Lessons from the South African anti-apartheid struggle

Posted on | februari 28, 2012 | 1 Comment

Los Aneles, California, 5 May 2010

For many years I supported the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa as a member of the Holland Committee on Southern Africa (HCSA). I apply what I learned in supporting the Palestinian people to achieve freedom, justice and equality including the right of return for refugees. Dutch and South African anti-apartheid activists provided input to broaden the basis of the article.

Powerful vision of the South African Freedom Charter

The people of South Africa developed a clear vision for the future that gave guidance to anti-apartheid activists and organizations. Thousands of volunteers collected countrywide the ‘freedom demands’ of the people.

The demands were summarized in the Freedom Charter. Three thousand delegates from an alliance of South African political movements adopted the Freedom Charter at the 1955 Congress of the People.1 The first paragraph states,

“We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know:

  • That South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people
  • That our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality
  • That our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities
  • That only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of color, race, sex or belief
  • And therefore, we, the people of South Africa, black and white together equals, countrymen and brothers adopt this Freedom Charter
  • And we pledge ourselves to strive together, sparing neither strength nor courage, until the democratic changes here set out have been won.”

“Let all people who love their people and their country now say, as we say here: These freedoms we will fight for, side by side, throughout our lives. Until we have won our liberty,” it ends.

The demands of the Freedom Charter on equality of race and language are addressed in the post-apartheid constitution of South Africa.

Palestinian call for BDS to pressurize Israel

The 2005 Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to pressurize the Israeli government to change provides guidance for international solidarity.2 The BDS call adopts a rights-based approach that is anchored in universal human rights and has reached a near consensus in Palestinian civil society. It defines three basic Palestinian rights that constitute the minimal requirements of a just peace. Israel should:

  • End the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
  • Recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality
  • Respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

The inclusive character of the BDS call is shown by the appeal to conscientious Israelis to support the initiative.

The Freedom Charter and the BDS call are tools to mobilize support internally as well as externally. Compared to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, there seems less clarity on the vision for the future and less unity among Palestinian political parties. However, this does not dismiss NGOs and solidarity groups from the responsibility to hold governments and companies accountable for their complicity in Israel’s violations of international law.

A clear, broadly supported Palestinian vision is important to shape the future. It would also provide the answer to the question that solidarity activists often hear: What do Palestinians want, one or two states?

International solidarity to support liberation

The early campaigns in South Africa against unjust apartheid laws of the 1950s were based on the analysis that the masses of the oppressed need to determine themselves the course of their liberation. The 1952 Defiance Campaign sparked off a mass movement of resistance to apartheid. During the campaign, “Non-Europeans” walked through “Europeans Only” entrances and demanded service at “White’s Only” counters of post offices. Black people broke the pass laws and Indian, Coloured and White “volunteers” entered Black townships without permission. The success of the campaign encouraged further campaigns against apartheid laws.

The formation of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) in the 80s also reflected the vision on the role of the masses in the fight for liberation. The MDM was formed to fill a void that was left by the banning of political activity and political formations. It brought together all formations that were opposed to apartheid such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), students’ organizations, women’s organizations, NGOs, civic structures, academic formations, and sympathetic business structures. These were all brought together under the banner of the United Democratic Front (UDF). In 1984, the UDF organized the Million Signature Campaign denouncing apartheid.3Two years later, the largest stay away in South Africa’s history took place. Other actions included a rent boycott in Soweto and a two day strike to protest the exclusion of black people from parliamentary elections. The MDM maintained an internal boycott campaign which inspired international BDS activism.

In the West, anti-apartheid groups organized campaigns on BDS and the release of political prisoners. The groups were able to influence the public opinion by speaking freely about the unjust treatment of black people under apartheid. The groups were not formally linked but met occasionally at international conferences or consultations on specific topics such as sanctions against South Africa. The groups differed in aims and methods but most of all in the context in which they operated.

Most groups tried to build coalitions with trade unions, churches, political parties and youth organizations in order to influence different sectors of society. In the campaigns of the Holland Committee on Southern Africa (HCSA), BDS action went hand in hand with dissemination of  information about ugly apartheid practices and the mobilization of political and material support for the ANC.

Intimidation and propaganda

Pro-South Africa lobby groups and the apartheid regime itself tried to undermine the campaigns for BDS and the release of political prisoners. The HCSA and some of its members received threats on a regular basis just like other anti-apartheid groups. Violent attacks were carried out. Dulcie September, ANC representative in Paris, was shot in front of her office in 1988. She researched the arms trade between France and South Africa. The office of Dutch anti-apartheid group Kairos was bombed in 1989, but fortunately, the damage was limited.

In addition, the South African apartheid regime began a propaganda war using diverted funds of the Ministry of Defense. In the period 1973-1978 about 85 million rand (then 100 million US$) was spent on “buying magazines, newspapers, publishing houses, and film studios in an effort to counter widespread anti-apartheid press coverage with a rosy image of the country.”4 Finance journalists were covertly enticed to write positive articles about South Africa. The Department of Information launched daily newspaper The Citizen and other publications and front organizations such as The Study of Plural Societies and the SA Freedom Foundation. To counteract South Africa’s exclusion from international sport the Bureau of State Security created the Committee for Fairness in Sport.5

BDS campaigns against Israel are also met with resistance, attacks on the integrity of persons and propaganda. Activists should resist attempts to lead them away from their activities in support of the Palestinian people in achieving freedom, equality, the right of return for refugees, and the right to self determination. Ilan Pappe wrote about the intimidation by Zionist lobby groups, “What you learn is that once you cower, you become prey to continued and relentless bashing until you sing the Israeli national anthem. If once you do not cave in, you discover that as time goes by, the ability of Zionist lobbies of intimidation around the world to affect you gradually diminishes.”6

Years of campaigning by anti-apartheid movements revealed the racist character of South Africa to a wide audience. Massive propaganda efforts of the apartheid regime could not rub off this image. The same is true for Israel. Facts about the occupation of Palestine, the practices of apartheid and the treatment of Palestinian political prisoners cannot be hidden. Informing the public about these facts will influence public opinion. It will create a climate where politicians and businesses can be successfully challenged to end their tolerance of Israel’s violations of international law.

International coordination

Coordination with the African National Congress (ANC) and groups fighting apartheid was essential to increase the pressure on the apartheid regime. In many countries, ANC representatives  engaged with solidarity groups to stimulate BDS activism. South Africans who spoke about the deplorable conditions of apartheid made a huge impact on audiences in Europe.

The ANC consistently supported campaigns with public statements, information about companies or requests to companies to withdraw from South Africa. If companies continued business as usual they were confronted with demonstrations in front of their offices or at public locations in South Africa. Support for the international campaign for an oil embargo was shown in a striking manner: the military wing of the ANC set the South Afrcian oil refineries in Sasolburg and Secunda on fire in 1980.  One year later, ANC President Oliver Tambo made the position of the ANC very clear at the International Conference on Sanctions Against South Africa, “Apartheid`s collaborators must be made to realize that they cannot defend racists and claim to be non-racist. They cannot support apartheid and preach freedom.”7

Compared to the  ANC, the PLO has failed to support international BDS activistm. However, many Palestinians and a small group of Israeli’s gave substantial support to BDS campaigns by providing information, documentation, testimonies and by organizing demonstrations. Increasing mobilization  in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel on Palestinian rights issues and the complicity of states and companies will give a boost to international solidarity, just like it did in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

Ending formal apartheid in South Africa

After decades of resistance, the South African apartheid regime arrived at the conclusion that there was no future for apartheid. Decisive factors were the notion that it would be an almost impossible task to continue to control the black South African majority (80% of the population). The deplorable state of the economy was a threat; the international isolation of “white South Africa” and the rising tide of anti-apartheid protest both inside and outside South Africa’s borders made it clear that it was not only morally but also financially and politically impossible to continue the oppression of black South Africans.8 Following years of secret negotiations between the apartheid regime and the ANC, President de Klerk took some bold unilateral moves in 1990 to show that his government was serious about change. Mandela and other political prisoners were released, the ban of the ANC and the Communist Party was lifted, and some apartheid restrictions were lightened. 

In 1985, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was launched in South Africa uniting all unions opposed to apartheid based on the Freedom Charter. I invited Jay Naidoo, founding president of COSATU, to share lessons from the anti-apartheid era with the Palestinians. He replied,

“Real leaders speak the truth to their people. Both the harsh messages of when to compromise, retreat or advance. Mandela once said to angry supporters who were dying from violence orchestrated by covert forces in the apartheid state. ‘One does not negotiate with friends but enemies.’

The only hope is for the next generation to reach out, build bridges and put the past behind without forgetting the brutal lessons it teaches us. In SA, I sat next to Buthelezi who lead a political organization that fought a war with us and even had me on death lists. But we worked together and learnt to respect each others views. I did the same with the then deputy President de Klerk and many former members of the apartheid state. We must learn to build the future and heal the wounds of division sown over the decades and accept that we are all part of one human race. As Gandhi said ‘Become the change you want to see in the world.’ ”

I asked Ghadija Vallie the same question. She acted as coordinator of the Western Cape Relief Fund (WCRF) and was heavily involved in the resistance. The WCRF was founded in 1985 to support the increasing number of political prisoners following the declaration of the State of Emergency to oppress the intensifying resistance. She wrote,

“Someone asked me, ‘yesterday we fought for democracy. Look today, where is democracy?  What did we fight for? The poor are getting poorer, crime is out of control, the freedom fighters are asking for a place in the sun. Every day is like a public holiday in the township. The politicians are only aware of the masses when elections are due.’ My answer, dear comrade, is that we were romantic. We allowed negotiations to happen without our contributions. Now we have to face the demons that haunt us. We should not fret because we are the government! We must take responsibility. Let us make the freedom charter alive. Each one teach one. There shall be jobs for all, comrade. Don’t fret. All is well, we are the government and each person must take responsibility to make the changes within and work with passion and commitment to realize our vision. Stop being a victim, take charge of your life. I know there are a lot of similarities with apartheid in South Africa. Palestinians have a lot to deal with but they have to take charge of their future.”

Responsibility of the West

Fellow activists of the Holland Committee on Southern Africa, Trineke Weijdema and Sietse Bosgra, are now involved in Palestine solidarity work although most people of their age would have retired. Their solidarity activism dates back to Vietnam and the former Portuguese colonies in Africa. They want to share the following,

“Reflecting on our past we see the destructive role of the West – the United States and Europe – serving its self-interest.  Apartheid would have been destroyed much earlier if Western governments had put South Africa under heavy pressure and companies had ended their profitable business with the apartheid regime . It would have saved many lives. Western governments and companies have not learned one thing. Look at what is happening in Palestine. It is our responsibility – the people in the West – to hold governments and companies to account that are complicit in Israel’s violations of international law.”

It is clear that BDS campaigns were effective in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Israel’s reaction of throwing money into propaganda activities is a clear sign that BDS activism is already effective. 

  • 1      http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=72 retrieved 8 January 2012
  • 2   http://www.bdsmovement.net/callRetrieved 8 January 2012)
  • 3    http://www.nelsonmandela.org/udf/index.php/poster/udf_million_signatures_campaign/ retrieved 8 January 2012
  • 4    Sasha Polakow-Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance, Israel’s secret relationship with apartheid South Africa. (New York: Pantheon Books 2010)
  • 5    Bio of Eschel Rhoodie, http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/dr-eschel-mostert-rhoodie retrieved 5 January 2012
  • 6    Ilan Pappe, “Confronting intimidation, working for justice in Palestine”, The Electronic Intifada, 27 December 2011. Retrieved 6 Janyary 2012 http://electronicintifada.net/content/confronting-intimidation-working-justice-palestine/10746
  • 7    http://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/impose-comprehensive-and-mandatory-sanctions-against-south-africa-speech-oliver-tambo-intern Retrieved 8 January 2012
  • 8 See also: Adri Nieuwhof, Bangani Ngeleza and Jeff Handmaker, “Lessons from South Africa for the peace process” (1/2),The Electronic Intifada, Feb 1, 2005 Retrieved 8 January 2012

AUTHOR: Adri Nieuwhof
URL: http://www.samora.org
E-MAIL: a.nieuwhof [at] samora.org


One Response to “Lessons from the South African anti-apartheid struggle”

  1. Sonja
    februari 28th, 2012 @ 18:35

    Thank you very much Adri for this very informative article.

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