There’s a new Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) formation in South Africa. BDS is a global movement calling for the boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel. In March 2020, the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) said that a newly formed BDS coalition is the “global BDS movement’s officially mandated partner in South Africa.” The BNC is the broadest Palestinian civil society coalition working to support the BDS movement.
Days after the announcement of the SA BDS Coalition, BDS South Africa (BDS SA), previously the main South African BDS organisation, announced a relaunching under the name “Africa for Palestine”.
What you need to know about the SA BDS Coalition
The South African BDS Coalition spoken about by the BNC is a coalition of South African-Palestinian solidarity organisations and activists. They are officially aligned to the international BDS movement. It was announced on March 7 that after a call from the BNC, a number of South African-Palestinian organisations and activists met to establish the coalition.
In a statement, the coalition said they met on February 29 to debate the workings of the new coalition. An interim coordinating committee was elected and tasked with preparing the new coalition for its formal launch. Members of the steering committee include Ronnie Kasrils, a former cabinet member and Mercia Andrews, a feminist activist.
One of these organisation is the Wits University Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC). A member of the committee confirmed to The Daily Vox tha the Wits PSC is no longer a part of BDS SA and joined the SA BDS coalition.
In a statement sent to The Daily Vox, the BNC said: “The South Africa BDS Coalition has recently taken its first step towards forming a broad, inclusive, anti-racist and democratic alliance in solidarity with Palestine.”
The BNC said the coalition promised to play a crucial role in “advancing solidarity in South Africa with the struggle for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality and to challenge complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights under international law.”
What does this mean for BDS SA now Africa for Palestine
On March 12 2020, BDS-SA announced their organisation was rebranding as Africa for Palestine (AFP). The renaming came days after the organisation moved to new offices which were opened by Geoff Makhubo, mayor of the city of Johannesburg. In a statement, the organisation said the decision came about after consultation with several of their South African and African partners.
The organisation said they’ve become fully independent and autonomous from the Palestinian BNC. It was after this point, they decided to review their operations for expansion.
In a statement released by the organisation, they said their focus is on “strengthening African – Palestinian relations and pushing back against Israel’s creeping infiltration into our continent.” They said AFP will be proactively partnering and working with “organisations who stand with other oppressed peoples of the world.”
Omar Barghouti’s endorsement
In a video message that was posted on social media, Omar Barghouti, a member of the BNC, endorsed the new coalition. Barghouti said: “In this context, the BNC is proud to partner with our South African BDS coalition partners. It’s the broadest, most cohesive democratic alliance of groups working for Palestinian rights in South Africa.”
Barghouti goes on to say that the new coalition will work together with the BNC and is recognised as the only entity in South Africa that is affiliated with the global BDS movement and which can carry the BDS name.
Addressing the former BDS-SA issue
The official BNC response to The Daily Vox did not address BDS-SA now AFP, which Barghouti addressed in the video. He said that as of September 2019, the organisation was no longer part of the BDS movement and cannot carry the BDS name as instructed by the BNC. [starts at 10:59]
Barghouti outlined that there were two main factors for the decision. He said: “This is for two factors: firstly mishandling and failure to properly investigate serious allegations of sexual harassment.” The second factor Barghouti explained was “an unexpected and quite unfortunate official position by the organisations’ board ending accountability to the BNC and by extension the BDS movement’s guidelines and ethical principles that are set by the BNC.”
Barghouti said this came about after the BNC urged the organisation to conduct a fair and victim-based investigation of the sexual harassment allegations.
The sexual harassment allegations
The sexual harassment allegations mentioned by Barghouti referred to a story that was broken by The Daily Vox in 2019. On March 21 2019, The Daily Vox broke the story of alleged sexual harassment by Muhammed Desai, director of BDS SA (now AFP).
Sang Hea Kil, an academic from the United States told The Daily Vox at the time that Desai had sexually harassed her and two other women on one night. Kil was in Johannesburg attending a conference on Palestine and a study tour of Johannesburg hosted by the Afro Middle East Centre (Amec).
AMEC told The Daily Vox that three complainants demanded an unconditional apology from Desai, and an investigation into the multiple complaints against him. They further demanded he be suspended for the duration of the investigation, and that he be prevented from speaking publicly about Palestinian issues during that time.
BDS-SA did not answer any of the questions sent to them initially by The Daily Vox. On March 27 (six days after the initial story broke), they announced they were aware of the allegations. The organisation later carried on an investigation into Desai. The details of this were not made publicly available. All queries made by The Daily Vox as well as the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC), who were representing the complainants were not answered by the organisation.
At the time several individuals in their personal capacity released a statement in concern about the way that the BDS-SA handled the allegations. The Palestine Solidarity Committee (Johannesburg), Wits PSC, UCT Palestine Solidarity Forum, and Muslims Students Association Union all endorsed the statement.
Findings of report
Two months after the allegations first arose, BDS-SA released the findings of the report. The report cleared Desai of all allegations. It found the allegations levelled against him “cannot be sustained” and are “unfounded”. The 34-page report concluded that: “… there is no rational basis in law to take any disciplinary action against Mr Desai. The allegations against Mr Desai premised on all the statements of the complainants, their witness and Mr Jeenah’s interview cannot be sustained and are unfounded.”
Kil expressed her disappointment in the report saying the report: “permits men to follow, harass, and touch women with impunity, even WHEN THEY REBUKE THEM, and puts the burden on all women to know the fine details of sexual harassment law in South Africa in order to protect themselves or find justice under the law.”
An open letter was later penned to the board of BDS-SA by individuals involved with South Africa-Palestinian soldiarity. The letter “categorically rejects the patently flawed, and unambiguously biased report by Advocate Smanga Sethene.” It called on the board to suspend Desai and institute an independent, victim-centred process that is inclusive and transparent. This call was not responded to by the BDS-SA board.
What’s next for the coalition
Speaking to The Daily Vox, the coalition’s William Shoki said they hoped the coalition would be formalised and hold democratic elections by July 2020. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, these plans are on hold till early 2021. However, Shoki said the formation would be open to working with any organisation.
“If an organisation wants to become affiliated to us, they have to agree to our values and principles – as and when those are decided,” said Shoki.