When it comes to calling for an end to the occupation in Palestine, South African demonstrators have more street-cred than others because of their intimate knowledge of injustice and separation
‘You’re platinum,” said Mick Napier, chairperson of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Committee, to a group of South Africans who arrived in Cairo last week to join the planned Gaza Freedom March. “You don’t understand your prestige among activists and trade unions.”
Organised by the Palestine Solidarity Alliance (PSA), the 15 South Africans — activists, trade unionists and journalists — had hoped to join 1300 protesters from 43 countries who intended to enter Gaza and march to the Erez Crossing. The action was timed to mark one year since Israel’s siege on Gaza.
But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government took a hard line and reneged on its agreement to allow the protesters across the Rafah border. On Tuesday night last week Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, chairperson of the Egyptian Red Crescent — the Red Cross in Arab countries — had tea with the march organisers, the United States umbrella organisation Code Pink, with whom she reached an agreement that only 100 people would be allowed into Gaza.
At this point the South African delegation, led by Judge Siraj Desai, seized the opportunity to turn a failed protest action into the relaunch of a global international anti-Israeli occupation movement. At an impassioned meeting late last Tuesday night between Code Pink and the multinational delegates, the South Africans called Code Pink’s agreement with Egypt on the 100 marchers a “sell-out”.
“There is enormous international solidarity that is being compromised,” Desai told the organisers in a heated debate that ran into the early hours of Wednesday morning and resulted in the organisers pulling out of their agreement with Egypt to send only 100 people to Gaza.
Hedy Epstein, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor and celebrity activist of sorts, sent a note to Desai’s hotel room late on Tuesday asking for guidance on whether she should board one of the two buses to Gaza that would be waiting at Cairo’s 6th October bridge at sunrise on Wednesday.
“I really wanted to go to Gaza,” Epstein said. “But I wanted to ask the South Africans what they thought because of their experience with this kind of apartheid system — they already know what works and what doesn’t.”
But it wasn’t only activists who thought South Africa was particularly powerful in this struggle. The Egyptian police paid greater attention to its delegation than to any other. This became apparent when the South Africans tried to leave their hotel on Wednesday morning and were immediately blocked by police, with at least three policemen per delegate. What had previously been discreet monitoring turned into obvious following, with the police sporting radios and escort cars and harassing the delegation’s taxi drivers to the extent that the South Africans decided to seek refuge at their embassy.
“The Egyptians are picking on you [as South Africans],” Keith Hammond, chairperson of the Scottish Committee for the Universities of Palestine, at the University of Glasgow, told the M&G.
“The South African experience is what we’re all drawing from. It’s in your system, your culture, you know how violent and inhumane apartheid was as a separation system. Egypt sees you as a threat. You symbolise an internationalism we all aspire to.”
At first glance, South Africa does appear to be committed to the Israel-Palestine peace process. Former president Nelson Mandela said at the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in 1997: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
In 2004 then-deputy minister of foreign affairs Aziz Pahad submitted to the International Court of Justice that Israel’s separation wall is “illegal in terms of international law” and is “a disproportionate — measure, which does not present a legitimate security measure”.
And in November 2009 the department of international relations and cooperation released a press statement saying that it “condemns the fact that Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem is coupled with Israel’s campaign to evict and displace the original Palestinian residents from the city —”.
“We call upon the Israeli government to cease their activities that are reminiscent of apartheid forced removals and resume negotiations immediately.”
South Africa also houses an embassy of Palestine and was one of the first countries to acknowledge Hamas as a legitimate party and leader. But according to a Global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement report in July last year, some of South Africa’s state-owned enterprises have strong business ties with Israeli companies.
When the South African delegation arrived at its embassy last week and asked the political councillor, Selly Ramokgopa, to put pressure on Egypt to open the Rafah border and let them in, she expressed surprise that the South Africans were in town. Yet the delegation had informed the Department of International Relations and cooperation about the trip and asked that they inform the embassy, Haroon Wadee of the PSA told the M&G.
After hearing why the delegation wanted to go to Gaza, a flustered Ramokgopa said: “This country [Egypt] is very threatened by anything they think is destabilising — Instructions from our head office are that we cannot write a letter to authorise anyone to go to Gaza.”
This week the Department of International Relations and cooperation said “South Africa strongly supports the persistent efforts of the Egyptian government to bring about the reestablishment of national unity among the Palestinian people, but is also of the view that it is the prerogative of each state to decide on the access policy and security measures it wishes to impose on its own borders.”
As the delegation left the embassy, a senior police general and 12 plainclothes police were waiting for its members so that they could continue their surveillance. But the South Africans became the driving force in turning this rare, multinational convergence of activists to the production of the “Cairo Declaration to End Israeli Apartheid”.
The declaration was drafted by delegates from five countries and thrashed out at crowded meetings in the restaurant of a downtown Cairo hotel, packed with delegates and interspersed with plain-clothes police. Sent to activists in Gaza for approval, it consists of practical recommendations to “initiate a global mass, democratic anti-apartheid movement to work in full consultation with Palestinian civil society to implement the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions”.
J’Ann Schoonmaker Allan, an American activist, told the M&G why the other delegates were seeking guidance and leadership from South Africa. “Are you kidding?” she said. “It’s because of who you are and what you’ve done. Look at what you did with apartheid. You know what to do and how to do it.”
Ilham Rawoot was a guest of the Palestine Solidarity Alliance
Beyond the rhetoric?
A report released by the Global Boycott Divestment Sanction (BDS) movement in July last year states that a number of South Africa’s state-owned enterprises, including Eskom and Transnet, have deep business ties with Israeli companies, some of which do work that is fundamental to the occupation. At the same time, South Africa has substantial business links with Egypt.
This has created a web of delicate power relations between Israel, Egypt and South Africa. According to Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, relations between South Africa and Egypt are growing, but with caution from Egypt. “Particularly under Thabo Mbeki, South Africa attempted to take a leading a role on the continent. For Egypt, which sees itself as the leader, South Africa became a contender,” says Jeenah. “South Africa has taken a leading role on Darfur and Burundi. And when the South African government made interesting noises about playing a role in the Israeli-Palestinian context, that didn’t go down well with Egypt, which sees itself as playing that role.”
But South Africa needs to keep the peace, he says. “A number of well-known South African companies do business with Egypt, such as Sasol, South African Airways, Bokomo [and] Sun International.”
The department of trade and industry told the M&G it “is aware of [the BDS] report” and “takes no position on the allegations made therein”.