GRESH: Palestine – the view from South Africa August 13, 2009

Israeli Apartheid
by Alain Gresh – Le Monde diplomatique – August 2009

During the Gaza war, South Africa expressed strong solidarity with the Palestinians. No one here has forgotten the collaboration between Pretoria and Israel under apartheid, and many see parallels between the Palestinian situation today and that of black and coloured South Africans back in the days of white rule by Alain Gresh

Ronald “Ronnie” Kasrils looks just like the caricature of him drawn by the cartoonist Zapiro in November 2001. It showed him at the head of a line of Jews, including the Nobel laureate Nadime Gordimer and Zapiro himself, escaping from a fortress. Kasrils has a big smile on his face. The fortress is emblazoned with the words “unconditional support for Israel”. The jailers are shouting “Catch them! Catch them!”

Kasrils’ smile is the same today, as is his determination; his is a life that’s been devoted to moving mountains. He was born in South Africa in 1938, the son of Jewish immigrants from the Baltic states. It was not long before he encountered racism, notably in the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960, when the police fired on unarmed black demonstrators, killing dozens of people. The international reverberations of the massacre – the prelude to South Africa’s drift towards dictatorship – were all the greater as 1960 was the year in which the majority of African nations gained their independence.

Kasrils was unable to turn his back on oppression so reminiscent of the pogroms in eastern Europe which his parents had described. He joined the Communist Party and the African National Congress (ANC), and began a 30-year journey of secrecy and exile. As head of intelligence for the ANC’s armed wing, he accepted being labelled a terrorist. “Armed and dangerous” (1) was how the authorities referred to him when they showed his picture on television in the 1970s. After his return to the country in 1990 and the subsequent end of apartheid, he held several ministerial posts until he left the government at the end of last year.

As an activist who fought apartheid, and as a communist and a Jew, he was sensitive to the Palestinian issue from early on. In February 2004 when he was a minister, he visited Yasser Arafat, surrounded by the Israeli army at his headquarters in the Muqata complex in Ramallah. “Arafat showed me the view from the window saying ‘this is nothing but a Bantustan!’ I replied: ‘No! No Bantustan has been bombed by warplanes, pulverised by tanks… the South African government pumped funds, constructed impressive administrative buildings and even allowed Bantustans airlines so as to make them recognised by the international community’.”

Cattle through a dip

The shock waves of the events in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009 were quickly felt in South Africa. They gave rise to mass popular protest and demonstrations. The powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which had already stopped an Israeli arms shipment destined for Zimbabwe being unloaded in April 2008, called for a boycott of Israeli shipping.

“At the grassroots level,” says Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of Johannesburg University responsible for research and innovation, “there is an implicit sympathy for the Palestinians because everyone understands the parallel between Palestine and South Africa, Gaza and Transkei or Ciskei.”

The South African government condemned “unequivocally and in the strongest possible terms the escalation of violence on the part of Israel brought about by the launching of a ground invasion into Gaza”. It called on Israel to halt its “massacre” and to withdraw its troops “immediately and unconditionally”. In a meeting with the Israeli ambassador, South African members of parliament asserted that the army’s abuses “made apartheid look like a Sunday school picnic” and the president of the foreign affairs commission, Job Sithole, compared the treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints to that of “cattle through a dip” (2).

In these circumstances, the support for Israeli policy from leaders of South African Jewish organisations provoked criticism and condemnation, including from Jewish intellectuals who had campaigned against apartheid (3). “The loudest defender of Israel,” says Adam Habib with regret “is not the embassy but the chief rabbi Warren Goldstein, who has supported the bombings of Gaza without qualification, which nobody can understand.”

At the height of the Gaza conflict, the Board of Deputies said in a statement that South Africa’s Jewish community “firmly supports the decision of the government of Israel to launch a military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip”. It was outraged a few days later that its own elision of Jews and Israel had given rise to antisemitic calls on the internet for the boycott of Jewish shops. These calls were roundly condemned by the South African government, the ANC, Muslim intellectuals and pro-Palestinian organisations.

The strength of feeling provoked by a conflict thousands of miles away is not entirely surprising, however. It stems from the peculiar nature of the links between South Africa and Israel. By a quirk of history, just a few weeks separate the creation of Israel in May 1948 and the electoral victory of the National Party in South Africa. That election result took the existing racial segregation to a new level by bringing in the policy of apartheid or “separate development”. The leaders of the National Party were known Nazi sympathisers (John Vorster, its leader and later prime minister, was imprisoned on this account during the second world war), but they were nonetheless able to forge increasingly close relations with Israel.

‘Tough and resilient’

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, who teaches at the University of Haifa, explained the paradox: “One can detest Jews and love Israelis, because Israelis somehow are not Jews. Israelis are colonial fighters and settlers, just like Afrikaners. They are tough and resilient. They know how to dominate. Jews are different. They are, among other qualities, gentle, non-physical, often passive, intellectual. So one can go on disliking Jews while admiring the Israelis” (4).

Cooperation began between two states that seemed to have nothing in common. Moshe Sharett, the Israeli foreign minister, made his first visit to South Africa in 1950. In November 1984, when the UN had decided on sanctions against the apartheid regime, South African foreign minister Roelof Frederik “Pik” Botha visited Israel. Yitzhak Rabin was then Israel’s prime minister. Le Monde wrote of the “close ties between the two countries” and noted that Israel was the only country in the world to have relations with the puppet Bantustans, some of which were even twinned with Israeli West Bank settlements (5).

The bedrock of the relationship between the two countries was in the first instance economic, under the aegis of the Histadrut (the “socialist” trade union congress), which controlled a significant part of the Israeli economy during the 1970s and 1980s. Through the Hevrat Haovdim company, it enjoyed a quasi-monopoly over trade with South Africa. The kibbutzim played a part too: the Lohamei Hagetot (“fighters of the ghetto”) kibbutz, founded by Jews from eastern Europe who had fought the Nazis, ran the Kama chemical plant in the Kwazulu Bantustan.

When it came to the military and security, the alliance between the two countries took on a strategic dimension. Israel helped South Africa become a nuclear power (6). The Israeli military attaché in Pretoria was a high-ranking officer who was a member of the General Staff Forum (the only other Israeli military attaché to hold such high rank was based in Washington). Israeli arms were manufactured under licence in South Africa.

‘Beast of Soweto’

The two countries’ intelligence services had no qualms about collaborating to fight communism and, even then, to combat “terrorism” – whether it came from the ANC or the PLO, the liberation movements in Portuguese colonies (Angola and Mozambique) or the South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo), which was fighting for independence for Namibia, then under South African occupation.

Brigadier “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel, the main interrogator in the Rivonia trial of 1964 at which Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, was a regular guest of the Israelis in the 1970s. Swanepoel, who set up the counter-insurrection squads in Namibia, was known as the “beast of Soweto” for the way in which he crushed the revolt in the township leading to the loss of hundreds of lives. Uri Dan, meanwhile, a journalist and adviser to Ariel Sharon, proclaimed his admiration for the South African army (7).

Ronnie Kasrils believes that, beyond the obvious differences between the two systems – Israel for example doesn’t need an indigenous workforce and has granted the vote to its Arab minority – there are pronounced ideological similarities: “The early Dutch pioneers, the Afrikaners, had used Bible and gun as colonisers elsewhere. Like the biblical Israelites, they claimed to be ‘God’s chosen people’ with a mission to civilise.”

The collusion between Israel and South Africa didn’t give rise to criticism from the Jewish community, though it ostracised its members who were involved with the communists and the ANC. Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC member of parliament who lost some of his family in the Nazi death camps, managed to get the new South African parliament to devote a session to the Holocaust in May 2000 for the first time in its history.

He explains that, like most white South Africans, the country’s 100,000 Jews remained silent during the apartheid years, even though “there are clear parallels between the policies imposed on the Jews by the Nazis between 1933 and 1939 and those imposed on the majority of South Africans during the apartheid era” (8). He mentions Percy Yutar, the chief prosecutor who called for the death penalty at Mandela’s trial. Yutar was later elected to lead Johannesburg’s most important orthodox synagogue and lauded by community leaders as a “credit to the community”.

After this collaboration between Israel and the apartheid regime, relations between the two countries worsened significantly after Nelson Mandela became president in 1994. The new government suspended military cooperation (though it honoured its contracts until they expired in 1998) and gave its full backing to the PLO and Arafat. It maintained its relations with them after the declaration of the second intifada in 2000, in the face of pressure from countries such as the US (as well as Israel), which had colluded with apartheid. When Arafat died in 2004, Mandela called him “one of the outstanding freedom fighters of his generation”.

That said, as Aziz Pahad, former SA deputy foreign minister with responsibility for the Middle East, freely admits, the demands of realpolitik cannot be ignored nor “the contradiction between the realism of official foreign policy and the positions of principle taken by the ANC [support for Palestine and independence of the western Sahara]”.

This realpolitik outraged Palestinian support groups, as is clear even from the title of a report from the Stop the Wall campaign: “Democratic South Africa’s complicity in Israel’s occupation, colonialism and apartheid” (9). Na’eem Jeenah, director of the Afro-Middle East Centre (10) in Johannesburg, believes that former president Thabo Mbeki was “in favour of a normalisation of relations with Israel. Trade between the two countries has increased 15-20% this year, especially in the field of security equipment. There have even been attempts to revive military relations.” And imposing sanctions on Israel is no longer on the agenda, even though Richard Goldstone, the judge who chairs the UN commission on crimes committed in Gaza, is a South African.

Alain Gresh is editor of Le Monde diplomatique and a specialist on the Middle East.


(1) The title of his autobiography, Armed and Dangerous: My Undercover Struggle against Apartheid, Heinemann, Portsmouth, 1993.

(2) “ANC lawmakers rip Israel”, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 19 January 2009.

(3) See, for example, this statement from around one hundred Jewish intellectuals: “We are dismayed as SA Jews by the destruction in Gaza”, Cape Times, Cape Town, 12 January 2009.

(4) Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, The Israeli Connection, Pantheon, New York, 1987.

(5) Jean-Pierre Langellier, “La visite du chef de la diplomatie sud-africaine illustre les relations étroites entre les deux pays” (Visit from head of South African foreign office demonstrates close links between the two countries) , Le Monde, 6 November 1984.

(6) See Al J Venter, How South Africa Built Six Atom Bombs, Ashanti Publications, Cape Town, 2008.

(7) Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, op cit.

(8) See After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey Inside the ANC, Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg/Cape Town, 2007.

(9) Activist ressources in

(10) The Afro-Middle East Centre website.


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