South African Transport Workers’ Union international secretary calls for isolation of Israel

transcript Zico Tamela (at demo in front of UN in Cairo, Monday 28th Jan)

“I always say, remember in South Africa we also fought for the isolation of the racist labour movement from the international labour movement. So what is the difference now? It’s not a question of fighting Jewish workers, no, no, it’s a question of isolating Zionism within the labour movement.”
“As transport workers throughout the world, we need to be at the forefront of the struggle to implement Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign, because we are the ones who transport goods to and from Israel throughout the world.”

Z: My name is Zico Tamela, I’m the international secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, I am here as part of the South African delegation, I am one of the 5 comrades from affiliates of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, to pledge solidarity with the people of Palestine, specifically Gaza, to take part in the international solidarity march that will be taking place in Gaza, to break the siege of Israel over Palestine and Gaza specifically.

G: Right, and is this an issue which is important to people in South Africa in general, do the masses of people in South Africa think this is important?

Z: It is very important, historically the liberation movement in South Africa has been working very closely with the liberation movement in Palestine. Even after we achieved liberation in 1994 in South Africa, we have continued to stage demonstrations, to do whatever we can to assist the people of Palestine to be free, and the South Africans recognise that our freedom is inseparable from the freedom of those people who are still suffering and oppressed by colonial powers like Israel throughout the world.

G: During the long struggle for liberation of South Africa and Namibia and the Front Line States, one of the things that people tried to do in the international world was to impose sanctions, and in particular for workers to take action to impose sanctions against South Africa. How do you see that? Do you see that as relevant to the Palestine situation?

Z: It is very relevant. Earlier this year I attended a conference in Palestine, in Ramallah, organised by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. I attended that conference representing SATAWU. Our federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, has endorsed that campaign called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. My attendance at the conference there early this year was very enlightening for me, I brought back a report to my union which dedicated itself to take even more active participation in the struggle for solidarity with the people of Palestine. One of the things we have already done this year was to make sure that a ship from Israel that docked in the Port of Durban was boycotted by our members. The goods in that ship were not handled, the ship was left stranded, we did, the same thing we did to a ship carrying arms consignment from China to Zimbabwe, in solidarity with the workers of Zimbabwe, and in the instance of the Israeli ship it was in solidarity with the masses of Palestine.

G: That’s fantastic, in my opinion that is the single best thing that has happened so far, but I hope that there will be more actions like this. Have you made appeals to other dockworkers in other countries to do what you have done? Do you think that they should do what you have done?

Z: We have made that appeal through the statements that our union issued, and through our participation in the International Transportworkers Federation, the ITF. We always raise the issue of Palestine, we raised the issues of the embargo, we do call upon other fellow transport workers not to handle goods from Israel, basically to embark on a campaign of total isolation of Israel, just as it was done with apartheid South Africa. It is our view that if the whole world, particularly the masses were to fight for the isolation of Israel economically, socially, culturally and in terms of the arms embargo, Israel will feel enough pressure and will be able to pull out of Palestine, and be able to grant the people of Palestine their rights. And we know that Israel will not do that willingly, it is through the struggles of the people on the ground that Israel will be forced whether they like it or not to pull out of Palestine, and that only then will a free Palestine be established. ar

G: In South Africa the struggle was for one democratic society with equal rights for all. Do you see that in this situation, or do you see it as a question of two separate states? Just you personally, I know the union might have different views.

Z: Yes, look, for me personally I see the struggle in Palestine as a struggle for one state. When I was there, early this year, I met a range of activists, from the PLO Fatah faction, to left wing, that is Marxist activists, trade unionists, all of them, when they gave the background of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the conflict in so-called Israel – Palestine, it became clear to me that the so-called two state solution is not working, has not worked up to now, in fact Israel is undermining that so-called solution itself, and that only a single state, a single Palestinian democratic state is the solution, in fact for me, when the message was hammered through to me by activists of PLO Fatah, not just the Marxists, but by PLO activists themselves, then it became very much convincing to me that that is the only way to go, especially when they demonstrated to me that even within what they saw as a temporary arrangement, the current two-state, it is not even a two state, it is similar basically to what we had in South Africa, the Bantustans. The Palestinian Occupied Authorities, are not even genuine authorities, run by Palestinians, Israel is still in command in those authorities, they are, it’s a deception, it’s a political deception. But for me, what was important was that I heard it from the horse’s mouth, from activists of the PLO, I heard it from a Member of Parliament in Bethlehem, who took me through the history up to now, and pointed out that this is not a solution, only a single Palestinian state

G: with equal rights

Z: with equal rights for all nationalities, Jewish, Muslim, Arab, that is the only solution.

G: good, what obstacles do you see in trying to achieve an international boycott? You have made big progress in South Africa. Where are the obstacles and how can we overcome them?

Z: Look, this necessitates clarity on the part of the organisations of the oppressed, particularly the trade union movement. Obviously the community organisations, political parties of the working class, and the democratic forces at large. Governments can only come on board if the masses are fighting. Governments naturally have their own limitations in terms of bourgeois democratic diplomacy, but also the power of the materialist forces. So it is the masses that can break that logjam. For example let me make an example with South Africa. With the struggle in South Africa, when it intensified, that the people in the world began to understand what was going on in South Africa. When they visited South African clandestinely, and when South Africans would go out and take their case to the whole world, to the masses in other countries. So that is what must be done, people to people solidarity.

G: which is why we want to get into Gaza

Z: definitely, definitely, in fact in my report I emphasised that what we always know, or hear about Palestine, it becomes something very shallow, once you are there, when you go through the checkpoints, manned by armed military personnel, right in so-called Palestinian territories, then you begin to understand that the situation is far worse than you ever imagined, that an amount of effort must be put together in support of the Palestinians, and it’s the clarity in the minds of the people that pledge solidarity with Palestinians, and that programmes must be developed amongst organisations, and I think that this BDS, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign is one important weapon towards that, and it won’t be implemented by governments, it’s the people who must do that.

G: For sure, the only point I’m trying to get to is that there has been a lot of resistance within the trade union movement, at least in the West, to doing this, there has been a lot of hesitancy, and I just wondered if you had any comment on that. For example, has any other union of dockworkers, longshoremen, of transport workers anywhere else in the world, said “yeah, we agree with the South Africans and that’s what we want to do”, has anybody else said they want to do it?

Z: The Maritime Union of Australia is one such union we can count on, but it’s also upon us who understand this situation to continue articulating, because not all unions are led by progressive leaders, it’s our challenge as democrats, as working class militants who understand the brutality in Palestine, to raise the banner of the freedom of Palestinians, throughout the labour movement. For example one of the urgent requests the Palestinians made to us South Africans, or they raised it with me when I was at that, we must fight for the isolation of the Israeli labour movement from the international labour movement. Now some of the people don’t understand this. I always say, remember in South Africa we also fought for the isolation of the racist labour movement from the international labour movement. So what is the difference now? It’s not a question of fighting Jewish workers, no, no, it’s a question of isolating Zionism within the labour movement. Just like it was not a quest ion of fighting white workers, but of isolating racism, of fighting racism and isolating it within the international progressive trade union movement. So there is resistance to that but I believe that with the necessary explanations and militant action that is taken, that can be done.

G: I agree very strongly with what you have said, and I think that you have an opportunity to take that message to American workers, because in the dockwork unions on the East Coast and the West Coast, there are many many people, many black people, many white people, who took the struggle in South Africa very seriously, and you are in a very strong position to tell them in what way this is the same story. You know, to hear it from you, for them, is very very important, I hope you can do that.

Z: Definitely, as the International Secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union SATAWU, I would like to urge all fellow transport workers throughout the world, to assist in the struggle for the liberation of our brothers and sisters in Palestine. One of the things we must do is to support and actively participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. This means the total isolation of Israel in terms of arms embargo, economically, culturally, socially, and otherwise. Just like you fellow workers did with apartheid South Africa. This also means that the Israeli labour movement, which is Zionist to the core, must be kicked out of the progressive international trade union movement. We must make sure that we put pressure on the structures and the leadership of the International Transportworkers Federation to isolate the Israeli transport unions, and for that matter, to assist our fellow transport unions in Palestine even more, we must strengthen it in terms of capacity, we must strengthen it materially, we must pledge solidarity politically with them through mass actions, embark on demonstrations, pickets, all kinds of political activities we can muster, in order to support them.

As transport workers we need to make sure that we don’t handle goods from Israel, boycott Israel economically. The action we South Africans took in relation to an Israeli ship and a Chinese ship that docked in Durban, when we refused to offload the consignments those ships carried, the Israeli ship carried civilian goods, the Chinese ship carried arms that were meant for Zimbabwe, we didn’t offload those goods carried by the two ships. If all of us transport workers we should make sure that we isolate Israel, because we are the ones that transport goods. In the ports, we are there. In terms of aviation, in airports, we are there. So even airplanes that land in our countries, we need to make sure that those that are carrying goods to and fro m Israel are not touched by our members. As transport workers throughout the world, we need to be at the forefront of the struggle to implement Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign, because we are the ones who transport goods to and from Israel throughout the world.

G: Thank you very much Zico, I will make sure that that message reaches every transport worker that I possibly can.

Z: Thank you very much comrade Greg.

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