The decision on February 3 by South African dockworkers to refuse handling of Israeli imports is of enormous importance for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and will prod more local Durban citizens – including academics and cultural activists – to also raise concerns about institutional linkages that give the Israeli state legitimacy.
This Sunday, the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union aim to repeat last year’s feat of turning back a huge ship symbolizing and contributing to oppression. A protest led by Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) president Sdumo Dlamini will be held at the mouth of the port at 10am.
Last April, the Chinese ship "An Yue Jiang" was destined for unloading, in order to supply Robert Mugabe’s army with three million bullets and sophisticated weaponry. But the ship was repelled from a series of southern African ports by dockworkers once progressive Anglican Bishop Rubin Philip raised the alarm.
Flash forward to Sunday, when we expect to see the "Johanna Russ" steam into Africa’s largest harbour, flying an Antigua flag. The ship is owned by M.Dizengoff and Co., an established "pioneer of the modern era of shipping business in the Middle East" and shipping agent for the ironically named Zim Israel Navigation Company. It probably does not have bullets in the hold, but does bring revenues to the Israeli economy.
Flash back to the 1980s-90s, when the anti-apartheid movement’s success was due in part to economic pain inflicted on the Afrikaner racist state and English-speaking businesses by sanctions. The pressure led to a partial break between state and capital in August 1985 immediately following PW Botha’s finger-wagging "Rubicon" speech here in Durban. That split in turn catalyzed a nine-year process of power transfer and democratization.
Can activists promote a similar non-violent democratization of Israel/Palestine, by breaking relations between Israel and Durban importers? The SA Zionist Federation’s Bev Goldman warned a local newspaper last week, "A boycott would undermine relations between Israel and South Africa and result in a negative impact on the economy."
An end to such relations is what Cosatu demands, even if they themselves sacrifice some jobs in the process, on behalf of Gaza Palestinians suffering what are called by leading United Nations officials – and will probably also be known in The Hague International Criminal Court – Israel’s crimes against humanity.
Cosatu and the Palestine Support Committee remind us of the long history in which injustice travels to docks: "In 1963, just four years after the Anti-Apartheid Movement was formed, Danish dock workers refused to offload a ship with South African goods. When the ship docked in Sweden, Swedish workers followed suit. Dock workers in Liverpool and, later, in the San Francisco Bay Area also refused to offload South African goods."
Last week, Western Australian dockworkers announced a similar move against Israeli shipping.
And in spite of what is known as "The Israel Lobby" that influences Washington’s foreign policy, more than 300 US academics pledged an Israel boycott last month, restarting a movement that has traveled from Britain to Canada with mixed results.
On January 14, the Israel Lobby – especially the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) – was stupidly misnamed by SA’s deputy foreign affairs minister Fatima Hajaig as "Jews" (though there are plenty of right-wing Christian zealots who fanatically support Israel’s barbaric policies): "If Jewish money controls their country, you cannot expect anything else."
Though she obviously should have used the adjective "Zionist" not "Jew", Hajaig’s basic point is correct. Assuming she corrects the phraseology, she should not face the threatened "hate speech" case filed by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies in the SA Human Rights Commission last week.
(As a brand new foreign ministry official, Hajaig should turn her attention to reversing SA foreign policy, and now offer consistent solidarity with the oppressed, in view of Pretoria’s "talk left, walk right" tendency and abominable recent record of oppression-nurture in the UN Security Council, against the Zimbabwean and Burmese peoples.)
After all, as the two leading experts on the Israel Lobby – the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and Harvard’s Stephen Walt – pointed out in the London Review of Books, both Fortune magazine and the National Journal rated AIPAC as second most powerful lobby (behind the American Association of Retired Persons) "in the Washington ‘muscle rankings’."
How did AIPAC build its muscles? Just like Hajaig says: with money. According to Mearsheimer and Walt, "Its success is due to its ability to reward legislators and congressional candidates who support its agenda, and to punish those who challenge it. Money is critical to US elections (as the scandal over the lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s shady dealings reminds us), and AIPAC makes sure that its friends get strong financial support from the many pro-Israel political action committees. Anyone who is seen as hostile to Israel can be sure that AIPAC will direct campaign contributions to his or her political opponents."
Mearsheimer and Walt conclude, "The bottom line is that AIPAC, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress… The Lobby’s influence causes trouble on several fronts. It increases the terrorist danger that all states face – including America’s European allies. It has made it impossible to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Campaigning against apartheid for many years, international activists found sanctions and divestment a useful tool under these conditions, so as to reduce the monetary incentive for ongoing racism.
The parallel is real. Writing in the Harvard Crimson last Monday, Harvard law professor Duncan Kennedy contextualizes the past month’s carnage: "It is important to understand the 1,300 Palestinian casualties, including 400 children as well as many, many women, versus 13 Israeli casualties, as typical of a particular kind of ‘police action’ that Western colonial powers and Western ‘ethnocratic settler regimes’ like ours in the US, Canada, Australia, Serbia and particularly apartheid South Africa, have historically undertaken to convince resisting native populations that unless they stop resisting they will suffer unbearable death and deprivation."
"What is to be done?", asks Kennedy. "You might consider some small step, perhaps just a contribution to humanitarian relief for Gaza, or e-mailing the White House, or something more, like advocating for Harvard to divest."
Fully aware of the role that progressive white SA academics played in the anti-apartheid struggle, including divestment/sanctions advocacy, we at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society are deep in debate on this matter.
Although CCS staff have conflicting views, four of our senior academics – myself and honorary professors Alan Fowler (former International Society for Third Sector Research president), Adam Habib (University of Johannesburg Deputy Vice Chancellor) and Dennis Brutus – have issued a statement confirming our own concern about the Ben Gurion University Israeli Centre for Third Sector Research.
Our attempts last week to suggest that an international conference they are holding in Israel next month introduce meaningful Palestinian inputs on the incursion into Gaza were unsuccessful, so we simply cannot endorse attendance.
On the cultural front there is a similar debate. Three weeks ago, Israeli ambassador Dov Segev-Steinberg visited the Catalina Theatre at Wilson’s Wharf, where protesters from the Action Group for Palestine protesters demanded that the Musho drama festival cease Israeli-sponsored events.
The lead here comes from the UKZN Centre for Creative Arts, which since
2001 has not accepted Israeli state cultural funding, according to the CCA’s Monica Rorvik. It may be that some Israeli academic and cultural activities promote Palestinian liberation and deserve exemption, although Brutus suggests a full boycott.
Regardless, the higher consciousness civil society activists seek by raising the ethics of SA-Israeli relationships can do some good, and the protest against the Israeli ship on Sunday will set the stage for other regional dockworker actions.
It must be added that such Durban protests regularly suffer heavy-handed police repression. An example last month was an effort by O’Brien Gcabashe, spokesperson of the Qadi Families Evicted from Inanda Dam organization, to register the right to demonstrate at the world-famous Dusi Canoe Marathon. His people’s case resonates with the dispossession of Palestinian land that occurred four decades earlier.
In 1987, apartheid-era officials displaced Gcabashe’s family and hundreds of others in order to build the bulk water supply that we drink from in Durban. Compensation for the Qadi land ($560,000) was paid to a corrupt chief, leaving the displaced people with nothing.
On a Saturday morning last month, Dusi Marathon canoes slipped quietly across the water covering the old Qadi neighbourhood, after Durban City Manager Michael Sutcliffe denied Gcabashe’s simple request to stand on the dam’s banks with fellow victims, to pray to their ancestors, and in the process to publicise the land grab in front of athletes, the media and the society.
Police superintendent Winnie Xama of Special Events explained to me the City’s power to judge what day a protest could occur: "Any other time he’s welcome to come and do the prayer, but not on the day that he wants. I know he wants publicity."
Yeah, of course the Qadi people need this kind of publicity, as do many others, to correct historic and contemporary wrong-doing.
The shackdwellers of Kennedy Road and other Abahlali baseMjondolo communities were denied their right to march to City Hall in February 2006, though Sutcliffe’s ban was overturned by a judge after the march was due to start.
Informal traders were arrested in their hundreds and subjected to police brutality in June 2007. In 2008, numerous activists were denied the right to protest in the centre of town.
Between last June and October, opposition political parties demonstrated against street name changes, the ANC attacked the National Prosecuting Authority, and trade unionists protested municipal labour practices. On two occasions, Sutcliffe threatened to prohibit all downtown marches "to ensure that no disruption to business and trading took place."
According to a Mercury newspaper report in October, "Heavily armed riot police, snipers on rooftops and police helicopters combined to prevent former [municipal] bus drivers and Durban Solid Waste workers from marching."
The Zimbabwean refugee community also tried four times to hold anti-Mugabe protests last year, according to Shepherd Zvavanhu, a local Movement for Democratic Change organizer, but to no avail: "They always turned us down, for no good reason."
South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) members were harassed by Sutcliffe twice last year after they notified police about demonstrations against the Engen oil refinery due to regular explosions and against Transnet for its dangerous oil pipeline proposal. Last April, the day before a march against Engen, SDCEA had the High Court interdict the municipality to reverse its ban, so the protest went ahead with no problems.
Many others regularly want to express dissent in a creative and non-violent manner about genuine grievances: Too-expensive water and electricity, with often nonexistent sanitation. Ubiquitous shack fires and growing housing backlogs. The degeneration of what were once Blue Flag beaches. Sewage-marinated fish and enterococci-clad surfers. Fatally-privatized buses. Police corruption. No-fishing zones in the harbour. City Hall nudges and winks at extreme industrial pollution, and a top-secret evacuation plan for South Durban. Irrational, erratic rates increases. Pseudo-radical street renaming. Ruling party hackery.
(Ironically, the same Michael Sutcliffe won two professional awards from the American Association of Geographers last year, demonstrating the utterly motley nature of the discipline in which I hold a PhD.)
Last week, South Africa’s best-known known conservationist, Ian Player, told the press, "I cannot imagine that a single canoeist would have taken umbrage at the Qadi people making a silent protest by standing on the banks."
Gcabashe replied, "We are going back to the next Dusi marathon at the Inanda Dam on February 6… and we expect the police to let us exercise our constitutional right to protest this time."
Such a gesture – like Israeli BDS on economic, sporting, academic and cultural activities, in solidarity with Palestinians – may at least begin, to borrow Player’s words, to "highlight the critical importance of resolving their plight."
(Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society: