Israel and South Africa

Originally broadcast on Montreal community radio station, CKUT.

Kristin Nelson:

“I’m here today with Salim Vally of the Palestine Solidarity Committee here in Johannesburg. Next Wednesday Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is coming to South Africa for an official state visit. We’re here today to talk with Salim and hear about the actions that are going to be taking place in response to this visit

“So Salim could you tell us a little bit about the protests planed for tomorrow, and about your concerns with this particular visit?”

Salim Vally:

“Internationally there have been calls for the isolation of the state of Israel, to treat it as it should be treated as a pariah state in the same way Apartheid South Africa was treated throughout the world. There are calls for sanctions and a boycott campaign, and just very recently the Presbyterian Church, their council took a decision to isolate apartheid Israel. Similarly the Anglican Justice and network committee took a similar decision. And at a gathering of hundreds of anti-war and anti-corporate globalization groups in Beirut a few weeks ago, a resolution passed to encourage and pursue the boycott campaign the same way the campaign was articulated around the world against Apartheid South Africa.

“So for us in South Africa, who have lived through Apartheid, who have benefited from this kind of international solidarity, we think it is vital for us to be in the lead to support the call to isolate Israel. It is therefore with shock and embarrassment that we find our own government, which benefited from this international solidarity, in fact acting like scabs during a strike, breaking this call.

“They will be hosting the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Sharon’s right-hand man, somebody who was a mayor of Jerusalem in the past, who advocated the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Jerusalem. And he is coming with an entourage of 23 people in order to sign an investment protection treaty with our trade ministry. And it’s something that we find unconscionable and something which the masses of South Africa are opposed to, and we think our government is not speaking to the mandate it has received.

“Hence, we will be having demonstrations in all the major centers of our country tomorrow morning. We will be handing over a memorandum, which has been signed by hundreds of grassroots Palestinian organizations as well as solidarity groups, from Canada and elsewhere, supporting our call to boycott Israel.”


“Could you tell us something, briefly, about the historical relationship between South Africa and Israel, and give us a bit of context about their bilateral ties.”


“Well we will never forget that when the world said that Apartheid is a crime against humanity, the state of Israel happily cemented trade, cultural, military, as well as nuclear links with the white minority regime. The nuclear connection is very important – recently Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear technician was released after so many years in prison and right at the time he was arrested it was quite clear about this connection.

“So the people of South Africa feel very strongly about this. Israel was one of those countries (like Pinochet’s Chile and other unsavoury military dictatorships) that gave South Africa the sustenance it needed at that time and it prolonged the Apartheid regime.

“Today and even yesterday we know that Israel, which is the highest recipient of US support, is globalization’s watchdog. In the 70s they supplied the military dictatorships of El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and other countries with the military hardware that the US didn’t want to be seen supplying openly. And this was even before the Contra scandal. They have strong links with the military in Turkey, a military that has suppressed the trade unions that has suppressed the aspirations of the Kurdish people.

“So this is the Israel we are talking about. Israel is vital for imperialism and for empire. So many of us in social movements in South Africa today – the same people who fought against the Apartheid regime on the ground – understand this, and understand that Israel is playing the same role that South Africa played yesterday.”


“Given your intimate knowledge of both contexts, how similar are the circumstances in contemporary Palestine and those of Apartheid South Africa? Is it a useful analogy to make?”


“Well we certainly think it is a useful analogy and it’s not just from a propagandistic point of view. Our analysis [is] of the Israeli state, their role under globalization, and their policies internally. It’s an understanding which says that the Israeli state rests on overt repression that we all know about, the kind of repression that occurs under military dictatorships, the oppression of Palestinians under occupation.

“It also relies on a system of structural violence, on racism, denying people basic human rights, democratic rights and denying them their dignity. It also relies on institutionalized discrimination that dehumanizes one group to the advantage of another. Israel has developed an elaborate system of racial discrimination, which is embedded in its legal system, which in fact, many of us believe, even surpasses Apartheid South Africa’s laws.

“If I can just explain, in South Africa we had overtly racist laws targeted at people because of the colour of their skin. In Israel you have laws such as the Law of Entry, the Law of Return, Citizenship Law, legally sanctioned discriminatory rabbinical rulings, and you have the military service Law.

“So it’s not directed at people because of the colour of their skin, but the consequences of these laws mean that Palestinians are denied various welfare benefits, access to jobs, leasing of homes and lands. Many Palestinian villages, even within so-called Israel, within the 1948 borders, are denied basic services like electricity, water, sewage, roads. If you don’t serve in the military then you don’t get many of the welfare benefits and Palestinians obviously don’t serve in the military. Palestinians have to have cars with different number plates. There is a system which is akin to the pass system. There is discrimination for jobs, education.

“And therefore we say it is an apartheid state. And the building of the Apartheid wall… the term ‘Apartheid Wall’ is a term that Palestinians have come up with – a wall that segregates Palestinians from each other as well as Palestinians from others.

“So for us there is a reason why we believe that calling Israel and ‘Apartheid State’ is not just a rhetorical flourish or a propagandistic slogan, it is based on an analysis of the Israeli state, of the ideology that fuels what the state does as well as the structural and legal system that exist in Israel.”


“South Africa’s stance with regards to Israel and Palestine is quite clear: official policy calls for ‘a just, equitable and comprehensive peace process in the Middle East and an end to the illegal occupation of land that has led to conflict and violence between the peoples of the region.’ Does the government’s hosting of Israeli politicians necessarily contradict with this position? And has their stance changed recently?”


“I think it’s important for us to understand that we cannot separate solidarity with the Palestinians’ struggle from our analysis of how neo-liberal corporate globalization works. South Africa has a constitution which is lauded internationally, a constitution which calls for unleashing the potential of the citizens of South Africa. It calls for access to healthcare, education, that this is a human right. A bill of rights which people believe is the best in the world. But there is a contradiction here.

“Because our government has adopted the neo-liberal perspective and the neo-liberal trajectory it has had all kinds of consequences, including consequences for its foreign policy. Today our government believes that it’s the market that will uplift people from the state they are in. (Remember South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, where poverty is, in fact, increasing. Most statistics, including government statistics, show that this is true.)

“And they believe that it is only through investments from abroad and the global market that we can change the living conditions of our people and create employment. And this is a flawed logic. It’s the neo-liberal logic, the ‘trickle down’ logic, it’s Reaganomics and Thatcherism that has become the new orthodoxy around the world. The market is god now, it’s the new religion.

“And therefore we need to see this trip as framed by that logic, where solidarity and the kind of relations that existed in the fight against Apartheid [are no longer possible]. Members of our government, who were very close to members of the PLO and particularly Fatah and Yasser Arafat, now see fit to entertain the person who holds the trade portfolio in the Israeli cabinet. And it is this logic that circumvents and supersedes the view of human solidarity because that has no place in the logic of neo-liberalism and corporate globalization.”


“Conversely, why is Israel interested in closer ties with South Africa? Is it at all related to South Africa’s role as (what some have called) a sub-imperial power within Africa?”


“Yes, I think in a very calculated way that is one of the issues. South Africa is a very important player under globalization in the region. It is seen as the region’s policeman. It’s also basically situating itself in various sectors, in the electronics’ sector, the security sector, in diamond beneficiation, etc. South Africa is a sub-imperialist country, it’s seen as a launching pad into the African hinterland.

“And our own domestic [macro-economic] policy, GEAR, which is basically a home grown structural adjustment policy, has been writ large now in the African continent – it’s called NEPAD. It’s the same policy which our government has been promoting. And South African local business is penetrating markets throughout the continent, and is being used by trans-national corporations to do the same. Yes, South Africa is vital beyond its own borders and its own market.

“That’s the one issue, you’re right. The second issue is, I think, just as important. People around the world have taken their inspiration from our struggle against Apartheid. People see the links between Apartheid South Africa and Apartheid Israel. It’s a way of really undercutting that link and undermining it and it’s a huge propagandistic coup for Israel if they can get it right.

“By the way, we don’t think they will succeed. We think our government have miscalculated; they don’t understand the level of support Palestinian people have in our country. And when civil society and social movements understand this, they will see it as a betrayal and it will come to haunt this government, which continues rhetorically to say they support the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.


“What is the role of South Africa on the World Stage? Do ANC politicians have a special role to play with regards to resolving the conflict in the Middle East, or anywhere else in the world for that matter?”


“Well I do think they have a role to play, they did play a role during the hearings of the International Court of Justice against the apartheid wall in Palestine. And we laud that, we support that. But I think that South Africa tries to have it both ways. Sometimes they talk left and they act right internationally. If you look at our finance minister’s role in the IMF and the World Bank, you can see this.

“And I think it’s important for people internationally to understand these contradictions and not to be too disappointed when our South African government takes positions which are contradictory to the interests of the poor and marginalized of people around the world. Because they have by their actions shown that their real interests, as the government, lie with the interests of big business in South Africa and elsewhere.

“There was a very easy transition made by a whole legion of politicians to big business in our country. It’s almost a career path. George Bush, when he came to South Africa a few months ago addressed Mbeki as his ‘point man in Africa’. I don’t think Mbeki understood the depths of this insult and he was beaming when George Bush said this.

“So South Africa is trying on the one hand to mildly criticize the foreign policy of the Bush administration, but at the same time it wants American big business to invest in our country because they mistakenly see this as a way of getting development.

“They have also taken a stand against groups like Jubilee for reparations in the court cases that are presently going on in the States through the Khulumani group and Jubilee against major American-based trans-nationals. Our government has written to the [American] court condemning the actions brought by South African social movements. So it’s quite clear that the interests of our government lie with the interests of big business internationally and not with those around the world who suffer as a result of the actions of big business.”


“And finally, is there a strong Palestine Solidarity movement in South Africa? Are you expecting tomorrow’s protests to be big? And what exactly are you calling for?”


“Well firstly, the visit by Ehud Olmert comes in the wake of the South African government hosting ten senior Likud members a few weeks ago. This was completely kept under wraps, and we were only informed when they were here already. The media was not informed. This goes completely contrary to our principals of democracy and transparency and openness.

“Similarly with this particular trip, we were informed just a week ago that he would be coming here. So we’ve had very little time to prepare. We don’t have many resources as a solidarity group, but we are still hoping that there will be significant numbers at the demonstration.

“We will also have follow-up discussions with social movements. The new social movements – the Anti-Privatization Forum, the Landless People’s Movement, the Anti-Eviction Campaign – groups which have been formed recently, which have captured the imaginations of the poor and marginalized in our country. They have been our foremost supporters.

“We’ve been inundated with calls from many townships from people who want to come to the demonstration but don’t have transport money. We still have Apartheid geography and our public transport system is absolutely horrendous. These are not excuses, but just to say that the people who come to the demonstration tomorrow will not be a reflection, perhaps, of the widespread support the Palestine solidarity movement does enjoy.

“On occasion we’ve had tens of thousands of people on the street against the invasion of Iraq, for example, which we organized. But still we are hoping to get significant numbers.

“Our demands are, basically, for the government to cancel the trip of Ehud Olmert, to break trade links with Israel, to treat it in the same way we asked the world to treat Apartheid South Africa.”


“Thank you very much for your time. Good luck tomorrow.”

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