/ 4 September 2023

World Aquatics Junior Championships: Don’t swim in apartheid waters

The authors call for Swimming South Africa to put international justice first and boycott the competition (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

If there is one thing all South Africans should understand about politics and sport it is the importance of boycotts.

While Western politicians, in the US and UK in particular, made excuses for South African apartheid and racism and refused to pressure the regime, the people of the world took action. Boycotts led by civil society groups around the world in the 1970s and 1980s helped force the changes that brought democracy to South Africa in 1994.

These boycotts were an expression of the finest international solidarity where the people of the world joined hands with the oppressed people of South Africa in the struggle against apartheid.

So why is this especially important today?

Swimming South Africa is about to send a swim team to Israel to take part in the World Aquatics Junior Swimming Championships to be held in Netanya, Israel 4-9 September. 

Since the South African experience of apartheid, this system of racist oppression has now been codified under international law as a crime against humanity. Israel’s largest and most respected human right organisation, B’Tselem, in their January 2021 report describes Israeli policies as “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea” — this is apartheid

Even the venue for the competition reeks with racist history.

The Israeli town of Netanya, is built on the ruins of the Palestinian villages of Umm Khalid, Khirbat Bayt Lid, Bayyarat Hannun, Ghabat Kafr Sur and Khirbat al-Zababida.

The ruins of this last village stand in the shadows of the Wingate Sports Institute where the event will take place. These Palestinian villages, together with more than 500 others, were destroyed and ethnically cleansed during the 1947/48 Nakba. 

Hosting an international swimming competition on colonised land, violently stolen from its Palestinian inhabitants who continue to be denied basic human rights, is helping to ‘sportswash’ the ongoing system of apartheid, settler colonialism and war crimes that Israel is conducting against the Palestinian people.

Palestinians are suffering under an apartheid regime that many South Africans who risked their lives in our freedom struggle, such as the late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and most recently Reverend Frank Chikane, described as worse than that suffered by South Africans under the old racist regime.

Already this year the Israeli regime has killed more than 200 Palestinians, including at least 34 children, making 2023 the deadliest year for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank since 2005. At the same time Israel has imprisoned 165 Palestinian children and issued demolition orders for 57 schools in the occupied West Bank that will leave 6 550 Palestinians without education.

Palestinians are calling on South Africa and the world for cultural and sporting boycotts to bring pressure on Israel to end its well-documented apartheid policies against Palestinians, its military occupation and its refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their land and homes throughout Palestine.

While western governments are looking the other way and making excuses for Israeli racism and apartheid so it is once again left to the people of the world to act for Palestinian human rights.  

 As Israeli cabinet ministers declare themselves “fascist” and encourage racist pogroms against Palestinian villages in the occupied West Bank, it is unconscionable that a post-apartheid ANC government would give comfort to this regime. 

In doing so they are joining the west in turning a blind eye to Israeli apartheid. It is not too late for them to withdraw support for Swimming South Africa if they go ahead with this tour.  

Because of its first-hand experience of racism and apartheid the world is looking to South Africa to lead in the boycott of apartheid Israel. It’s a huge responsibility but one the government and sports organisations of South Africa must shoulder.

So just as we mobilised the world for a sports boycott of apartheid South Africa, we must now refuse to play sports in apartheid Israel.

We call on Swimming South Africa to demonstrate its commitment to anti-racism and genuine transformation by pulling out of the World Junior Championships and refusing to be complicit in Israeli apartheid.

We urge the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture to implement policy guidelines on a sports and cultural boycott in line with the call from the Palestinian people.

John Minto is the National Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Network Aotearoa (New Zealand) and was the former National Organiser for HART (Halt All Racist Tours)1980-81  that successfully campaigned to stop rugby contact between New Zealand and apartheid South Africa and National Chair of HART 1981-85. Roshan Dadoo is the Coordinator of the South African BDS Coalition.