/ 21 November 2023

Why I marched for Palestine

Zubair Pal March 3932 2
Protests and other actions for human rights matter, and collectively there is much we can do. (Photos: Zubair Sayed)

For the last few weeks, I have been stuck between sleep and endlessly scrolling through suffering and screaming on my phone.

I wake up and check whether Bisan, Motaz and Plestia — a few of the remaining journalists on the ground in Palestine — are still alive, whether there’s talk of a ceasefire or hostage negotiations. Nothing. Instead, there’s the bombing of a refugee camp, a bakery, a school, a hospital, an ambulance, a church. Anguish. Despair. Disbelief. Someone says there’s more spilt blood than drinkable water in Gaza. 

There are millions of us watching, jolted with horror, stumbling for words. Struggling to put together the pieces of what we see. 

“American leadership is what holds the world together,” President Joe Biden tells us as Israel slaughters thousands of men, women and children with his full support. The facade of US and Western morality is decimated with every bomb. And there have been more than 25 000 tons of them dropped on Gaza.

The diversity of those speaking up for Palestine offers glimmers of hope. In line with a long and proud history of Jewish activism in South Africa, South African Jews for a Free Palestine are actively involved in calling for a ceasefire, and recently, many prominent Jewish South Africans signed an open letter calling for the same. 

In the US, organisations like Black for Palestine and the incredible Jewish Voice for Peace continue to grow in size and impact. 

Some of the strongest condemnation of Israeli aggression has come from Latin American leaders — unsurprising, given the brutality they have faced at the hands of European colonisation and American-backed military intervention. 

The solidarity shown by tens of thousands on the Cape Town march for Palestine on 11 November has been echoed worldwide. Collectively, millions have taken to the streets in cities and towns across the globe. And millions more are engaging in diverse forms of online and hybrid forms of activism. 

I joined the enormous march in Cape Town, a sprawling mass of tens of thousands of people. My father was there too. A 79-year-old man holding a piece of paper that said, “Bisan Ali, age: 3.” 

Hundreds of children are on the march, many holding signs or sheets of paper with the names of other children. Children that have been killed. 

I look at my four-year-old nephew next to me, his little body perched on his dad’s shoulders. He gazes across the crowd, a sea of flags and chants, under the warmth of community and the Cape Town sun. 

I think of a video of a little girl in Gaza, filmed two years ago. “What’s your dream?” they ask her. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up — to help people affected by war, she says, innocently. 

In another, more recent, video, a young boy is lovingly holding his cat. Her name is Lulu, he says with a big smile, and his family brought her with them as they fled the bombs in northern Gaza. 

I don’t know what it means that more than 5 000 children like these have been massacred. And thousands more maimed and injured. And tens of thousands more scarred for life, physically and mentally — probably both. There are images of children that I wish I had never seen and that I wish I could unsee.

The start of the march in District Six provided a poignant reminder of our own displacement and anti-apartheid struggle. 

Writing about the march, Father Michael Weeder, the Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, wove together the rich tapestry of struggle beautifully: “We marched in our tens of thousands, we marched the same route along which my mother and I walked so many, long years ago … 

“We marched across Tennant Street where Jimmy la Guma and Johnny Gomas and a few others, caucused the National Liberation League into being with Cissie Gool at its helm. The Hanover Building nearby where Moses Kotane worked all hours of the day and night on Umsebenzi

“Then singing … ‘Forward we shall march, forward we shall march to a free Palestine, forward …’ 

“Past the City hall across the road from where we stood at the Edward VII statue on the Grand Parade, along with the rest of the waiting world, to hear and see Mandela for the very first time. 

“Sheikh Gabriel led the chant: ‘We are millions, we are billions, we are all Palestinians …”

Palestine is deeply entrenched in the South African psyche. Our globally recognised and venerated moral giants have long supported Palestinian freedom. 

Nelson Mandela’s statements on Palestine are part of global discourse, seen on posters, banners, T-shirts and social media posts worldwide. 

One of the first people Mandela met, just two weeks after being released from prison, was Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), who had supported the ANC during the anti-apartheid struggle. 

“There are many similarities between our struggle and that of the PLO. We live under a unique form of colonialism in South Africa, as well as in Israel,” said Mandela at the time. In 1999, when visiting Gaza, where he was greeted with great excitement and veneration, he said that he felt “at home amongst compatriots”.

A few years later in 2002, the late Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu, in a piece titled Apartheid in the Holy Land, had this to say: “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”

When I visited Israel and Palestine in 2010, I was struck by the similarities with apartheid South Africa. I was hosted by a former Israel Defense Forces soldier and got to see and meet a great variety of people and, if anything, I was shocked that there was even a debate about Israel being an apartheid state. 

In recent years, the United Nations, and the world’s leading human rights organisations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, along with B’Tselem, one of the leading Israeli human rights organisations, have produced detailed reports saying that Israel is perpetrating the crime of apartheid over the Palestinian people.

Two of the Israeli state’s most popular methods of silencing criticism are conflating criticism of the state with anti-Semitism and framing the situation as incredibly complex. 

In a recent interview, the highly acclaimed American author Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke about his experience of visiting Israel and Palestine. 

“I was in a territory where your mobility is inhibited, where your voting rights are inhibited, where your right to the water is inhibited, where your right to housing is inhibited. And it’s all inhibited based on ethnicity. And that sounded extremely, extremely familiar to me … And so, the most shocking thing about my time over there was how uncomplicated it actually is.” 

At times like this, when those in power act with brutality and impunity, marches and other forms of protest are opportunities to express humane values that exist in opposition to their moral depravity. They are opportunities to share our anger and our grief. To call for peace, freedom and justice. To build community and say “not in our name”, “never again — for anyone”. 

Protests and boycotts work because politicians and corporations care about what we think and what we do, even if only for our votes and our money.

Speaking up, taking action and coming together remind us that we are not alone, and for those who suffer beyond comprehension, to know that they are not alone. In a world that has never been more connected than it is right now, to turn away from the horrors that we are seeing is not an option. Our silence will not protect us. It will not make the world a better place. In the depths of our despair, we must reach equally into the depths of our humanity. 

There is power in collective action. We would not enjoy the freedoms we do in South Africa today were it not for the millions around the world who spoke up and took action against the cruelty and injustice of apartheid. “But what can I do? I’m just one person, said 7 billion people,” goes a popular meme doing the rounds at the moment. 

No matter who you are and where you are, there is something you can do. Collectively, all our actions add up. 

Zubair Sayed works on communication and campaigns on a range of global issues.