/ 11 December 2023

Learning from the Palestinians

Zukiswa Wanner (1)
Resilient: Zukiswa Wanner was impressed by how Palestinians show compassion in the fact of Israeli animosity. Photo: Supplied

In May, South African author Zukiswa Wanner was invited to attend The Palestine Festival of Literature. What she witnessed led to her writing a long-form essay on the trip, which has been released with the title Vignettes of a People in an Apartheid State

It appears at a time when Israel is at war with the militant Palestinian group Hamas and ordinary Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip, are caught up in the conflict. 

Israel, established in 1948, captured the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza in 1967. Although it withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Israel continued to control movement in and out of the territory while still occupying the West Bank. This has divided political opinion the world over, with some comparing Israel’s occupation to apartheid in South Africa, a system of ethnic division. 

South African literature scholar Lizzy Attree spoke to Wanner.

How much did you know about the Palestine situation before you travelled to the literature festival?

I knew quite a fair share about Palestine. When I was 11, I became good friends in primary school in Harare with a Palestinian girl, Dana. They had come from Jordan and her dad was press attaché for the PLO. 

My South African dad was doing some work in Zambia with MK’s propaganda wing at that time, Radio Freedom, so I think the circumstances made us simpatico, as it were. 

My mother was a Zimbabwean civil servant, though, so I could not put “I Love Palestine” or “Zionism is apartheid” stickers on her car but I could certainly do so on the door to my room (and I did). 

In adulthood, as a writer, I became friends with quite a few Palestinians, among them Mornings in Jenin author Susan Abulhawa. I often say many more truths are told in fiction than are sometimes told in nonfiction because, perhaps, there is fear of persecution in the latter so reading that and other Palestinian writers opened my eyes wider to the Palestinian struggle. 

Nothing though, nothing, prepared me for how bad the situation actually was until I went there earlier this year. 

Were you shocked by what you saw and experienced in Palestine?

Yes, I was. This year goes down in history as my annus horribilis, really largely because I lost two people I loved, but equally because I experienced Palestine. 

I don’t regret the experience, of course, because I have always believed that, to quote one of the two people I love who died this year, “For us Africans, literature must serve a purpose: to expose, embarrass and fight corruption, authoritarianism.”

And man, did I see authoritarianism exercised in the worst possible way, blatantly, against the Palestinians by gun-wielding, authority-asserting, unnecessarily young [members of the] Israel Defence Forces. 

One of the images that has continued to haunt me since is seeing a young man holding a gun threateningly to four uniform-wearing school children in Hebron merely because they wanted to take a shortcut home. 

Hebron, which the Israelis were supposed to exit in 1993 according to that weak document that was the Oslo Accord, but which the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation]signed, eventually exited in 2000 but then settlers returned too and, when I was there, 400 of them were being protected by 1 500 [Israel Defence Forces members]. 

Despite the miserable treatment, my other takeaway was how Palestinians continue to love, laugh, to be, to show compassion in the face of such animosity.

The parallels with apartheid South Africa have long been apparent. Why do you think the world has remained so silent on the issue?

It’s important to note that the world has not remained silent on Palestine. A look at how the world has voted on Palestinian issues at the UN for years shows Global South countries overwhelmingly vote in support of Palestine. The failure is on the Global North. 

I think it’s a combination of Second World War guilt over their failures for the deaths of many Jews in concentration camps in Europe but, equally, it’s the triumph of capitalism. With the former, I have spoken to many Zionist apologists in the last few months (and more so weeks), that feeling terrible for one genocide should not be reason enough to fold one’s hands when another genocide is happening. 

With the latter I think, as it was with the South African apartheid state, where capitalists tested their strange scientific studies or weapons on people they considered lesser, so too with the Zionist state. 

And as long as many Global North leaders continue to be beneficiaries of a lot of these companies and organisations, the rest of the world shall continue to suffer. 

As such, the Palestinian struggle is not a struggle for the Palestinian people alone but for the very essence of humanity. 

The circumstances that have led to scales falling from many Global North citizens’ eyes — Gaza post-7 October — are far from ideal and their effect will stay with us for a long time to come but social media, rather than traditional media, has certainly been helpful and, hopefully, enough citizens in the Global North who are protesting will truly remove power from the hands of the politicians who are complicit with capital and in this genocide. 

You experience a lot of solidarity from Palestinians because of being South African. What do you think the South African situation can teach Palestinians? Or are the two  not that easy to compare, given the level of conflict and bloodshed?

While there are parallels between South Africa and Palestine, I think the Palestinians are the ones that can teach South Africans something. 

Almost 30 years since 1994, a fair share of South African leaders have abandoned much of what they claimed they were fighting for. And so now, many of the oppressors of the poor in our communities look like us. 

The understanding that one is because of others and therefore ensuring that no one needs to die a needless death because they have fallen off a collapsed bridge, don’t have medicines in a hospital or illiteracy is high because there are no books in a school … this we can certainly learn from Palestine. 

The reason why the PLO lost its moral compass for a few crumbs falling off the oppressor’s table is pretty much parallel to what happened to post-apartheid South Africa. The difference is that, by and large, Palestinians have never stopped fighting against this. 

I saw a meme the other day and I think it perhaps sums up everything interestingly: Everything is made in China. Except for courage: which is made in Palestine. 

And so in light of these very brave people who have been, and continue, going through the most, I would be curious to know whether there can be further lessons to learn once a truly free Palestine exists or whether, at that point, we as South Africans may have something to teach.