I did some research with South African scientists on gerbils and had worked briefly in the 1980s against apartheid in South Africa. I have also been talking and reading about South Africa for the past thirty years as a model for Israel/Palestine. I should have also listened to my own advice when I speak about Palestine: come and see because no amount of reading and talking to people outside would substitute for visiting the country itself and immersing one’s body, mind, and soul in a country. So I am rethinking South Africa. I was shocked and dismayed at some of what I saw but I was inspired by the people. Witnessing the miseries of slums like Diepsloot (lit. Deep Ditch) and Soweto (South West Township), I realize that apartheid is not ended here but mainly changed shape and this provides us with lots of lessons for Palestinian struggle against Israeli apartheid.
The conference included 50 representatives from some 20 countries to discuss how to bring the world closer to peace and justice and for this meeting to be in South Africa. Its guiding principles include recognizing the connection between ecology, economics and ecumenical (all based on Greek root oikos meaning house). Getting our house in order as human beings is important. In recognizing that an economy based on theological principles entails caring about people and our environment and living a spirituality of resistance and transformation.
But before the formal meeting began, we were given tours of places like the Apartheid Museum, the Voortrekker monument, the Freedom Park, the Diepsoot Township/settlement, and Mandela’s house. At the Apartheid Museum we were painfully reminded of all the suffering and indignity of the era. The killings, economic injustice, and human rights violations were then rampant as they are today in Palestine (the apartheid state of Israel). But we are also reminded of the struggling human spirit that seeks justice and freedom. The compromises that Mandela made with the white leadership and his attempts to be inclusive and forgiving is prominently displayed. But his earlier statements are also visible as at the entrance “For to be free is not merey to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” This is line with Mandela’s statement that freedom in South Africa will not be complete unless Palestine is also free. Ofcourse to fit with the world structure, he had to modify his views that Zionism is racism. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is now receiving similar pressures because he told the truth that Zionism is a crime against humanity.
In January 1985, Mandela was offered release on the condition that he renounces violence. He refused writing to the people in a letter that “Only Free Men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contract…. I will not sell the birthright of my people to be free.” He insisted that he be released unconditionally and demanded that apartheid be ended before the ANC negotiated. Only free men can negotiate. Pressure built-up on the Apartheid regime via a growing local resistance aided by an international BDS movement. F W DeKlerk explained to fellow Apartheid supporters that the writing is on the wall and that South Africa should avoid the fate of “Rhodesia”. Mandela did not fall into the trap of negotiations while apartheid persisted but he assured the whites of flexibility after apartheid ended and indeed whites kept their privileged class to this day. That was t many ANC supporters a “sell out”. But it was a far less compromise than the PLO leadership agreeing to negotiate while we Palestinians remained imprisoned under the colonial apartheid system. Hence the real meaning of the Oslo process is the 20 years negotiations between prisoners and prison guards (instead of what happened in South Africa where within a span of 3 years negotiations between a freed people and apartheid symbols, the remaining issues were resolved). These and other lessons can be learned from the (ongoing) struggle in South Africa.
We learned by talking to people of all backgrounds that he struggle here in South Africa is not complete. Voting apartheid ended in law but economic, cultural, social and truth apartheids still stand. We visited the Voortrecker Monument dedicated to a battle that happened 16 December 1838 where white colonial settlers killed the native people. But that is not what the white tour guide described it. To her, “pioneers” signed treaties with Zulu ciefs, were betrayed by Zulus who “murdered” white pioneers! Whites on their march to the interior of the continent (the voortrekers) circled their wagons when danger came ! Actually the monument has carving of 64 circled wagons around it. To this day white and ony white South Africans gather in the monument every December 16 to honor that pledge made by their ancestors nearly 100 years ago to thank the lord for allowing them to vanguish their enemies in the promised land as they advanced the "light of civilization in the dark continent". Theology of The carved reliefs and the guide show a white democratically elected educated civilized “leader” Retief facing the evil superstitious Zulu king Dingane. That is when a few of us “colored”/black vistors decided we had enough of this tour.
The rich still get richer and the poor get poorer; 0.1% of the world population hold 81% of the wealth and the ratio of poverty to wealthy statistic went from 3:1 in 1820 to 35:1 in 1950 to nearly 80:1 today. Sometimes liberation movements fall into the trap of power. Many of those we met commented on how some members of ANC who came into government jobs at the end of Apartheid got spoiled by the material goods (houses, cars, bank account) that they forgot about the struggling people in the townships and the slums near the glittering skyscrapers. The tallest building in Johannesburg is the Reserve Bank! My tears rolled as we passed by townships that are teaming with poor people because they reminded me of refugee camps in Lebanon, in Jordan, and in Palestine. The most heart-wrenching was Diepsloot where 250,000 human beings live in shacks with sheat metal roofing. Here we visited “Vuselela Ulwazi Lwakho Drop-in Center” (vuselela-ulwazi.org, founded by one woman nurse) where hundreds come weekly for counseling and treatment for AIDS (now a horrific pandemic in Africa). I peaked into a hall and noticed nearly 100 children crammed together – they are the AIDS orphans who lost their parents to the disease (and a few other orhans). I contrast these images of man-made poverty and disease with the posh gated communities of upwardly mobile mostly white South Africans. It is like contrasting the posh life of the colonial Jewish setters in Palestine with the life in refugee camps. But the hope of the workers and users of this and other facilities show us how the goodness among humans can spread.
Ronnie Kasrils, South African minister once said about Palestine: “This is much worse than apartheid..Israeli measures, the brutality, make apartheid look like a picnic. We never had Jets attacking our townships; we never had sieges that lasted months after months. We never had tanks destroying houses.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prie winner who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Committee said Israel has established an apartheid system and thus has engaged in crimes against humanity. Both support the Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Our conference of activists learned lessons from each other and we rededicated ourselves to a joint global struggle. This is something we have been calling for as a global intifada against oppression, colonialism, and the neoliberal capitalist world order that makes the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In visiting the freedom park we saw workers putting names on the wall of those who lost their lives for freedom. Already 4300 names are on that wall (out of lists that could go up to 80,000). One day, we will build a wall like that in Palestine to remember the 60,000 Palestinian martyrs. These are not numbers but real people.
Arafat Jaradat died being tortured by the Israeli Apartheid regime last week and he was 30 years old. Steve Biko died while being tortured by the Souh African Apartheid regime in 1977 and he was 31 years old. The two struggles are intertwined. The perceptive words of Steve Biko ring true today in Palestine, in South Africa, and around the world: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” We the oppressed must free our minds from mental colonization before we liberate our body. We are then really free to work for peace, justice, and freedom. This cannot be achieved without sacrifices/without revolution.
The wisdom of the Zulu is striking as is their spirit of defiance. We listened to the music played by young people and as we chatted with elders who all gave us hope for the future. We learned to sing Hayo Matata (no worries) and to say Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person because of others). The latter reminded me of Vittorio Arrigoni’s constant admonition to us to “stay human”. To be human is to care about others, struggle for freedom and justice in a world of injustice. Come to think of it to be human is then to be revolutionary!
Zionism explained by a settler
Action: Join activists from all backgrounds to challenge AIPAC influence in Washington DC. Visit
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “ Amen!