Salim Vally: The campaign to isolate apartheid Israel — lessons from South Africa


By Salim Vally

[Salim Vally, a leading member of the Palestine Solidarity Committee in South Africa and a veteran anti-apartheid activist, will be a featured guest at the World at a Crossroads conference, to be held in Sydney, Australia, on April 10-12, 2009, organised by the Democratic Socialist Perspective, Resistance and Green Left Weekly. Visit for full agenda and to book your tickets.]

There are moments in modern history when particular struggles galvanise millions around the world to act in solidarity. This occurred during the Spanish Civil War, the struggle of the Vietnamese people against US imperialism and the liberation struggles of Southern Africa. The time has now come for progressive humanity to cut through the obfuscations, canards and calumnies and meaningfully support the resistance of the Palestinian people.

For more than 60 years Palestinians have alerted us to one outrage after another, injustices piled upon injustices without the commensurate scale of global solidarity required to make a significant difference to their lives. It is now in our hands to change this unconscionable situation. Not by appealing to the ruling classes of the world and their institutions — which remain, in the face of abundant evidence, unmoved, callous and hypocritical. Which in fact sustain and provide succour to Israel”s apartheid and terror. It is rather by applying the most potent weapon we have learnt to rely on, forged and steeled through the tried and tested struggles of workers and oppressed people spanning time and space: solidarity. International solidarity in this sense in the words of the late Mozambican revolutionary, Samora Machel is “not an act of charity but an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objectives”.

Acts of defiance and determination against overwhelming odds continue to drive the will of Palestinians. Global solidarity activists need to be inspired and strengthened by this unleashing of creative energies; the fact that obstacles can be surmounted and the debilitating wastefulness of internecine and sectarian conflicts exposed.

Israel: a fundamentalist and militarised warrior state

The Palestinian struggle does not only exert a visceral tug on many around the world. A reading of imperialism shows that apartheid Israel is needed as a fundamentalist and militarised warrior state not only to quell the undefeated and unbowed Palestinians but also as a rapid response fount of reaction in concert with despotic Arab regimes to do the Empire”s bidding in the Middle East and beyond.

Over the years this has included support for the mass terror waged against the people of Central and South America and facilitating the evasion of international sanctions against South Africa. Besides providing a ready supply of mercenaries to terrorise a populace — whether in Guatemala, Iraq or New Orleans — Israel also lends its expertise of collective punishment and mass terror. We have to recognise that the foundation of the Israeli economy was founded on the special political and military role which Zionism then and today fulfils for Western imperialism. While playing its role to ensure that the region is safe for oil companies it has also carved out today a niche market producing high-tech security essential for the day-to-day functioning of New Imperialism.

The unrestrained hand of US imperialism and its support for barbarism whether in Iraq or Palestine should hasten our actions. In Gaza, 80 per cent of the population live in poverty and close to a million people have no access to fresh water, electricity and other essential services. Close to 70,000 workers have lost their jobs in the siege of Gaza. The killing of Palestinians continues on a ferocious basis — daily missiles are launched from US-made helicopters and fighter jets. These cowardly war crimes are carried out with impunity — no longer even meriting a mention in the mainstream press.

In the light of these killings and the slow starvation of the inhabitants of Gaza, as well as the frequent “incursions” into the West Bank, the obsequiousness of the Abbas regime becomes all the more abject. The fanfare and din surrounding the Annapolis “breakthrough” is one more hoax designed to assuage the conscience and lull the “international community” to slumber. Karma Nabulsi wrote at the time of this spectacle:

The tarnished trickery of those tired catchphrases “last chance for peace”, “painful compromises”, “moderates against extremists” is now worn so thin a child would not be deceived. It is a meeting to legitimise the status quo. There is an intense defeatism pervading the mainstream media and tired politicians without valour everywhere. But there is a hopeful reality: many ordinary citizens all over the world have not given up and the Palestinians have not given up on themselves.

Palestinians remain steadfast and courageous. Despite the complexities of the Palestinian resistance and the conflict between Fatah and Hamas, and without discouraging criticism, we outside the Israeli dungeons and the rubble of the Israeli war machine have a responsibility to support the Palestinian struggle. I believe this can be accomplished through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) proposed by a wide array of Palestinian trade unions, and academic, student and political organisations representing the vast majority of the Palestinian people (see Other writings have justified the need for this strategy, so it will suffice here to quote an American currently residing in South Africa, Virginia Tilley, who in the aftermath of the cluster bombing by Israel of Lebanon wrote:

It is finally time. After years of internal arguments, confusion, and dithering, the time has come for a full-fledged international boycott of Israel. Good cause for a boycott has, of course, been in place for decades, as a raft of initiatives already attests. But Israel’s war crimes are now so shocking, its extremism so clear, the suffering so great, the UN so helpless, and the international community’s need to contain Israel’s behavior so urgent and compelling, that the time for global action has matured. A coordinated movement of divestment, sanctions, and boycotts against Israel must convene to contain not only Israel’s aggressive acts and crimes against humanitarian law but also, as in South Africa, its founding racist logics that inspired and still drive the entire Palestinian problem.

Lessons from the campaign to isolate apartheid South Africa

It will be helpful to draw activists” attention to some of the egregious lessons from the campaign to isolate apartheid South Africa, bearing in mind Amilcar Cabral”s “tell no lies, claim no easy victories” advice to revolutionaries.

First, it took a few decades of hard work before the boycott campaign made an impact. Despite the impression given by many governments, unions and faith-based groups that they supported the isolation of the apartheid state from the outset this is just not true. Besides the infamous words of Dick Cheney, when as a senator he called for the continued incarceration of Nelson Mandela because he was a “terrorist” quite late in the day, and the support given by US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Thatcher, together with regimes like dictator Pinochet”s Chile, Israel and others, most powerful institutions, multilateral organisations and unions were hesitant for many years to fully support the campaign. The Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) was formed in 1959 and the first significant breakthrough came in 1963 when Danish dock workers refused to off-load South African goods.

The rise of the AAM must be seen in the general effervescence of liberation struggles and social movements in the turbulent 1960s/early 1970s and in the context of, whatever our opinion was of the USSR and its motivations, a counterweight to the US hegemon. This, together with the viciousness of the pro-Israeli lobby, its opportunistic reference to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and the post-9/11 climate of fear, silencing dissent and Islamophobia, makes the task of isolating apartheid Israel more difficult. Despite these seemingly daunting obstacles the movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel is gaining momentum and already some significant gains have been made. Gains which would”ve been difficult to imagine just a few years ago.

Second, arguments opposed to the boycott related to the harm it would cause black South African themselves and the need for dialogue and “constructive engagement” were easily rebuffed by lucid and knowledgeable arguments. The South African regime, like the Israeli regime today, used “homeland”” leaders and an assortment of collaborators to argue the case for them. Careful research played an important role in exposing the economic, cultural and the armaments trade links with South Africa to make our actions more effective as well as to “name and shame” those who benefited from the apartheid regime.

Third, sectarianism is a danger that we must be vigilant about and principled unity must be our lodestar. Some in the AAM favoured supporting only one liberation movement as the authentic voice of the oppressed in South Africa. They also aspired to work largely with “respectable” organisations, governments and multilateral organisations and shunned the much harder and patient linking of struggles with grassroots organisations. In the UK for instance as elsewhere this sectarian attitude resulted in debilitating splits. The biggest chapter of the AAM in London, which supported the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland and was part of the “Troops Out Movement””, were ostracised by the official AAM. The latter was also keen not to annoy the British government by taking a stronger stance against racism in Britain.

The healthy linking of struggles against racism, in support of the indigenous people and workers in North America with the Palestinian struggle that I have witnessed must be lauded. At a huge Palestinian solidarity rally in South Africa recently members of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee were asked by officials from the Palestinian ambassador”s office to pull down the flag of the Western Sahrawi Republic because they feared this would alienate the ambassador of Morocco. We refused this request much to the glee of Polisario Front supporters present.

Fourth, the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions must be in concert with supporting grassroots organisations in Palestine as a whole and in the Palestinian diaspora. This can take many forms and shapes including “twinning”” arrangements, speaking tours, targeted actions in support of specific struggles and concrete support.

Initially, the dominant liberation movement and its allies did not support the independent trade union movement in South Africa, which played a pivotal role in bringing down the apartheid regime. Fifteen years after the first democratic election in South Africa the present neoliberal government is privatising municipal services. The poor who cannot pay their rent are being evicted and failure to pay water and electricity bills mean frequent disconnections. The government often calls the inability to pay user fees the “culture of non-payment and entitlement”. A few years back we were horrified to see officials from the municipality of Cape Town present to a visiting Palestinian delegation, including a proud Saeeb Erekart, prepaid water meters. This is not and should not be the solidarity we are talking about! As a postscript an article in Haaertz written by Amira Hass in February 2008, about a workers” strike in the West Bank, reads:

The workers have three main demands: adjusting wages to match the steep increase in the cost of living; a realistic addition to the “travel expenses” component of salaries (which has not risen since 1999, in spite of the doubling and tripling of the cost of travel because of roadblocks and the increase in fuel prices), and overturning a new regulation that demands every resident procure a certificate of honesty based on “confirmation of debt payment.”…Government spokesmen, headed by Fayyad, have often spoken against a “culture of non-payment of bills,” thus portraying the general Palestinian public as prone to being debt offenders…

Familiar language for us in South Africa and resistance to this neoliberalism is growing. For Palestinians it is happening even before “liberation””. Hass writes:

The strike, and all the public and internal discussions accompanying it, is a fascinating lesson of how Palestinians still acknowledge the power of the collective; how they oppose a liberal economic policy under occupation and colonization, and nurture a democratic suspicion as to the motives of the leading class.

Finally, the sanctions campaign in South Africa did produce gatekeepers, sectarians and commissars but they were also challenged. Writing in support of the academic boycott a colleague, Shireen Hassim does not gloss over the problems:

Some academics who actively opposed apartheid had invitations to international conferences withdrawn; it was not always possible to target the supporters of the apartheid regime; and South African academics” understanding of global issues was certainly weakened. It is in the nature of such weapons that they are double-edged. But, as part of a battery of sanctions, the academic boycott undoubtedly had an impact on both the apartheid state and on white academics and university administrations. The boycott, together with the more successful sports boycott and economic divestment campaigns, helped to strengthen the struggle of black people for justice. The Afrikaner elite, very proud of its European roots and of the legacy of Jan Smuts as a global representative in the post-war system, and convinced that there would be support for its policies abroad, was rudely shaken. University administrations could no longer hide behind an excuse of neutrality but had to issue statements on their opposition to apartheid and introduce programs of redress. Academic associations (some more than others) examined the nature and conditions of research in their disciplines, and faculty unions became part of broader struggles for justice rather than bodies protecting narrow professional interests. Universities became sites of intense debate, and, indeed, intellectuals became critically involved in debates about the nature of current and future South African societies. In the wake of the boycott, there was not a curtailing of academic freedom, then, but a flourishing of intellectual thought that was rich, varied, and exciting.

Comments are closed.