In April we, as a nation, celebrated Freedom month which offered us an opportune moment to reflect on our continued struggle for true freedom while this week, at least 58 Palestinians were killed in Gaza and more than 2,700 others wounded by the live ammunition of the Israeli army. In light of the ongoing Palestinian struggle, I am reminded of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s quote about how SA cannot be free without the freedom of the Palestinians, and how apartheid Israel can be defeated just as Apartheid SA was defeated; drawing direct parallels between Israel Apartheid and Apartheid South Africa.
Whatever freedoms we have achieved as South Africans are not isolated from the freedom – or lack thereof – of others around the world. Much like our struggles and hardships were not isolated from the front lines, and from support pouring in from all over the world (even though Apartheid censorship meant we were often ignorant of this), our freedom is tied to everyone’s freedom.
While it’s only human that we identify more with some struggles rather than others, we need to be conscious of who and to what we align ourselves with. Allow me to explain.
It was in my women’s self-defence class that a Coloured Muslim woman brought home to me how we categorise struggles between ‘ours’ and ‘theirs. In-between perfecting punches, she simultaneously argued that black people in South Africa have a sense of entitlement when demanding that their stolen land be returned to them while insisting that Palestinians are justified in demanding the very same. The dissonance appeared to escape her. I then thought back to artist Black Coffee’s response to outrage when he performed in Tel Aviv. He argued that he is not a political party and even if the UN-acknowledged Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people and Palestinian land is unjust, he (as an artist) is entitled to get paid where he performs.
Both these interactions provide telling stories of how Brown South African Muslims and Black South Africans view the Apartheid states of South Africa and the Apartheid state of Israel. Many human rights organisations have noted that the ideology and tactics that fuelled Apartheid South Africa are put to use in Israel against Palestinians in the name of terrorism and security. Both implored the notion of Apartheid -“apartness”. Apartheid South Africa used this notion to separate ‘others’ (Indian, coloured and especially the black majority) from the minority white population. Israel uses this notion to separate ‘others’ (Christian and Muslim Palestinians) from the Zionist settler.
In an attempt to justify the brute force initiated by the Apartheid regime, it aligned itself and was co-opted by the West during the Cold War under the banner of ‘fighting communism’. It claimed that this violence was necessary because the ANC was a radical communist and terrorist group much in the same way ordinary Palestinians, the various liberation organisation and Hamas are painted as a Racial Islamist and terrorist groups. And while there are no saints and clear sinners – there often aren’t in conflicts – the narrative of an Israeli nation under siege from Palestinians and Arab neighbours, the lone democracy in the Middle East, facing terror from forces greater than its own is a false one. Israel is a military might in the region.
Through propaganda-fuelled paranoia that Black South Africans were out to get white people, the Apartheid government forcibly moved, isolated and separated Black South African from economic centres, health care services and denied them their citizenship. The South African government legalised and institutionalised this through the Group Areas Act, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act and the Dompass system. Similarly the Israel state assigned separate roads for Palestinians, destroyed Palestinian homes as well as force Palestinians to carry permits go through multiple check points. They constructed a wall to this same end, bringing back the notion of barriers, physical and symbolic, much like the Berlin Wall which came to stand for communist oppression.
South Africa’s Apartheid and Israel’s current security apparatus are undeniably similar in ideology, construction and technique. So why is it that there is such divisiveness among South African outrage? Why do Muslim people of colour singularly empathise and mobilise for the Palestinian cause but cannot extend the same empathy to Black South Africans who went through Colonialism and Apartheid? Why can Black South African Christians stand by when the teachings of Christ to love thy neighbour are so flagrantly violated there as it was (and still is) here?
Why are there moments of dissonance in these allegiances? Do Muslims in South Africa apply the same outrage when it is Black Muslims who face oppression and injustice? Do we rally for Muslims in the Central African Republic that are being persecuted en masse? Do we rally for black Muslims in South Sudan? Likewise what say Black Christians in South Africa about Israel deporting Rwandan and Eritrean refugees?
Does this dissonance suggest conclusions about our empathy and activism?
I pose these questions to encourage us all, Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, atheists and agnostics and Buddhists and Hindus too, to answer these questions for ourselves and see if they sit well with our vision for our consciousness for humanity. After all, as much as we’re led to believe the Israel-Palestine conflict is religious in nature, it really isn’t.
This selective outrage and activism should create a moment of pause for South Africa. As a nation that has suffered under the oppression and tyranny of English Colonialism and Afrikaaner Christian nationalism, how do we deny Palestinians a chance to escape the tyranny of Zionist Israel oppression?
Does this selective outrage to injustice reflect what our religions, cultures, national histories and shared values teach us? Being racially selective on the part Brown Muslims and being religiously selective on the part of Black Christians does little for the Palestinian struggle and equally does little for the Black South African struggle.
All told, it does very little for every humanitarian cause across the world.
Khadija Bawa is a former intern at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation based in Cape Town, South Africa