Home » Opinion » Why the Palestine solidarity movement in South Africa has to evolve – or become irrelevant
A Palestinian flag flies at a pro-Palestinian rally in Gauteng. Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee
A Palestinian flag flies at a pro-Palestinian rally in Gauteng. Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee

Why the Palestine solidarity movement in South Africa has to evolve – or become irrelevant

The Palestinian struggle has captured the imagination of black South Africans since the 1970s, but of late the movement has been gripped by a dangerous form of populism. It’s time for the movement to undertake a critical shift in approach towards one that is principled and immersed in the programmes of the decolonisation movement in South Africa, argues MINHAJ JEENAH.

Let’s be clear, the militarised occupation of Palestine by Zionists is one of the starkest and most vicious manifestations of the violence of colonial white power that perpetuates racism, sexism and violent capitalism. The ideological basis of Zionism is to create a community of separateness at the incremental extermination of an indigenous population.

The Palestinian struggle for self-determination is a righteous struggle which is necessarily linked to the Black condition. Its resistance in all its forms, violent or otherwise, is a legitimate resistance.

Let’s be clear to set the terms of our engagement through this post: I’m not interested in compromising on or discussing these actualities.

The Palestinian struggle has captured the imagination of black South Africans since the 1970s – particularly resonant was the Palestinian armed resistance against Zionist colonialism. While exiled South African liberation movements had various forms of contact with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Palestinian solidarity within South Africa remained very much a Muslim issue until the mid-80s when the Israeli-apartheid analysis started taking shape, promoted by some within the Black Consciousness movement and smaller left groups.

Post-1994 saw certain significant changes to Palestine solidarity work, most notably during the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 when it was addressed more strongly as an issue of national liberation, and South African civil society was lobbied.

After the call from Palestinian civil society for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel in 2005 and the launch of Israeli Apartheid Week, campus-based Palestine solidarity activism was strengthened and focused. Since then, the global BDS campaign helped define and intensify Palestine solidarity in South Africa – through campus-based structures, civil society, BDS South Africa, Muslim and Christian groups, anti-Zionist Jewish groups and unions.

There were also numerous efforts to form broad coalitions to coordinate solidarity work. The most recent such effort was the National Coalition for Palestine, formed during the 2014 massacre in Gaza, and now dominated by the NGO BDS South Africa.

Towards a critical shift
In the recent past Palestine solidarity work has been gripped by a dangerous form of populism.

After the massive solidarity march in Cape Town in 2014, Palestine solidarity activism has been characterised by the #BoycottWoolworths campaign. As part of a broader consumer boycott, this campaign aims to pressure Woolworths to remove Israeli products from its shelves. In what was, arguably, a bad tactical move Woolworths was targeted for a consumer boycott because the campaign was deemed “winnable” – for a number of reasons.  There have been a few voices of dissent against the campaign, within the movement and externally, challenging the moral and tactical value of the boycott.

The “winnable” strategy, which is an approach that has dominated the BDS campaign in South Africa, is problematic and unprincipled – it reduces struggle to a list of feel-good victories rather than moving towards substantive change. Alas, almost two years later, the campaign has seemingly lost steam.

Nevertheless, #BoycottWoolworths succeeded in mobilising some (especially young) activists and now needs to be re-strategised into a new, more rigorous strategy. The campaign should build on its success and now cast the intense focus directly on Israeli products, not particular stores. #BoycottWoolworths must now become #BoycottIsrael.

There has also been dangerous courting with the ANC, with some solidarity groups becoming apologists for the ruling party and feting it in rallies as if it’s the vanguard of Palestine solidarity. Although the party has stated its commitment to the BDS campaign, its role has been contradictory, with its government often working contrary to these commitments.

It’s deeply concerning and offensive that apparent support for the Palestinian course is often used (particularly before elections) as an ANC buffer to pacify people sympathetic to the course at the expense of interrogation of problematic policy (and, yes, to get votes).

This inability to properly politicise Palestinian solidarity and approach it with principle rather than just tactic has also seen many ad-hoc airy-fairy events that result in minimal understanding of the complexities of Palestinian activism. Admittedly, there have been more substantive campaigns, such as the current campaign to arrest Shimon Peres, but these have not led to large-scale mobilisation.

There is, now, a need for the Palestine solidarity movement in South Africa to undertake a critical shift in approach.

International solidarity is fundamentally complex. It requires astute strategy, radical empathy, moral consistency and a very particular commitment to disrupt the politics of differing oppressions.

The South African movement for solidarity with the Palestinian people needs a process of difficult reflection. It must divorce itself from reductionist praxis and undertake serious mass engagement with the political complexities of the Palestinian struggle and internationalism.

The movement must be claimed as a radical collective movement that is intersectional and decentralised. It must direct both our revolutionary anger and our love for freedom, justice and equality through principled, uncompromising and intelligible strategies.

It is, therefore, also clear that solidarity for the Palestinian struggle must be immersed in the programmes of the decolonisation movement in South Africa. The movement will be compromised if it regards its victimhood to the exclusion of other colonial sufferings.

Key to these solidarity strategies is a more strengthened commitment to force unconscious capital, government and academic institutions to submit to the call from Palestinian comrades to isolate Israel. Consistency in praxis, also, includes uprooting and discomforting Zionist sentiment, in order to de-normalise and remove racist ideology from our spaces.

Israel must fall.

Minhaj Jeenah is the Chairperson of the Muslim Youth Movement Western Cape region, which is a member of the National Coalition for Palestine. Follow him on Twitter @minhajjeenah

This is part of a special series called Apartheid 2.0, which The Daily Vox is running this month in partnership with Al Jazeera’s Palestine Remix.

Featured image by Ihsaan Haffejee


  1. Honest Question

    Firstly, I agree with disclaimer of the article, and Israel cannot be excused for it’s horrendous mistreatment of Palestinians and major action need be taken.
    However, one of the biggest evolutions that I think need be looked at in terms of the local movement is something shown here in this very gallery in the article: http://www.freepalestine.co.za/?p=239#prettyPhoto and something alluded to elsewhere on The Daily Vox. “Despite the fact that most protesters in Johannesburg and Durban are from a particular demographic (read: Middle Class, Indian, Muslim, and who probably drove by landless and impoverished black folk along their way to the demonstration”

    The support base at any local pro Palestine rally is still disproportionally indian/coloured Muslim South Africans, a demographic which quite frankly does not seem to get riled up for many of the political injustices that take place on our own soul. The take away can only be that there’s more concern for the suffering of brown bodies thousands of kilometers away than the black ones living in your own country. This is not mere What-About-ism however, as one cannot deny that anti-black racism still exists in Indian/Coloured communities, where the black life is still seen as inferior and of less concern.

    I disagree that the relations between Apartheid is the reason we see such strong support from this demographic. The whole movement seems less “We care about the plight of these people” and more “We care about the plight of these people who look like us and believe the same religion as us”. It’s not true support, it’s support with conditions, and support with bias, and it makes one feel uncomfortable to get involved with. I suppose one could argue any support of suffering people, conditional or not, is helpful, but I still think it’s important to mull over. Muslim people within this movement need to question the real reason they’re involved, and see if their intentions are really good or are they spawned from the indoctrinated “Them VS Us” approach that organised religion imposes in the minds of billions.

    If you don’t agree with this criticism, ask one question: If the Palestinians were a bunch of black Christians would our local Muslim community care as much for their cause?

    I think you know the answer.

  2. Anti-Black Predicament

    While reading this, I constantly thought about the anti-blackness that the Muslim/Colored & Indian community has. Every time I agree with a South African muslim regarding the oppression of Palestinians, I have to reserve in my mind the thought that the very same person is probably anti black here in South Africa. Basically, the only time solidarity is sort with Black people and Black movements is when said solidarity is also directly beneficial to those seeking the solidarity, even though they might be anti Black people, which the majority of Muslim/Indian & Colored folks in SA unfortunately are. What do these communities do in SA to help the plight of the poorest of the poor ( Majority Black) in their fight to dismantle the still oppressive system? Maybe you could also push for an open debate regarding anti Black people in your community next time you try rally the masses support in your plight for Palestinians

  3. I read the reasons given for why Woolworths was picked as a target and not others… they make sense only in a very cynical and defeatist manner.

  4. That Minhaj Jeenah is the Chairperson of the Muslim Youth Movement Western Cape merely confirms that the conflict is religious in nature, and that the belligerents on either side, are those who are bound to conservative non-Secular values. In denying the experience of Black Jews, in particular, Arab Jews expelled from Arab lands in 1948, Ethiopian Jewish refugees, Nigerian and other Oriental Jews, including Chinese and Japanese Jews, Jeenah, is the author of a categorical error, namely attributing a race to Jews. Judaism is a religion. For those Jews, unlike myself, who happen to be Jerusalem Observant, I can only suggest that the land is double-booked. All three major monotheistic religions hold this city as holy. Perpetrating a fallacy such as the one authored by Jeenah, does not help the rest of us, held hostage to the conflict. Turning persons such as myself into heretics merely because we seek a secular, bipartisan solution to the problem, doesn’t help matters. The ideology of BDS is essentially the same as any right-wing movement which seek to obliterate its adversary instead of seeking cohabitation and compromise. No less a luminary than Noam Chomsky, one of Israel’s fiercest critics, sounded out on the problem of BDS extremists, and believes the strategy won’t work. See Noam Chomsky’s rethink of the situation in the Nation, http://www.thenation.com/article/180492/israel-palestine-and-bds?page=0,0 and also http://socialistworker.org/2014/07/15/chomsky-and-the-bds-struggle

  5. Many of us want an honest voice that will support justice for the Palestinian people. You want a strategy? Get rid of the BDS leadership and give us something that gives us a consistent, meaningful vision, and a clear plan of action.

  6. For Muslims who are actively participating in the BDS movement with the intent of helping their brothers and sisters in Palestine, I would like to call upon them to also seriously consider another way to go about this which I really do believe would be even more effective in bringing about the desired objective in just a matter of months and not years.

    There is really no need for the Muslim world to obtain nukes and other weapons of mass destruction in order to defeat the Zionist entity militarily for all that is required are lots and lots of 3-D printed mini-drones which are cheap and easy to assemble and which will be remotely operated by tens if not hundreds of thousands (and perhaps even millions) of independent cells, each comprising of a handful of tech-savvy individuals living in all corners of the globe who would group together into these ‘lone-wolf’ cells in the spirit of jihad and subsequently target the runways of Ben Gurion Airport in a prolonged and sustained campaign of non-stop bombardment.

    Currently, we are seeing for ourselves the effectiveness of the ‘lone-wolf’ resistance movement in the occupied territories by our dear sisters and brothers in Palestine and there is really nothing that the Zionist entity is able to do to put a stop to these attacks against their members.. and the courageous example of these heroes of the resistance in Palestine should indeed be emulated by the rest of the Ummah but with the added bonus of using much more effective and sophisticated weaponry like mini-drones and also high-altitude blimps instead of mere knives.

    By targeting the runways of Ben Gurion Airport in order to inflict crippling and far-reaching economic damage to the enemy, this insha’Allah will almost certainly result in the quick demise of the Zionist entity for there is simply no way that it can survive without a functioning airport, just as it is not possible for any creature to live if the blood vessels to any of it’s vital organs become blocked.

    Also worth noting is that a vast number of such mini-drones and high-altitude blimps continually dropping lots and lots of things like nails and glue on the runways would also make them, for all intents and purposes, completely unusable and so there might not be even a need to equip these drones and blimps with bombs and explosives.

    The Ummah collectively does indeed possess the know-how and capability to carry out such an operation like I have described above and this I believe makes it obligatory for Muslims to examine and evaluate all available options and means at our disposal to help save our brothers and sisters in Palestine in the quickest time possible.

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