serve one purpose -- 
they distorted and divided black politics, created terrible internal 
divisions, and cost thousands of lives as the ANC and other factions 
fought it out. The last fierce battles of the anti-apartheid struggle 
were in the Homelands, leaving a legacy of bitterness to this day.

Hence the supreme irony for Palestinians today is that the most 
urgent mission of apartheid South Africa -- getting the indigenous 
people to declare statehood in non-sovereign enclaves -- finally 
collapsed with mass black revolt and took apartheid down with it, yet 
the Palestinian leadership now is not only walking right into that 
same trap but actually making a claim on it.

The reasons that the PA-Ramallah leadership and others want to walk 
into this trap are fuzzy. Maybe it could help the "peace talks" if 
they are redefined as negotiations between two states instead of 
preconditions for a state. Declaring statehood could redefine 
Israel's occupation as invasion and legitimize resistance as well as 
trigger different and more effective United Nations intervention. 
Maybe it will give Palestinians greater political leverage on the 
world stage -- or at least preserve the PA's existence for another 
(miserable) year.

Why these fuzzy visions are not swiftly defeated by short attention 
to the South African Bantustan experience may stem partly from two 
key differences that confuse the comparison, for Israel has indeed 
sidestepped two infamous fatal errors that helped sink South Africa's 
Homeland strategy. First, Israel did not make South Africa's initial 
mistake of appointing "leaders" to run the Palestinian "interim 
self-governing" Homeland. In South Africa, this founding error made 
it too obvious that the Homelands were puppet regimes and exposed the 
illegitimacy of the black "national" territories themselves as 
contrived racial enclaves. Having watched the South Africans bungle 
this, and having learned from its own past failures with the Village 
Leagues and the like, Israel instead worked with the United States to 
design the Oslo process not only to restore the exiled leadership of 
the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its then Chairman 
Yasser Arafat to the territories but also to provide for "elections" 
(under occupation) to grant a thrilling gloss of legitimacy to the 
Palestinian "interim self-governing authority." It's one of the 
saddest tragedies of the present scenario that Israel so deftly 
turned Palestinians' noble commitment to democracy against them in 
this way -- granting them the illusion of genuinely democratic 
self-government in what everyone now realizes was always secretly 
intended to be a Homeland.

Only now has Israel found a way to avoid South Africa's second fatal 
error, which was to declare black Homelands to be "independent 
states" in non-sovereign territory. In South Africa, this ploy 
manifested to the world as transparently racist and was universally 
disparaged. It must be obvious that, if Israel had stood up in the 
international stage and said "as you are, you are now a state" that 
Palestinians and everyone else would have rejected the claim out of 
hand as a cruel farce. Yet getting the Palestinians to declare 
statehood themselves allows Israel precisely the outcome that eluded 
the apartheid South African regime: voluntary native acceptance of 
"independence" in a non-sovereign territory with no political 
capacity to alter its territorial boundaries or other essential terms 
of existence -- the political death capsule that apartheid South 
Africa could not get the ANC to swallow.

Responses from Israel have been mixed. The government does seem jumpy 
and has broadcast its "alarm," Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has 
threatened unilateral retaliation (unspecified) and government 
representatives have flown to various capitals securing international 
rejection. But Israeli protests could also be disingenuous. One 
tactic could be persuading worried Palestinian patriots that a 
unilateral declaration of statehood might not be in Israel's interest 
in order to allay that very suspicion. Another is appeasing protest 
from that part of Likud's purblind right-wing electorate that finds 
the term "Palestinian state" ideologically anathema. A more honest 
reaction could be the endorsement of Kadima party elder Shaul Mofaz, 
a hardliner who can't remotely be imagined to value a stable and 
prosperous Palestinian future. Right-wing Israeli journalists are 
also pitching in with disparaging but also comforting essays arguing 
that unilateral statehood won't matter because it won't change 
anything (close to the truth). For example, Prime Minister Benjamin 
Netanyahu has threatened unilaterally to annex the West Bank 
settlement blocs if the PA declares statehood, but Israel was going 
to do that anyway.

In the liberal-Zionist camp, Yossi Sarid has warmly endorsed the plan 
and Yossi Alpher has cautiously done so. Their writings suggest the 
same terminal frustration with the "peace process" but also 
recognition that this may be the only way to save the increasingly 
fragile dream that a nice liberal democratic Jewish state can survive 
as such. It also sounds like something that might please Palestinians 
-- at least enough to finally get their guilt-infusing story of 
expulsion and statelessness off the liberal-Zionist conscience. 
Well-meaning white liberals in apartheid South Africa -- yes, there 
were some of those, too -- held the same earnest candle burning for 
the black Homelands system.

Some otherwise smart journalists are also pitching in to endorse 
unilateral statehood, raising odd ill-drawn comparisons -- Georgia, 
Kosovo, Israel itself -- as "evidence" that it's a good idea. But 
Georgia, Kosovo and Israel had entirely different profiles in 
international politics and entirely different histories from 
Palestine and attempts to draw these comparisons are intellectually 
lazy. The obvious comparison is elsewhere and the lessons run in the 
opposite direction: for a politically weak and isolated people, who 
have never had a separate state and lack any powerful international 
ally, to declare or accept "independence" in non-contiguous and 
non-sovereign enclaves encircled and controlled by a hostile nuclear 
power can only seal their fate.

In fact, the briefest consideration should instantly reveal that a 
unilateral declaration of statehood will confirm the Palestinians' 
presently impossible situation as permanent. As Mofaz predicted, a 
unilateral declaration will allow "final status" talks to continue. 
What he did not spell out is that those talks will become truly 
pointless because Palestinian leverage will be reduced to nothing. As 
Middle East historian Juan Cole recently pointed out, the last card 
the Palestinians can play -- their real claim on the world's 
conscience, the only real threat they can raise to Israel's status 
quo of occupation and settlement -- is their statelessness. The 
PA-Ramallah leadership has thrown away all the other cards. It has 
stifled popular dissent, suppressed armed resistance, handed over 
authority over vital matters like water to "joint committees" where 
Israel holds veto power, savagely attacked Hamas which insisted on 
threatening Israel's prerogatives, and generally done everything it 
can to sweeten the occupier's mood, preserve international patronage 
(money and protection), and solicit promised benefits (talks?) that 
never come. It's increasingly obvious to everyone watching from 
outside this scenario -- and many inside it -- that this was always a 
farce. For one thing, the Western powers do not work like the Arab 
regimes: when you do everything the West requires of you, you will 
wait in vain for favors, for the Western power then loses any benefit 
from dealing more with you and simply walks away.

But more importantly, the South African comparison helps illuminate 
why the ambitious projects of pacification, "institution building" 
and economic development that the Ramallah PA and Prime Minister 
Salam Fayyad have whole-heartedly embarked upon are not actually 
exercises in "state-building." Rather, they emulate with frightening 
closeness and consistency South Africa's policies and stages in 
building the Bantustan/Homelands. Indeed, Fayyad's project to achieve 
political stability through economic development is the same process 
that was openly formalized in the South African Homeland policy under 
the slogan "separate development." That under such vulnerable 
conditions no government can exercise real power and "separate 
development" must equate with permanent extreme dependency, 
vulnerability and dysfunctionality was the South African lesson that 
has, dangerously, not yet been learned in Palestine -- although all 
the signals are there, as Fayyad himself has occasionally admitted in 
growing frustration. But declaring independence will not solve the 
problem of Palestinian weakness; it will only concretize it.

Still, when "separate development" flounders in the West Bank, as it 
must, Israel will face a Palestinian insurrection. So Israel needs to 
anchor one last linchpin to secure Jewish statehood before that 
happens: declare a Palestinian "state" and so reduce the "Palestinian 
problem" to a bickering border dispute between putative equals. In 
the back halls of the Knesset, Kadima political architects and 
Zionist liberals alike must now be waiting with bated breath, when 
they are not composing the stream of back-channel messages that is 
doubtless flowing to Ramallah encouraging this step and promising 
friendship, insider talks and vast benefits. For they all know what's 
at stake, what every major media opinion page and academic blog has 
been saying lately: that the two-state solution is dead and Israel 
will imminently face an anti-apartheid struggle that will inevitably 
destroy Jewish statehood. So a unilateral declaration by the PA that 
creates a two-state solution despite its obvious Bantustan 
absurdities is now the only way to preserve Jewish statehood, because 
it's the only way to derail the anti-apartheid movement that spells 
Israel's doom.

This is why it is so dangerous that the South African Bantustan 
comparison has been neglected until now, treated as a side issue, 
even an exotic academic fascination, to those battling to relieve 
starvation in Gaza and soften the cruel system of walls and 
barricades to get medicine to the dying. The Ramallah PA's suddenly 
serious initiative to declare an independent Palestinian state in 
non-sovereign territory must surely force fresh collective 
realization that this is a terribly pragmatic question. It's time to 
bring closer attention to what "Bantustan" actually means. The 
Palestinian national movement can only hope someone in its ranks 
undertakes that project as seriously as Israel has undertaken it 
before it's too late.

Virginia Tilley is a former professor of political science and 
international relations and since 2006 has served as Chief Research 
Specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa. 
She is author of The One-State Solution (U of Michigan Press, 2005) 
and numerous articles and essays on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 
Based in Cape Town, she writes here in her personal capacity and can 
be reached at vtilley A T mweb D O T co D O T za.

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