Professor Farid Esack, Kwara Kekana and Muhammed Desai of BDS South Africa
[Sunday Tribune, 26 July 2015]

For a South African the sense of deja vu is inescapable almost immediately upon arrival in the land of Palestine-Israel. Let’s re-phrase that, for a peace and justice loving South African or one who has lived under Apartheid it is inevitable to be struck by the Israeli oppression of the indigenous Palestinian people. An oppression that former President Kgalema Mothlante described as “far worse” than that which we faced under Apartheid.

In the 1980s the Apartheid regime denied entry to anti-apartheid activists but pro-Apartheid groups were able to facilitate visits for their guests. The anti-apartheid movement called upon the conscience of the world to stay away from South Africa. We expected all conscious and conscientious people to heed the call for sanctions against Apartheid. We called for the boycott despite the fact that under Apartheid it was a crime of treason to do so. Incidentally, it is also a crime today in Israel to advocate for boycotts.

The boycott was both an act of pressure against Apartheid but also an act of solidarity with the struggle against apartheid. Chief Albert Luthuli, a father of our nation and a Noble Peace Prize winner, appealed to the world as early as 1960 as ANC President saying: “We welcome most heartily the action of the overseas people in launching the boycott…our hope really is that we can bring pressure to bear on South Africa and that through this pressure South Africa will change its way”.

If you want to lend us solidarity, Tambo, Tutu and others demanded to the world, then impose boycotts against Apartheid as a form of solidarity. Likewise, the 2005 BDS call for a boycott against Israel was released by the indigenous Palestinians themselves (not internationals) as a practical form of solidarity (the BDS call is also today suported by a growing number of progressive Israelis).

During the boycott against Apartheid some came — against our wishes and violated the boycott — as investors, tourists, and on so-called, “fact-finding missions”. They came at the invitation of ‘White’ South Africa and its propaganda machinery. The UK’s David Cameron was given, as an “upcoming young leader”, a fully-funded holiday propaganda junket visit to Apartheid South Africa. Anti-apartheid activists condemned his visit and Cameron later apologized (but after the fact).

Some of those sanctions-busters returned to their homes abroad, enchanted with what our “astonishingly beautiful and historic country” had to offer and also, perhaps because their conscience niggled them, a mild criticism on the lines of “the situation is complex”.

Israel and its supporters use the same tactic, Jewish anti-apartheid stalwart Denis Goldberg pointed out at a recent ANC Youth League event that: “the pro-Israeli lobby, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and SA Zionist Federation try to say that it [the Palestinian Israeli issue] is not a simple matter, they say that it’s complicated therefore come [to Israel and] tell the world how well we Israelis are doing.” Goldberg added: “It’s not complicated! It’s very simple, the simplicity is that a dominant group [Jewish Israelis] exclude the indigenous Palestinian people from equal rights”.

Is ‘moderation’ in matters of manifest injustice really a virtue? No! Nelson Mandela criticised this approach by saying: “The temptation in our situation is to speak in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine…we can easily be enticed to read reconciliation and fairness as meaning parity between justice and injustice. Having achieved our own freedom, we can fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others faces…yet we would be less than human if we did so”.

Only a small minority of the millions of good people who stood with us during the darkest days of Apartheid – including the Palestinians – ever set foot in South Africa. The vast majority lent us solidarity and support by boycotting and protesting against Apartheid from their own cities, towns and countries without once landing at Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg. And therefore one need not visit Israel before one is in a position to condemn its oppression of the Palestinian people.

During the 1980s anti-apartheid activists relied on UN reports and witness accounts from local rights organisations. Today, we also rely on similar reports to determine Israel’s violations of international law.  A 183-page UN report  was released  this month, covering last year’s Israeli attacks on the Palestinian Gaza Strip. The report details how in total over 2251 Palestinians were killed, including 551 children. More than 11000 Palestinians, including 3436 children, were injured with almost 10 percent suffering permanent disabilities. One need not witness the Israeli killing of a child to know that it is wrong.

Various youth groups, human rights bodies, student movements (including South Africa’s largest student organization, SASCO, and the youth league of the ruling ANC) have all slammed what they refer to as “Israeli propaganda trips” organized by the SA-Israel Forum (which, it was exposed a few years back, is funded and has links to the notorious steel manufacturing company CapeGate that -in violation of international law- supplies and profits from supplying material for the construction of Israel’s “Apartheid Wall”). Hardly a “neutral fact-finding” trip!

Quite rightly, our ruling party the ANC has an Israel travel ban. It is obvious that such ban does not, apply to solidarity visits or religious visits (sanctioned by the indigenous Palestinian Christians). The Israeli lobby tries to isolate individuals within the ANC and government who are critical of Israel without realizing that this criticism of Israel are organizational policies, positions and resolutions.

As Israeli human rights abuses and violence has increased, the ANC itself has got firmer in its condemnation of Israeli Apartheid and violence. In 2012, the 3rd ANC International Solidarity Conference supported “the call of [Palestinian] civil society’s BDS campaign.” This was followed by the ANC’ s Mangaung conference passing resolution 35 (g) calling for “all South Africans to support the programmes and campaigns of Palestinian civil society which seek to put pressure on Israel” .

Also in 2012, the then Deputy Minister of International Relations made public the un-said position that: “Because of the treatment and policies of Israel towards the Palestinian people, we strongly discourage South Africans from going there”. In 2013, International Relations Minister Miate Nkoana-Mashabane confirmed that “Palestinians had asked us in formal meetings to not engage with the [Israeli] regime…we have [therefore] agreed to slow down and curtail senior leadership contact with that regime until things begin to look better”.

In November 2014, the ANC took a decision that in supporting the “the call for a cultural, academic and education boycott of Israel” it would include “travel bans for members and leaders of the ANC, the Alliance, Members of Cabinet, Members of Parliament and Government Officials.” Accepting an invite to Israel is a violation of organizational policies, positions and resolutions.

Prior to the recent Israeli student propaganda trip, Palestinian civil society and students all wrote to would-be-participants urging them not to go. In addition, progressive Israelis critical of Israeli policies also wrote a detailed letter to the would-be-delegation pointing out how one sided and biased their trip was.

Palestinian churches and Christian from Jerusalem and Bethlehem also wrote to the students urging them, if they would like to visit the Holy Land, to rather to come on a solidarity trip organized by the World Council of Churches or other progressive Christian tour group and not to come as a guest of the Israeli government and its lobby. The Palestinian churches explained how Christianity is mis-used by the Israeli regime and its supporters to divide Palestinian Christians and Muslims – both indigenous to the land. They quoted Palestinian Archbishop, Theodosius Hanna saying: “Israel desires to conceal the Christian dimension of the Palestinian issue. Israel attempts to present this conflict as a Jewish-Muslim religious conflict, and it also attempts to neutralize the Christian position.”

A rather weak argument that was also raised subsequent to the trip is that because South Africa has some relations with Israel (for example embassies) that the boycott and travel ban does not apply. This is a disingenuous, for our own history is the perfect response to this argument. During the 1980s many countries had embassies in South Africa yet the ANC and the larger liberation struggle still called on those countries to impose boycotts. Countries of the world did not necessarily immediately shut down Embassies however, they did start with scaling down, imposing military embargos and rolling out sanctions against Apartheid.

Today there is a growing movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel for its violations of international law. Over 12 European Union countries have warned against doing business with Israel, Amnesty International has called for a military embargo, several churches including Presbyterian, Methodist and United Church of Christ together with major pension funds have all divested from Israel. International banks have blacklisted Israeli investments and a string of artists from Stevie wonder to Lauren Hill and Pink Floyd have cancelled Israeli gigs. To boycott Apartheid during the 1980s was to be on the right side of history, to boycott Israel today is to be on the right side of history.