Picture: Mahmud Hams / AFP / Taken on October 10, 2023 – A Palestinian woman walks through a ravaged street following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City. The people of Palestine have been subjected to decades of subjugation and abuse, the writer says.
By Kim Heller
She broke down and wept. South Africa’s Minister of Public Service and Administration, Noxolo Kiviet, could not contain her horror when she visited the small town of Turmus Ayya, in Ramallah, Palestine in June 2023. It was ten days after an attack by Israeli settlers which had seen 27-year-old Omar Jabara killed, and more than 35 Palestinians injured.
“The experiences of people here are horrific, traumatising, and sad, particularly to people who come from South Africa and lived in similar circumstances … What is happening in Palestine depicts what occurred in South Africa in terms of racism and racial and religious segregation. That is why we are paying this visit to support residents, offer our condolences, and stand by them,” minister said.
The people of Palestine have been subjected to decades of subjugation and abuse. The 2022 Amnesty International report sets out how Israel has established and maintained “an institutionalised regime of oppression and domination of the Palestinian population for the benefit of Jewish Israelis – a system of apartheid – wherever it has exercised control over Palestinians’ lives since 1948”. The report states that Palestinians are treated as an “inferior non-Jewish racial group”. Comparisons with apartheid South Africa are both unavoidable and glaringly clear.
In a beautifully crafted and painfully emotive reflection on Israel, published in the Mail & Guardian in 2007, former South African minister of intelligence and deputy minister of defence, Ronnie Kasrils wrote: “Travelling into Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip, which I visited recently, is like a surreal trip back into an apartheid state of emergency. It is chilling to pass through the myriad checkpoints — more than 500 in the West Bank. They are controlled by heavily armed soldiers, youthful but grim, tensely watching every movement, fingers on the trigger.”
Kasrils wrote: “Sweeping past the lines of Palestinians on foot or in taxis was like a view of the silent, depressed pass- office queues of South Africa’s past. A journey from one West Bank town to another that could take 20 minutes by car now takes seven hours for Palestinians, with manifold indignities at the hands of teenage soldiers.”
He wrote too about the issue of land and how the West Bank has shrunk as Israel has encroached on Palestine. He wrote of how the Jordan Valley; a highly fertile area has been disfigured into a “security preserve for Jewish settlers and the Israeli Defence Force”.
“Like the Gaza Strip,” Kasrils wrote, “the West Bank is effectively a hermetically sealed prison. It is shocking to discover that certain roads are barred to Palestinians and reserved for Jewish settlers. I try in vain to recall anything quite as obscene in apartheid South Africa.”
Recalling his visit to Palestine in 2002, Minister of Higher Education, Dr Blade Nzimande remarked that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is worse than that of apartheid South Africans. He spoke of how Israel uses water as a weapon of war, often switching it off for days on end. The situation is even worse than the Minister depicts. For in Palestine even rainwater is denied.
A 2017 Amnesty International report raised concern about how Israel controls the collection of rainwater throughout most of the West Bank and how cisterns owned by Palestinian communities for the gathering and harvesting of rainwater are often destroyed by the Israeli army. Amnesty International has long expressed concern about the ongoing water crisis in Gaza, where it is estimated that over 90 percent of the water supply is contaminated and unfit for human consumption.
For decades under Israeli occupation, Palestine has been a place of pain. Long before the current conflict which has seen thousands of Palestinian citizens killed.
The relationship between democratic South Africa and Palestine is one of solidarity and support, founded on the two country’s similar history of settler-colonialism, loss of land, and human rights abuses.
Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor recently captured the spirit of comradeship between the two countries, as well as the sense of outrage against the attacks by Israel on Gaza. She said: “We, who enjoy the freedom from Apartheid, can never, ever be the ones who agree to an apartheid form of oppression. This cannot be tolerated. This brutality should not be accepted.”
South Africa has referred Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, to the International Criminal Court to be investigated for possible war crimes against the people of Gaza. Last week saw Parliament passing a resolution to suspend diplomatic ties with Israel “until a ceasefire is agreed to by Israel and Israel commits to UN facilitated negotiations which leads to a just, sustainable lasting peace”.
This is a watered-down version of the motion that was brought before the House by Julius Malema, President of EFF. It is a noble motion. The government has still to approve the recommended motion and, sadly, it may not be implemented in the end.
Aljazeera reports that the action is largely symbolic because it will be up to President Cyril Ramaphosa ‘s government whether to implement it.
One recalls how at the 2017 ANC national conference held in Nasrec, the party resolved to “immediately and unconditionally” downgrade South Africa’s Embassy in Israel to a mere liaison office, as a protest against Israel’s human rights abuses and violations of international law. But like several of its resolutions, this was not to become government policy. The Government has not implemented this policy, other than to recall its ambassador, Sisa Ngombane, in 2018, for consultation.
Former Minister of International Relations, Lindiwe Sisulu has spoken openly that she was moved out of this Ministerial position after she had tried to implement the ANC conference resolution to downgrade South Africa’s embassy in Israel to a mere “liaison office”.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has spoken out harshly about the current Israel-Gaza conflict. He did not mince his words when he described what was happening in Gaza as genocide. For now, South Africa’s bold and morally correct posture on Palestine should be applauded.
However, there is a possibility that its posture will, in the end, be bent and contorted by a giant fear to act decisively against Israel. South Africa’s position on Palestine is not only informed by its common history and decade long bonds of solidarity, but by the fast-shifting geo-politics and its stronger ties to BRICS. This new political and economic alignment may embolden South Africa.
But too often, Ramaphosa’s words lack vowels. In other words, he does not walk his talk. For now, the strong utterances on Israel may be little more than a convenient deflection from the dismal performance of his administration and of the party.
Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.