South African and Israeli apartheid
By Eddie Cottle | Amandla! Magazine | Issue 48 | October-November 2016
South African Zionists often question pro-Palestinian activists on why they single out Israel amongst all the international causes in the world. We are asked, why Israel? Why not Iran or Syria? Of course, valid responses are simply dismissed. In the Zionist mind, individuals and groups have the unquestionable right to choose any cause, as long as it is not Israel. But what is it that makes Israel so important to the consciousness of individuals, student organisations, academics, religious organisations, political parties and the labour movement in South Africa? The answer to this question lies in the deep ties in South African and Palestinian history.
The early 20th Century Zionist Jews found South African settlers particularly receptive to Zionist ideas because they themselves were a settler population with a settler ideology. Zionist societies proliferated in South Africa. In 1905, over sixty of these met for the first Zionist conference in the country.
By the end of the First World War, Jewish anti-Zionism had dissipated in the wake of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British government expressed its support for Palestine as a ìnational home for the Jewish people. Whilst Zionists came to dominate the SA Jewish community, they encountered trenchant opposition from socialist-inclined Jews, members of the Bund and Communist Party of South Africa.
Zionists felt comfortable in South Africa as Jewish nationalism was met with empathy in the highest levels of government office and was initially not regarded as incompatible with Afrikaner nationalism. Weizmann and Herzl, leaders of the world Zionist movement, had close interaction with South African leaders and had identified fully with the concept of a racially distinct colonising populace.
Chaim Weizmann was the first president of Israel. It was his close friend, the Boer leader, General Jan Smuts, who became the prime minister of South Africa. Being the South African delegate to the British War Cabinet, Smuts helped push through the Balfour Declaration which allowed support for the construction of a Zionist colony under British authority in Palestine. From the beginning, then, the racist South African state played a significant role in the colonisation of the Palestinian people.
As Zionism saw its future among the leading imperialist powers, it was also an ardent supporter of British colonialism in Africa. In 1943 Weizmann wrote to Smuts, detailing a plan to develop Britains African colonies in order to compete with the United States. During his service as Premier, Smuts continued his support and personally fundraised for multiple Zionist organisations.
Between the World Wars, anti-Semitism grew among English speaking whites and many Afrikaners who had sympathy for Nazi Germany. However, South Africa was among the 33 states that voted in favour of the 1947 UN partition resolution, recommending the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine. On 24 May 1948, nine days after Israel’s declaration of independence, the South African government of Jan Smuts, a long-time supporter of Zionism, granted de facto recognition to the State of Israel. That was just two days before his United Party was voted out of office and replaced by the pro-apartheid National Party. South Africa was the seventh nation to recognize the new Jewish state.
When the Afrikaner-dominated National Party came to power in 1948 it did not adopt an anti-Jewish policy, despite its earlier position, and opened the party to Jewish members. The two apartheid states, South Africa and Israel, both came to power in 1948 and understood that there was much more uniting them than separating them. In 1953, South Africa’s Prime Minister, D. F. Malan became the first foreign head of government to visit Israel.
As imperialist powers and South Africa paid homage to Israel, the newly liberated, ex-colonial states of Africa and Asia assembled in 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia. There they passed a unanimous resolution pledging support for the rights of the people of Palestine. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War and subsequent occupation of the Sinai and West Bank alienated it diplomatically from much of the Third World and African states. Black Nationalist movements then began to see it as a colonial state.
At the same time, in South Africa, Israel became the object of widespread admiration, particularly among the country’s political and military leadership. Both South Africa and Israel learnt from each other and were experienced in dispossessing indigenous people from their land. They both practiced racial segregation and forced removals and even house demolitions, as well as a notorious pass system for the people they oppressed. Indeed, Henrik Verwoerd, the mastermind behind the racial policies of apartheid, stated that, Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.
In 1971, the USSR and Guinea together submitted early drafts of a United Nations convention to deal with the suppression and punishment of apartheid. On November 30, 1973, the United Nations General Assembly opened for signature and ratification the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (ICSPCA). The ICSPCA only came to force in 1976 after twenty countries from the Eastern Bloc, Africa and the Middle East had ratified it. Western democracies have neither signed nor ratified the ICSPCA, including Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
The military leaders hip of both Israel and South Africa were convinced that both nations faced a fundamentally similar predicament. They were fighting for their survival against the common terrorist enemy of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the ANC. While the Israeli government and military supported the apartheid government, the PLO had actually trained and equipped ANC fighters.
After experiencing major setbacks in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the economic and military alliance between Israel and South Africa was on the ascendancy. South Africa furnished Israel with spare parts for its Mirage jet fighters. South Africa’s substantial Jewish community were encouraged by the apartheid government, to provide financial support to the Zionist state. South African money helped Israel become a major arms manufacturer and exporter, while Pretoria gained access to cutting-edge weapons and military technology at a time when most of the world isolated the apartheid regime. Israel thus assisted South Africa in defying the arms boycott and assisted it in development of seven nuclear weapons.
The South African governments yearbook of 1978 stated that ìIsrael and South Africa have one thing above all else in common: they are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples. Israel actively started supporting war efforts against the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. During Operation Protea in 1981, against military bases of the South West Africa Peoples Organisation (SWAPO), the South African Defense Force made military history. It was the first user of modern Israeli drone technology in combat in Angola. The Israeli regime thus supported the destabilisation of the frontline states in Southern Africa in support of apartheid South Africa.
On the other side in the 1980s, the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Europe grew from a small but determined pressure group into bigger mass movements. It mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in demonstrations for sanctions against South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela. It was only due to the resounding international efforts to isolate South Africa that the South African Jewish Board in 1985 decided to pass a resolution rejecting apartheid. By 1987, Israel found itself the only developed nation in the world that still maintained strong, even strategic, relations with South Africa, as the apartheid regime was entering its final throes.
In 1990, just two weeks after being released, Nelson Mandela met Arafat, the leader of the PLO, stating that ìThere are many similarities between our struggle and that of the PLO. We live under a unique form of colonialism in South Africa, as well as in Israel.
Mandela’s words have stood the test of time. In a 2007 report, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Palestine, John Dugard, stated, elements of the Israeli occupation constitute forms of colonialism and of apartheid, which are contrary to international law. In 2009 South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) published a legal study finding that, the State of Israel exercises control in the Occupied Palestinian Territories with the purpose of maintaining a system of domination by Jews over Palestinians and that this system constitutes a breach of the prohibition of apartheid.
From the early 20th century, then, South African and Palestinian histories were intimately tied in the struggle against colonialism, apartheid and Zionism. Today, the majority of South Africans fully acknowledge having benefited tremendously from international solidarity efforts to isolate apartheid. The struggle continues for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions to liberate the Palestinian people from the yoke of Israeli apartheid and genocide.
Eddie Cottle is the editor of the book, South Africa’s World Cup: A Legacy for Whom? and is a member of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, South Africa.