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Teaching Palestine in South Africa

Teaching Palestine project group in Soweto.

Reaffirming Internationalism in the Twenty-first Century

In March 2019 I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to attend a conference – Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivisibility of Justice. The conference was co-sponsored by the AMED (Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies) program of San Francisco State University (SFSU), AMEC (Afro-Middle East Centre) in Johannesburg, the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, and An-Najah University, in occupied Palestine.

Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, Director of the AMED program, had initiated the Teaching Palestine project in 2016, ahead of the hundredth anniversary of Britain’s imperialist Balfour Declaration, as an emancipatory pedagogical and advocacy project that would be conducted in multiple sites over a number of years around the world. An integral concept of the project is the “indivisibility of justice.” This framing affirms the integral connections between the struggle for Palestinian freedom and other current struggles against oppression worldwide. It offers a basis for engaging internationalism holistically in an era when global struggles are too often siloed or artificially separated by narrow organizational missions. Since it was initiated, Teaching Palestine has organized workshops and symposia in the U.S. ,Cuba, Seville, Spain, and Montreal. The first Teaching Palestine conference took place in 2018 at Birzeit and An-Najah National Universities in occupied Palestine. Given their closely interconnected histories and ongoing solidarity relationships, it made sense to hold the second international conference in South Africa.

I had traveled to Southern Africa nearly forty years earlier, in April 1980, for the celebration of Zimbabwean independence. I had been part of organizations working with the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU) in the United States. ZANU was fighting for the national liberation of the Zimbabwean people from the white supremacist regime that held power in what the settlers called Rhodesia, after colonist Cecil Rhodes. The victory over Ian Smith’s regime was a thrilling culmination of years of struggle by the Zimbabwean people who were supported by a vigorous international solidarity movement. To those of us in that movement, Zimbabwe’s independence signaled the inevitable future downfall of apartheid in South Africa. And the struggles against white supremacy in Zimbabwe and South Africa were part and parcel of the struggle for Black liberation against white supremacy within the borders of the United States. Southern Africa was a focal point for anti-imperialist struggle throughout the seventies and eighties in the U.S. and worldwide.

Forty years later Zimbabwe and South Africa, in different ways, are still struggling to fulfill the liberatory promises of independence. Given the consolidation of the neoliberal world order under U.S. hegemony in the final decades of the twentieth century and the collusion of the new national ruling parties and elites with neoliberalism, these newly independent African countries have faced monumental external and internal challenges. Within the U.S., Southern Africa has largely disappeared from the movement’s political map.

Yet anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial/neoliberal struggles have inevitably continued against a global regime of imperialist dispossession, appropriation and exploitation in the twenty-first century. Now Palestine has in many ways become the epicenter of anti-imperialist struggle as it has continued, across the century mark, to confront the Israeli settler colonial, apartheid state and its U.S. partner-in-chief. The growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement since 2005, modeled on the South African boycott movement, demonstrates how the Palestinian movement has skillfully learned from the successful tactics that helped to bring down the South African apartheid regime. A conference on Palestine in South Africa was a means of reaffirming the historic importance of South African struggle and learning about the continuation of efforts to build a different, more equitable and just South African society.

The conference and subsequent study tour addressed the critical role of internationalism for Palestine and South Africa, examined lessons of the South African experience during and after apartheid, and exposed the expanding scope of Zionist assaults on all forms of speech and action in support of Palestine globally.

Ronnie Kasrils, the opening speaker at the conference, was a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), and the Minister of Intelligence in the South African government between 2004-2008. A South African of Jewish descent, he has also played a leading role throughout his political history in building solidarity with Palestinian liberation. He spoke to the critical importance of an internationalist perspective for the ANC historically. He described their careful study of the Vietnamese national liberation struggle and its strategy of people’s war; the influence of victorious movements in Algeria and Cuba on ANC development; and the material support which other national liberation struggles were able to offer South Africa.

Kasrils pointed out the closely intersecting histories of South African and Israeli apartheid. The apartheid government was first elected in South Africa in 1948, the same year as the Israeli Zionist project expelled the Palestinians from their land in the catastrophic Nakba. He highlighted the ways in which the international boycotts and disinvestment campaign became a key pressure tactic against South Africa’s apartheid regime. In 1986 the U.S. Congress adopted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, contributing to South Africa’s isolation as an outlaw state. While the majority of the world distanced itself from South Africa, Israel cemented its role as one of South Africa’s main strategic military allies. In 1975 Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime and in 1979 Israel and South Africa collaborated on the test of a nuclear bomb in the Indian Ocean.

Robin Kelley, distinguished scholar of African-American history and a professor at UCLA, brought the long history of solidarity between the Black radical movement in the U.S. and the Palestinian liberation movement to the conversation. He argued that solidarity was rooted in a politics of shared principles and that it was important for the U.S. movement today to go beyond the politics of “analogy” based solely on a shared experience of oppression. He pointed out that in the 1960’s, it was not enough to have a common experience of oppression. In fact, Black center/right politicians supported Israel while radical Black forces aligned with organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and its vision of radical Third World nationalism and a democratic socialist state. “It is not the conditions of captivity, but the critique of captivity and shared visions of liberation that form the basis for real solidarity,” Kelley insisted.

Rabab Abdulhadi contextualized the significance of holding the Teaching Palestine conference in South Africa. “The heroic struggle of the South African people must be learned from despite critiques of the current political situation,” she insisted. She also spoke to the importance of the Teaching Palestine initiative as a means of shifting how Palestine is framed – a departure from a narrative of subjugation, submission and defeat to one of resistance, liberation and solidarity. Though this was the intellectual project she initiated, teaching Palestine has been the praxis of Palestine transnationally as long as the Palestinian resistance has been around. Through education, Palestinians could affirm their history, land and struggle in the face of dispossession and displacement. Today, it is not only critical for Palestinians to know their own history but to also learn from and stand in solidarity with other struggles for liberation.

The need to speak the truth about South African history and dispel sanitized distortions was asserted throughout the conference and study tour. Salim Vally pointed out that the end of apartheid and the first democratic elections in April 1994 were a result of a long multi-dimensional struggle. However, the victory is often attributed to a “politics of negotiation and forgiveness,” that gained sway in the period leading up to and after the elections. Such politics are now held up as a model for other struggles such as Palestine despite their problematic impact on South Africa.

As Vally and Jeenah assert in their edited book Pretending Democracy , “For ordinary working-class South Africans, the development of the constitution and the process of ‘reconciliation’ such as it has been, have contributed little or nothing to ending their lives of struggle, misery, poverty and racism.” In his article Martyrs and Reconciliation, Jeenah points out that Zionists often manipulatively advise Palestinians to learn from South Africa’s history of non-violent and peaceful resistance. “We were not peaceful; our struggle was not peaceful! We fought hard, we lost much and we offered up many martyrs in order that we might liberate the people of this country — both black and white.”

Many presenters from South Africa, Palestine and elsewhere reiterated this critique, pointing out that the negotiations that resulted in the 1994 elections involved multiple compromises and the acceptance of a neoliberal economic framework which precluded wealth and land redistribution. Speakers talked about the deep problems of the governing ANC party over the past twenty-five years, exemplified by the pervasiveness of state capture, the term commonly used for government corruption. Within the ANC itself there is a continuing effort to challenge these endemic problems.

Trevor Ngwane, a scholar activist who teaches and conducts research at the University of Johannesburg, pointed out in his presentation during the study tour that the South African constitution exemplifies some of the best aspects of liberal bourgeois legal principles, including democratic and human rights for all, same sex marriage and the legalization of cannabis. Yet when it comes to the socio-economic realities, South Africa is one of the most grossly unequal societies in the world today with unemployment at 40%, land ownership overwhelmingly dominated by whites, and gender violence at crisis proportions.

In a recent article, Ngwane characterizes South Africa as an insurgent democracy because of the ongoing intense level of social movement disruption and protest against the governing status quo by multiple sectors of the South African people. Significant recent protests include the Marikana mineworkers strike of 2012, the #FeesMustFall movement to decolonize the system of higher education, and the #Total Shutdown movement in 2018 to confront rampant gender violence.

Solidarity with Palestine is also a contested issue in post-apartheid South African society although the government position on Israel is very different than that of the apartheid regime. The ANC and the government it leads have pledged solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and have repeatedly condemned Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and the relentless attacks on Gaza. In 2018, South Africa recalled its ambassador from Israel after Israel’s brutal attacks against the Gaza Great March of Return.

The South African government has also played a role in resisting what Matshidiso Motsoeneng described as Israel’s charm offensive in Africa, a strategy to normalize relationships with African countries across the continent by offering economic support, technological development and military training. South Africa has led the rejection of Israel’s attempts to gain observer status in the African Union which Israel has sought in order to wield more influence in the region.

Civil society and grassroots organizations as well as members of the ANC have consistently pressured the South African government to support the Palestinian struggle. They have called upon the government to sever all diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with the Israeli state and to build solidarity in multiple ways. In 2013 Ahmed Kathrada, a leader of the South African Communist Party and a former political prisoner who spent 25 years on Robben Island, initiated an international campaign to free Palestinian leader and political prisoner Marwan Barghouti. Kathrada commented that South Africans “have a sacred duty to campaign for the unconditional release of Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian political prisoners as an essential step towards the freedom of the Palestinian people and peace in the region.”

The Palestine Solidarity Alliance, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and BDS South Africa are among a number of groups that consistently organize for Palestine through a variety of tactics, including education and support for BDS. Palestine solidarity activists described the ongoing struggles regarding BDS at universities which bear many similarities to that at U.S. universities. The South African Student Union endorsed BDS in 2011 and in a landmark decision, the University of Johannesburg academic senate voted to end its ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University that same year. In 2017, Tshwane University of Technology, the largest residential higher education institution in South Africa, officially endorsed the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israel, and imposed a ban on ties with Israel and Israeli institutions.

On the other hand, Tokelo Nhlapo, a researcher and former graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), explained that he was one of eleven students who were expelled from the University for disrupting an Israeli-funded concert which violated the cultural boycott of Israel. A widespread outrage at this harsh disciplinary action grew at Wits (which resulted in the suspension of the expulsion order). A WITS student leader explained, “Protest is not only an expression that should be protected but protests against Israeli-sponsored events also falls within the principle of internationalism that our country once benefited from. Thousands of students, workers and others protested against Apartheid South Africa sponsored events in the 1980s often disrupting cricket matches, rugby games etc. This international movement of boycotts contributed to our freedom today.”

The Teaching Palestine conference took place against the backdrop of escalating Zionist attacks against speaking and teaching about Palestine worldwide. In the U.S., Zionist groups have recently mounted frontal attacks against Black leaders such as Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill, and Michelle Alexander because of their support for Palestinian freedom. Incidents of academic intimidation and suppression regarding support for Palestine continue to increase. Dr. Abdulhadi initiated Teaching Palestine while she was being accused of false charges of antisemitism in a lawsuit filed by the Zionist Lawfare Project in June 2017. The lawsuit was defeated in October 2018 when Federal Judge Orrick ruled that the charges against her had no foundation in fact, but other forms of harassment have continued, including the recent cancellation of AMED’s study abroad program in Palestine.

As I traveled through Germany to South Africa, Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh was banned from speaking at a public meeting in Berlin on March 19th marking International Women’s Day after German officials revoked her visa. The Israeli government claimed credit for the action and the Berlin Senate denounced BDS Berlin, one of the co-hosts of the event, as an “anti-Semitic coalition.” And on March 21, an event where Ronnie Kasril’s was scheduled to speak at the Vienna Museum for Israeli Apartheid Week was canceled for similar reasons. In response Kasrils stated, “South Africa’s apartheid government banned me for life from attending meetings. Nothing I said could be published, because I stood up against apartheid. How disgraceful that, despite the lessons of our struggle against racism, such intolerance continues to this day, stifling free speech on Palestine.”

Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s eldest grandson, confirmed the comparison with South Africa at the International Conference on Palestine held in Istanbul at the end of April. “We say it to the world that as we were able to undermine the apartheid regime in South Africa, we will be able to do this with the apartheid regime in Israel.” He also called for the South African government to use its seat in the UN Security Council to become “the voice of the voiceless and therefore to speak about the self-determination of Palestine.”

For her part, Rabab Abdulhadi is committed to continuing the work, stating. “We will never be silenced nor defeated. We will continue linking communities, critically analyzing the world and advocating for an indivisible sense of justice. We take our inspiration from the people who are struggling for their freedom, dignity and peace in Palestine, South Africa and here in the United States. This is our community of justice and this is why we teach Palestine.”

Diana Block is the author of a novel, Clandestine Occupations: An Imaginary History (PM Press, 2015) and a memoir, Arm the Spirit : A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AK Press, 2009). She is an active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the anti- prison coalition CURB. She writes periodically for Counterpunch and other online journals.

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Diana Block was part of the 10th and the 50th Anniversary Venceremos Brigades and worked for many years to win the freedom of the Cuban 5 political prisoners.   She is the author of a memoir, Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back, and a novel, Clandestine Occupations – An Imaginary History.  She is a founding and active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an abolitionist organization that is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2020.   

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