Executive editor AZAD ESSA explains why this conflict should matter to South Africans.
When we started The Daily Vox, we wanted to zoom in on South Africa. We wanted to tell stories that affected South Africans, stories that moved young South Africans in particular.
After publishing 58 stories over the course of three weeks, we published an article related to Palestine. Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel, was in the country, and since South Africa has always been an inspiring example for sanctions, interviewing him was a no-brainer.
The interview was great, though Barghouti didn’t reveal anything that would have left us panting.
But it did leave some in a huff.
Before long, we felt the attention of Israeli, Zionist trolls who asked why we – as a South African project – would zoom in on a situation some 6,500 km away. We were called the “latest anti-Israel project” – an accusation even the Israeli ambassador to South Africa appeared to endorse.
It was a little odd to read such criticism after just one article relating to Palestine-Israel, especially considering the article discussed relevant questions around BDS: accusations of anti-Semitism, the viability of sanctions, its relevance to South Africa, among other points.
That aside, the very fact that some trolled our rather innocuous offering assured us that South Africans – as parochial, uneducated and ignorant as we might be about everything north of the Limpopo and south of the Nile – were connected to the world after all.
And then the Israeli bombardment of Gaza began.
Terror from the sky. Ten days in, and the carnage is plain to see. In southern Israel, the potholes created by Hamas rockets have pushed Israelis to bomb shelters where showers, electricity and time for selfies abound.
In Gaza, more than 200 people have died and over a thousand others have been injured as Israeli rockets have devastated homes, hospitals and cafes. [Total death toll: Palestinians (2200+) and Israelis (71) ]
The terror from the sky is exacerbated further by the attempt to traumatise the civilian population by cutting electricity and already-precarious water supplies, which obviously also hampers relief efforts.
Little wonder then, that protests against the Israeli offensive have taken place in New York, London, Oslo, Srinagar, Karachi and Jakarta.
At home, the outrage has also spilled onto the streets – culminating in protest action in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town.
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 ANC’s strong condemnation of Israel presents the most compelling prelude of what is to come.
Our coverage of Gaza is about to intensify. And unlike others, we aren’t shy to take a position.
A South African story
The events in Gaza cannot be ignored because these are the last vestiges of colonialism. Muslims in South Africa might have an attachment to Palestine – and perhaps remain more forthright about this issue than any other – but make no mistake: this is as South African a story as any other.
Let me explain.
This year, South Africa celebrated 20 years of freedom and democracy. This means that before 1994, this country was not a free place for all who roamed in it.
White superiority was firmly entrenched throughout the 20th century but it was in 1948 that apartheid, or ‘separate development’ for people of different skin colours, was formally introduced.
Accept my apology for the history lesson, but you’d be surprised how little the kids know these days.
So if apartheid was created in 1948, do you ever wonder what the world was up to between 1948 and 1994 while this racist regime operated on the southern-most tip of the continent?
Who supported the apartheid regime? Who didn’t? What about Nelson Mandela? He was buried as a saint last December but who recognised him as a freedom fighter and who accused him of being a terrorist – an enemy of democracy and modernity?
In other words, how did apartheid last so long when it was so obviously wrong?
That’s a long story. And you should probably visit your local library to help you in your quest to learn more about it. But in the meanwhile – here is a primer.
It was accepted really early on that apartheid South Africa was a pariah state. As early as 1962, when the UN General Assembly passed non-binding Resolution 1761, paving the path towards the imposing of sanctions on South Africa, all western nations boycotted the campaign. (Read: it wasn’t in their economic interests to boycott.)
In fact, it took another 20 years before these powerful, developed nations took the cries of black South Africans seriously.
It wasn’t enough that Mandela and others were already imprisoned for a decade and a half. It didn’t matter that the apartheid regime was characterised by state violence on the black majority – exemplified by the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the killing of hundreds of school children in Soweto in 1976, or the murder of Steve Biko in 1977. The western world still waited for the townships to become ungovernable and the country’s economy to implode in 1980s before taking action.
It was only in the mid-1980s that it became immoral to be associated with white-minority, racist rule.
But to much of Africa, Asia and Latin America, otherwise known as the rest of the world, South Africa had long proven to be an outsider to the civilised world.
And where did Israel fit into all of this?
When South Africa became increasingly isolated by most of the world for its policies against black South Africans, laws that have since been compared to Hitler’s Nuremberg laws against Jews in Nazi Germany, it was Israel that helped prop up the apartheid regime.
Instead of boycotting South Africa, Israel became one of South Africa’s biggest economic partners. Following an arms embargo on South Africa, Israel also became the biggest foreign arms supplier to our country.
With Israel losing legitimacy itself, both South Africa and Israel looked at each other with mutual admiration: two progressive civilizations battling it out for survival amid raving dark lunatics.
Turns out apartheid wasn’t just about influx control. It wasn’t just about separate benches and hospitals. Apartheid wasn’t just about your dignity. Apartheid had a profound impact on the countries around us.
Israel is one of the reasons South Africa had the arms to occupy Namibia, and interfere with the Angolan independence movement.
It is your grandfather’s money that helped build Israel’s arms economy because of our reliance on their weapons. We are inexorably involved.
The story in Gaza
Gaza is burning, and we are staring at the wild sprays of an unsustainable imperial project that not only supported apartheid behind the scenes but continues to suppress the aspirations of Palestinian people.
And though Israel has repeatedly meted out disproportionate violence in its zeal to usher in collective punishment to Gazans, Hamas also has questions to answer.
By international law, Hamas has a right to resist the Israeli occupation and blockade of Gaza. But its rockets, as innocuous as they have proven to be, do not necessarily stand up to scrutiny in the rules of war. These rockets target civilians, and they are illegal. We aren’t afraid to point this out.
At the same time, this conflict is no by means a “war”, and holding Hamas to account in an asymmetrical battle is but a footnote in a story littered with Israeli war crimes.
Make no mistake; collective punishment is a war crime.
Israel talks of these rockets from Gaza as if they are root cause of the conflict. This is a lie.
Rockets fired out of Gaza are nothing more than a manifestation of an illegal occupation. Without talking about the siege and impunity of the Israeli military establishment, talking about the rockets is disingenuous.
And it has happened before.
After Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 for instance, South Africa’s Justice Richard Goldstone, on behalf of the UN, found the following: “Disproportionate destruction and violence against civilians were part of a deliberate policy [by Israel].”
1,400 civilians died in Gaza, while 13 died in Israel in 2008-2009. Back then, 88% of Palestinian deaths were civilians. Today, it is estimated that 77% are civilians.
South Africa has maintained polite relations with Israel since 1994, but now is probably as good a time as any to end this relationship.
Or shall we wait another 20 years before we realise that Israel cannot continue as a coloniser and an occupier?
Of course, Gaza is not the only place under duress at this time. Northern Nigeria is in shambles, so is Syria and northern Iraq. Even Afghanistan and Pakistan, these days, even Kenya sits perilously on the brink.
But here, we speak of Gaza. And we make no apology for it.
If the story relates to South Africans, we will cover it.
Update: This editorial was previously titled: “We aren’t shy to take a position on Gaza” in reference to the invasion of Gaza in 2014. We have not changed the title to: “We aren’t shy to take a position on Palestine”. We have also updated the death tolls.