/ 30 January 2024

ICJ case echoes Tambo’s liberation plea for Palestine

Oliver Tambo At Anc 75th Anniversary Celebration
In 1979, 25 years after the anti-colonial conference in Indonesia, OR Tambo recalled the ‘spirit of Bandung’ when he called for the freedom of South Africans and Palestinians. (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

In April 1955, delegations from 26 countries in Africa and Asia, including six leaders of anti-colonial movements, assembled in Bandung, Indonesia,  to forge a path for Afro-Asian solidarity. This historic occasion formed part of a new global movement for decolonisation, with national liberation movements and newly formed independent states foregrounding their joint commitment to anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and anti-racism.  

The South African liberation movement was represented by two observers, Moses Kotane and Moulvi Ismail Cachalia. They were representatives of the Congress Alliance formation which comprised the ANC and its alliance partners.

Despite tremendous difficulties in procuring travel documents from the South African government, Kotane and Cachalia arrived in Bandung after a brief sojourn in London and Egypt to canvas their political cause. In Egypt, they were welcomed as guests of Gamal Abdal Nasser’s government after personally engaging his audience.

To secure support for the South African national liberation struggle in Bandung, Kotane and Cachalia submitted a 32-page memorandum to the Bandung conference, appealing to its delegates with the following proclamation: “To use their good offices internationally to persuade other civilised and freedom-loving nations of the world to prevail on the government of the Union of South Africa to abandon its unjust and disastrous policy of apartheid and racial discrimination”. 

The Bandung conference’s final statement advocated for national independence, a rejection of colonialism, and the fostering of cooperative ties among Afro-Asian nations.

Some 25 years later, at the International Conference in Support of the Liberation Movements of Southern Africa, in Lusaka, Zambia, the ANC president, Oliver Tambo, delivered an impassioned address referring to “the Spirit of Bandung” as a symbol of solidarity and unity among the peoples of Africa and Asia in their common struggle for national and social emancipation.

During this address of April 1979, Tambo reaffirmed the ANC’s commitment to the resolutions of Bandung and emphasised the enduring significance of this spirit of solidarity and its role in supporting the liberation movements of Southern Africa and the frontline states that included Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. 

For Tambo, two critical questions in the contemporary international politics of his day remained “the liberation of the people of Palestine and the restoration of their national rights and the liberation of the peoples of Southern Africa”.

Tambo proceeded to underscore the alliance of “freedom forces in the world” and the need for support in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine. He further highlighted the significance of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) as a representative of the Palestinian people and its role in shaping the future of the Middle East. He stressed the recognition of the PLO as a genuine representative of its people and a core vanguard of the liberation forces, without whom no just and lasting solutions to the fundamental problems of the Middle East are possible.

Tambo’s address is important for contextualising South Africa’s solidarity with Palestine. It is part of the historical context that provides a foundation for understanding South Africa’s recent invocation of the genocide convention for the people of Palestine at the International Court of Justice. Tambo’s address also underscores the historical importance of international solidarity and support for liberation movements, including the PLO. This emphasis on global solidarity aligns with South Africa’s history of seeking transnational support during its struggle against apartheid.

By highlighting the significance of the liberation of the people of Palestine and the restoration of their national rights, Tambo’s address underscores the importance of recognising and supporting the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, a sentiment that resonates with South Africa’s own struggle for self-determination and recognition for human rights.

While Tambo’s address provides a framework for understanding South Africa’s solidarity with Palestine, it also provides a prescient reminder of the limits of settler colonial oppression. As Tambo argued, “naked colonial rule can no longer be maintained” in Palestine or elsewhere in Africa. “The colonised peoples themselves are demonstrating in practice and in full view of the imperialists themselves, that they are determined to achieve victory or to perish in the pursuit of that victory.” 

This above all was the common refrain from the South African government delegation at the ICJ.

Dr Ayesha Omar is a senior lecturer in political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and a British Academy International Fellow at SOAS, University of London, working on a book on Black Intellectual History in South Africa. Her archival research on Afro-Asian solidarity forms part of a Mellon project entitled Afro-Asian Futures Past in collaboration with the American University of Beirut.