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.