[News] Teaching Palestine in South Africa

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jun 7 11:23:35 EDT 2019


  Teaching Palestine in South Africa

by Diana Block <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/diana-block/> - June 
7, 2019

/*Reaffirming Internationalism in the Twenty-first Century*/

In March 2019 I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to attend a 
conference – /Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the 
Indivisibility of Justice./ The conference was co-sponsored by the 
/AMED/ <https://amed.sfsu.edu/>/(/Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and 
Diasporas Studies) program of San Francisco State University (SFSU), 
AMEC <https://www.amec.org.za/> (Afro-Middle East Centre) in 
Johannesburg, the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation 
at the University of Johannesburg, and An-Najah University 
<https://www.najah.edu/>, in occupied Palestine.

Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, Director of the AMED program, had initiated the 
/Teaching Palestine /project 
in 2016, ahead of the hundredth anniversary of Britain’s imperialist 
Balfour Declaration 
as an emancipatory pedagogical and advocacy project that would be 
conducted in multiple sites over a number of years around the world. An 
integral concept of the project is the “indivisibility of justice.” This 
framing affirms the integral connections between the struggle for 
Palestinian freedom and other current struggles against oppression 
worldwide. It offers a basis for engaging internationalism holistically 
in an era when global struggles are too often siloed or artificially 
separated by narrow organizational missions. Since it was initiated, 
/Teaching Palestine /has organized workshops and symposia in the U.S. 
,Cuba, Seville, Spain, and Montreal. The first /Teaching Palestine 
/conference took place in 2018 at Birzeit and An-Najah National 
Universities in occupied Palestine. Given their closely interconnected 
histories and ongoing solidarity relationships, it made sense to hold 
the second international conference in South Africa.

I had traveled to Southern Africa nearly forty years earlier, in April 
1980, for the celebration of Zimbabwean independence. I had been part of 
organizations working with the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU) 
in the United States. ZANU was fighting for the national liberation of 
the Zimbabwean people from the white supremacist regime that held power 
in what the settlers called Rhodesia, after colonist Cecil Rhodes. The 
victory over Ian Smith’s regime was a thrilling culmination of years of 
struggle by the Zimbabwean people who were supported by a vigorous 
international solidarity movement. To those of us in that movement, 
Zimbabwe’s independence signaled the inevitable future downfall of 
apartheid in South Africa. And the struggles against white supremacy in 
Zimbabwe and South Africa were part and parcel of the struggle for Black 
liberation against white supremacy within the borders of the United 
States. Southern Africa was a focal point for anti-imperialist struggle 
throughout the seventies and eighties in the U.S. and worldwide.

Forty years later Zimbabwe and South Africa, in different ways, are 
still struggling to fulfill the liberatory promises of independence. 
Given the consolidation of the neoliberal world order under U.S. 
hegemony in the final decades of the twentieth century and the collusion 
of the new national ruling parties and elites with neoliberalism, these 
newly independent African countries have faced monumental external and 
internal challenges. Within the U.S., Southern Africa has largely 
disappeared from the movement’s political map.

Yet anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial/neoliberal struggles have 
inevitably continued against a global regime of imperialist 
dispossession, appropriation and exploitation in the twenty-first 
century. Now Palestine has in many ways become the epicenter of 
anti-imperialist struggle as it has continued, across the century mark, 
to confront the Israeli settler colonial, apartheid state and its U.S. 
partner-in-chief. The growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions 
(BDS) movement since 2005, modeled on the South African boycott 
movement, demonstrates how the Palestinian movement has skillfully 
learned from the successful tactics that helped to bring down the South 
African apartheid regime. A conference on Palestine in South Africa was 
a means of reaffirming the historic importance of South African struggle 
and learning about the continuation of efforts to build a different, 
more equitable and just South African society.

The conference and subsequent study tour addressed the critical role of 
internationalism for Palestine and South Africa, examined lessons of the 
South African experience during and after apartheid, and exposed the 
expanding scope of Zionist assaults on all forms of speech and action in 
support of Palestine globally.

Ronnie Kasrils 
the opening speaker at the conference, was a founding member of Umkhonto 
we Sizwe <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umkhonto_we_Sizwe> (MK), the 
armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), and the Minister of 
Intelligence in the South African government between 2004-2008. A South 
African of Jewish descent, he has also played a leading role throughout 
his political history in building solidarity with Palestinian 
liberation. He spoke to the critical importance of an internationalist 
perspective for the ANC historically. He described their careful study 
of the Vietnamese national liberation struggle and its strategy of 
people’s war; the influence of victorious movements in Algeria and Cuba 
on ANC development; and the material support which other national 
liberation struggles were able to offer South Africa.

Kasrils pointed out the closely intersecting histories of South African 
and Israeli apartheid. The apartheid government was first elected in 
South Africa in 1948, the same year as the Israeli Zionist project 
expelled the Palestinians from their land in the catastrophic /Nakba./ 
He highlighted the ways in which the international boycotts and 
disinvestment campaign 
became a key pressure tactic against South Africa’s apartheid regime. In 
1986 the U.S. Congress adopted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, 
contributing to South Africa’s isolation as an outlaw state. While the 
majority of the world distanced itself from South Africa, Israel 
cemented its role as one of South Africa’s main strategic military 
allies. In 1975 Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid 
regime and in 1979 Israel and South Africa collaborated on the test of a 
nuclear bomb in the Indian Ocean 

Robin Kelley, distinguished scholar of African-American history and a 
professor at UCLA, brought the long history of solidarity between the 
Black radical movement in the U.S. and the Palestinian liberation 
movement to the conversation. He argued that solidarity was rooted in a 
politics of shared principles and that it was important for the U.S. 
movement today to go beyond the politics of “analogy” based solely on a 
shared experience of oppression. He pointed out that in the 1960’s, it 
was not enough to have a common experience of oppression. In fact, Black 
center/right politicians supported Israel while radical Black forces 
aligned with organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation 
of Palestine (PFLP) and its vision of radical Third World nationalism 
and a democratic socialist state. “It is not the conditions of 
captivity, but the critique of captivity and shared visions of 
liberation that form the basis for real solidarity,” Kelley insisted.

Rabab Abdulhadi contextualized the significance of holding the Teaching 
Palestine conference in South Africa. “The heroic struggle of the South 
African people must be learned from despite critiques of the current 
political situation,” she insisted. She also spoke to the importance of 
the /Teaching Palestine/ initiative as a means of shifting how Palestine 
is framed – a departure from a narrative of subjugation, submission and 
defeat to one of resistance, liberation and solidarity. Though this was 
the intellectual project she initiated, /teaching Palestine/ has been 
the praxis of Palestine transnationally as long as the Palestinian 
resistance has been around. Through education, Palestinians could affirm 
their history, land and struggle in the face of dispossession and 
displacement. Today, it is not only critical for Palestinians to know 
their own history but to also learn from and stand in solidarity with 
other struggles for liberation.

The need to speak the truth about South African history and dispel 
sanitized distortions was asserted throughout the conference and study 
tour. Salim Vally pointed out that the end of apartheid and the first 
democratic elections in April 1994 were a result of a long 
multi-dimensional struggle. However, the victory is often attributed to 
a “politics of negotiation and forgiveness,” that gained sway in the 
period leading up to and after the elections. Such politics are now held 
up as a model for other struggles such as Palestine despite their 
problematic impact on South Africa.

As Vally and Jeenah assert in their edited book Pretending Democracy 
, “For ordinary working-class South Africans, the development of the 
constitution and the process of ‘reconciliation’ such as it has been, 
have contributed little or nothing to ending their lives of struggle, 
misery, poverty and racism.” In his article /Martyrs and Reconciliation/ 
Jeenah points out that Zionists often manipulatively advise Palestinians 
to learn from South Africa’s history of non-violent and peaceful 
resistance. “We were not peaceful; our struggle was not peaceful! We 
fought hard, we lost much and we offered up many martyrs in order that 
we might liberate the people of this country — both black and white.” 

Many presenters from South Africa, Palestine and elsewhere reiterated 
this critique, pointing out that the negotiations that resulted in the 
1994 elections involved multiple compromises and the acceptance of a 
neoliberal economic framework which precluded wealth and land 
redistribution. Speakers talked about the deep problems of the governing 
ANC party over the past twenty-five years, exemplified by the 
pervasiveness of state capture 
the term commonly used for government corruption. Within the ANC itself 
there is a continuing effort to challenge these endemic problems.

Trevor Ngwane, a scholar activist who teaches and conducts research at 
the University of Johannesburg, pointed out in his presentation during 
the study tour that the South African constitution exemplifies some of 
the best aspects of liberal bourgeois legal principles, including 
democratic and human rights for all, same sex marriage and the 
legalization of cannabis. Yet when it comes to the socio-economic 
realities, South Africa is one of the most grossly unequal societies in 
the world today with unemployment at 40%, land ownership overwhelmingly 
dominated by whites, and gender violence at crisis proportions.

In a recent article 
<https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/zyx3c4gMeDdj568npN72/full>, Ngwane 
characterizes South Africa as an /insurgent democracy/ because of the 
ongoing intense level of social movement disruption and protest against 
the governing status quo by multiple sectors of the South African 
people. Significant recent protests include the Marikana mineworkers 
<https://marikana.mg.co.za/> strike of 2012, the #FeesMustFall 
movement to decolonize the system of higher education, and the #Total 
movement in 2018 to confront rampant gender violence.

Solidarity with Palestine is also a contested issue in post-apartheid 
South African society although the government position on Israel is very 
different than that of the apartheid regime. The ANC and the government 
it leads have pledged solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and have 
repeatedly condemned Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and 
the relentless attacks on Gaza. In 2018, South Africa recalled its 
ambassador from Israel after Israel’s brutal attacks against the Gaza 
Great March of Return.

The South African government has also played a role in resisting what 
Matshidiso Motsoeneng described as Israel’s charm offensive in Africa 
a strategy to normalize relationships with African countries across the 
continent by offering economic support, technological development and 
military training. South Africa has led the rejection of Israel’s 
attempts to gain observer status in the African Union which Israel has 
sought in order to wield more influence in the region.

Civil society and grassroots organizations as well as members of the ANC 
have consistently pressured the South African government to support the 
Palestinian struggle. They have called upon the government to sever all 
diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with the Israeli state and to 
build solidarity in multiple ways. In 2013 Ahmed Kathrada, a leader of 
the South African Communist Party and a former political prisoner who 
spent 25 years on Robben Island, initiated an international campaign to 
free Palestinian leader and political prisoner Marwan Barghouti 
Kathrada commented that South Africans “have a sacred duty to campaign 
for the unconditional 
release of Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian political prisoners as 
an essential step towards the freedom of the Palestinian people and 
peace in the region.”

The Palestine Solidarity Alliance, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and 
BDS South Africa are among a number of groups that consistently organize 
for Palestine through a variety of tactics, including education and 
support for BDS. Palestine solidarity activists described the ongoing 
struggles regarding BDS at universities which bear many similarities to 
that at U.S. universities. The South African Student Union endorsed BDS 
in 2011 
and in a landmark decision, the University of Johannesburg academic 
senate voted to end its ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University that 
same year. In 2017, Tshwane University of Technology, the largest 
residential higher education institution in South Africa, officially 
endorsed the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israel, and 
imposed a ban on ties with Israel and Israeli institutions.

On the other hand, Tokelo Nhlapo, a researcher and former graduate 
student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), explained that he 
was one of eleven students who were expelled from the University for 
disrupting an Israeli-funded concert which violated the cultural boycott 
of Israel. A widespread outrage at this harsh disciplinary action grew 
at Wits (which resulted in the suspension of the expulsion order). A 
WITS student leader explained 
“Protest is not only an expression that should be protected but protests 
against Israeli-sponsored events also falls within the principle of 
internationalism that our country once benefited from. Thousands of 
students, workers and others protested against Apartheid South Africa 
sponsored events in the 1980s often disrupting cricket matches, rugby 
games etc. This international movement of boycotts contributed to our 
freedom today.”

The /Teaching Palestine/ conference took place against the backdrop of 
escalating Zionist attacks against speaking and teaching about Palestine 
worldwide. In the U.S., Zionist groups have recently mounted frontal 
attacks against Black leaders 
such as Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill, 
and Michelle Alexander because of their support for Palestinian freedom. 
Incidents of academic intimidation and suppression 
regarding support for Palestine continue to increase. Dr. Abdulhadi 
initiated /Teaching Palestine/ while she was being accused of false 
charges of antisemitism in a lawsuit filed by the Zionist Lawfare 
Project in June 2017. The lawsuit was defeated in October 2018 
when Federal Judge Orrick ruled that the charges against her had no 
foundation in fact, but other forms of harassment have continued, 
including the recent cancellation of AMED’s study abroad program in 

As I traveled through Germany to South Africa, Palestinian activist 
Rasmea Odeh <https://electronicintifada.net/tags/rasmea-yousef-odeh> was 
from speaking at a public meeting in Berlin on March 19th 
marking International Women’s Day after German officials revoked her 
visa. The Israeli government claimed credit for the action and the 
Berlin Senate denounced BDS Berlin, one of the co-hosts of the event, as 
an “anti-Semitic coalition.” And on March 21, an event where Ronnie 
Kasril’s was scheduled to speak at the Vienna Museum 
for Israeli Apartheid Week was canceled for similar reasons. In response 
Kasrils stated, “South Africa’s apartheid government banned me for life 
from attending meetings. Nothing I said could be published, because I 
stood up against apartheid. How disgraceful that, despite the lessons of 
our struggle against racism, such intolerance continues to this day, 
stifling free speech on Palestine.”

Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s eldest grandson, confirmed the 
comparison with South Africa at the International Conference on 
Palestine held in Istanbul at the end of April. “We say it to the world 
that as we were able to undermine the apartheid regime in South Africa, 
we will be able to do this with the apartheid regime in Israel.” 
He also called for the South African government to use its seat in the 
UN Security Council to become “the voice of the voiceless and therefore 
to speak about the self-determination of Palestine.” 

For her part, Rabab Abdulhadi is committed to continuing the work, 
stating. “We will never be silenced nor defeated. We will continue 
linking communities, critically analyzing the world and advocating for 
an indivisible sense of justice. We take our inspiration from the people 
who are struggling for their freedom, dignity and peace in Palestine, 
South Africa and here in the United States. This is our community of 
justice and this is why we teach Palestine.”

/*Diana Block* is the author of a novel, Clandestine Occupations: An 
Imaginary History (PM Press, 2015) and a memoir, Arm the Spirit : A 
Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AK Press, 2009). She is an active 
member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the 
anti- prison coalition CURB. She writes periodically for Counterpunch 
and other online journals./

/*Diana Block* is the author of a novel, Clandestine Occupations – An 
Imaginary History (PM Press, 2015) and a memoir, Arm the Spirit – A 
Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AK Press, 2009). She is an active 
member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners 
<http://www.womenprisoners.org/>and the anti-prison coalition CURB. 
<http://www.curbprisonspending.org/>She is a member of the editorial 
collective of The Fire Inside newsletter 
<http://womenprisoners.org/?page_id=1061> and she writes periodically 
for various online journals./

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