The climactic face-off of the 2019 Israeli Apartheid Week at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg took place on a wide, sunny plaza, between a statue dedicated to the millions of anonymous miners who had toiled under inhuman conditions to enrich their white masters and build one of the most fundamentally unequal and oppressive societies on earth, and a tent selling gourmet miniature doughnuts. Here was a psycho-political map of today’s South Africa: a recent and cruel history facing the promise of a normal bourgeois existence, with a bunch of confused or angry or radicalized young people in the middle and the invisible majority busy doing something else.
Apartheid week crescendoed this past April with a shouting match between members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee and the South African Union of Jewish Students in which campus security eventually intervened. A photo of Israeli activist Ashager Araro facing down an irate PSCer captured the weirdness of the scene, with convulsive, finger-wagging anger directed at a young Israeli Ethiopian woman amid signs with pink hearts and the words UNITY WINS. “Classic Thursday,” a SAUJS supporter remarked to me, offering this verbal eye roll as matters escalated. IAW always ends like this.
The week-long anti-Israel event is almost never incident-free at Wits. In previous years, a microphone cable had been cut while an Arab speaker from Israel addressed a SAUJS counterevent. Pro-Palestine activists have goose-stepped past the SAUJS tent; last year’s furor was over PSC-sponsored posters of Anne Frank wearing a keffiyeh. Everyone seems to agree that the PSC went a little too far in hanging black mannequins from trees during IAW in 2016, but it’s not so great the rest of the year, either. In 2013, pro-BDS protesters disrupting a concert by an Israeli jazz group on campus broke into a rousing chorus of “Shoot the Jew.”
The seeds of this year’s confrontation were sewn about 20 minutes earlier, as a couple hundred students gathered in a green oval in front of the science buildings on West Campus, where a facsimile of the West Bank security barrier and a banner reading “AMANDLA-INTIFADA” announced IAW’s home base. “Amandla” is an Nguni word meaning “power,” and was a rallying cry during the struggle against the apartheid regime; a nearby display showed parallel photos of wounded children being carried through smoke-filled streets, labeled: 1976, Soweto, South Africa; and 2014, Gaza, Palestine. Keffiyehs and hijabs dotted the multiracial crowd, which included a woman wearing modish earrings, face-sized sunglasses, and a neon-pink shirt reading, “The World Defeated Nazism. The World Defeated Apartheid. The World Will Defeat Zionism” in red lettering.
“Peace always comes at someone’s cost for some reason,” said a young woman in a colorful sash and headdress, a PSC leader named Nonkululeko Mntambo. Up a long flight of stairs, outside the mining school, SAUJS was throwing what they had billed as a unity rally with a local DJ. “I wish I didn’t have struggle songs playing in my head,” Mntambo intoned, radiating absolute seriousness. “I wish that peace didn’t come at the expense of Palestinian lives—of black lives, yours and mine.”
Another speaker read a statement from the Student Representative Council endorsing IAW and supporting its aims. An alliance led by the ruling African National Congress holds a supermajority on the council (student government representatives in South Africa affiliate with national parties); the header image of the SRC Twitter account shows 12 of its 14 members wearing keffiyehs.
Despite this official sanction the students didn’t feel as if their concerns, about Palestine or any other topic, were really being heard. “These are the people … at the back foot of this university for all too long,” Mntambo said, presumably in reference to her audience and the people they believed they were helping. “But you are the historical thing that is sung of. The struggle continues insofar as you are here, insofar as you breathe.”
The few hundred young people standing in the oval stood listening to Mntambo in spellbound silence. They had shouldered a historic mission on behalf of Palestine and Wits and all of South Africa, one that continued what previous generations had fought for. “You are the thing that is coming. You are the ancestors’ wildest dreams. I want you to remember who you are in the struggle, for Palestinian people and for yourselves. Because there is nothing coming after you.” Clouds of red, black, and white balloons floated into the sky.
Before IAW every year, the sides agree to rules of engagement that in theory ban them from approaching the other organizations’ spaces. For years, the PSC and SAUJS would face each other from across the Great Hall’s front steps; now, they’re limited to sites several hundred yards from one another. But the issue of Palestine was so morally urgent that the activists would not allow such niceties to constrain them. “Now we will be engaging some of our counterparts,” the rally’s final speaker said as the crowd began heading towards the mining school.
Up until that 300-yard march, IAW 2019 had been a nonevent across seemingly the whole of South Africa. I had spent much of the week at the University of Cape Town, where SAUJS was encamped at the top of Jammie Plaza, in the middle of which sat the Palestine Solidarity Forum’s plywood apartheid wall, which went largely unmanned all week—at one point, their Facebook account tried to recruit volunteers to help repaint it. “You’ve come in the wrong year,” a member of the PSF told me. “There’s been some excellent vitriol in recent years.”
UCT’s campus is an ivy-blanketed marvel of 19th-century neoclassical symmetry tucked on a ledge below the cloud-sheathed escarpment of Table Mountain, a rocky plateau greened with the most diverse plant life in the entire world. While not absorbed in the mind-boggling beauty or craning for views of the equidistant Atlantic and Indian oceans—or when not regretting coming to Cape Town for reasons other than cycling around the Cape of Good Hope for a month or two, or maybe just permanently moving there—a visitor notices a diverse and driven student population darting to science labs and lecture halls. UCT is a vision of South Africa’s end of history: people of all races reclaiming an institution that racists had built, in a setting so weighted that it seemed to elevate everything that happens there.
One reason IAW has been so bitterly fought over the years, and one reason Israel-related issues resonate so much in South Africa, is that this image of the present is widely held to be a lie. Both UCT and Wits are islands of privilege and functionality that present what many students understand to be a warped picture of life in their country—although these places are also believed to reflect and reproduce the country’s broader edifice of inequality which endures a quarter century after the fall of the apartheid regime. Much of South Africa’s post-1994 coherency comes from a national myth of racial reconciliation whose hold has grown progressively weaker, especially among the young. For South Africa’s ruling class, Israel represents a lingering connection to a past moral authority; to campus activists, it’s an avenue toward reclaiming a promise that the previous generation squandered. IAW in South Africa is among the world’s more vivid examples of how disputes over Israel are inevitably local in character, and of how fracturing societies eventually scapegoat Jews.
Today, hardly anyone is satisfied with the way things are going in South Africa. A significant minority, which includes nearly all white people along with a sizable number of Asians and blacks—call it 15%-20% of the country in total—live in a more interesting and more affordable version of California or southern France except with better scenery and better wine; the almost entirely black remainder of the population subsists in poverty and squalor.
The functional top sliver of South Africa is itself a mess. The presidency of Jacob Zuma, spanning from 2009 until early 2018, was a kleptocratic orgy for the country’s governing class. State entities were ransacked, public services rotted; some $17 billion in looted public resources left for bank accounts in Switzerland, Dubai, and other financial havens. Power cuts are now routine occurrences in most major cities. Crime is out of control to the point where the army was recently dispatched to fight gangs in the impoverished Cape Flats, affluent neighborhoods are laced in electrical fencing and crawling with armed private security guards in SUVs. The unemployment rate for young college graduates stands at 31% and the rand lost nearly a third of its value over the course of 2018. Economic growth has been stagnant since 2015.
As for everyone below that top sliver, “[t]here’s nothing called inequality in South Africa—there is poverty,” said Mcebo Dlamini, a leader of the Fees Must Fall student uprising who has been discussed as a candidate to lead the ANC Youth League. “Black people are poor as fuck. They don’t have anything. They don’t own shit.”
To its critics, the 1994 agreement that ended apartheid replaced the political system without changing much else. “Young people’s involvement in politics has shown there’s an investment in wanting to see a different society,” says Alex, an anti-Israel activist at UCT who wouldn’t give her last name, since she hopes to travel to Israeli-controlled territory at some point in the near future. “It’s going to questions of liberation … it stems from the frustration of young people around what we’ve been sold of this Rainbow Nation dream—it’s just bullshit.”
For Luba Mayakiso, IAW and the apartheid analogy endure because South Africans of all ages are still unsure how to process their own painful and recent history—and what mode of living, if any, the crimes of the past should mandate. “Black South Africans have not come to peace entirely with their own experiences through apartheid,” Mayakiso said. “When we look at Israel, we see the situation through the filter of our own suffering and it clouds what we see.”
Mayakiso had been one of the first black students at St. George’s school in Cape Town—in the mid-1980s, a time when he still couldn’t ride in certain trains cars, sports referees would only speak to him in Afrikaans and racial slurs from his fellow students were commonplace. Later, he became a banker, religious lay leader, and pro-Israel advocate, drawn to the topic through his Christian religious belief and friendships with Cape Town Jews, along with a sense that anti-Israel hostility masked deeper fissures in the national psyche. “I think if we were able to find closure with apartheid and what we suffered, we’d then be able to look at this situation more pragmatically in the cold light of day,” he told me. “We haven’t made peace with our own suffering here.”
A few days before the beginning of IAW, UCT had narrowly opted not to become the world’s first major institute of higher learning to implement a boycott of Israel. UCT, which is home to a branch of the Chinese government’s Confucius Institute, has no exchange programs or official relationships with any Israeli universities–but that hasn’t stopped campus activists and allied faculty from pushing for a boycott. A decision to punt on the issue came during a meeting of the 30-member University Council held the Saturday afternoon before IAW, causing the country’s Jewish leadership to breathe a sigh of relief. “If the university system fails, our kids will go somewhere else,” said Benji Shulman, director of the South African Israel Forum. “If they go somewhere else, they’re not going to come back.”
Yet for all the febrile, obsessive anti-Israel campaigning on elite campuses, most of South Africa’s 70,000 Jews otherwise experience almost no overt anti-Semitism. “The way anti-Semitism operates in South Africa is that it’s almost exclusively an elite phenomenon,” Shulman explained. The same goes for hostility toward Israel. A 2017 survey conducted by the Kaplan Center for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town found that 72% of respondents had never heard about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Seven percent blamed the Palestinians or the Arab states for the situation, while 9% blamed either Israel or the United States—each allegedly guilty party trailed “don’t know,” which boasted 11%. Some 76% of respondents were not familiar with the term “Zionism.”
South Africa is 80% Christian, with millions following “charismatic Churches” that support Israel for religious reasons, which might explain why public opinion is surprisingly even in a country believed to be among the most anti-Israel in the democratic world. South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, also has an influential Muslim community, which could explain why there’s even 9% opposition to Israel in the first place. But the most important finding from the Kaplan study is that most South Africans simply don’t care. Klaas Mokgomole, a former BDS activist whom I met in Johannesburg, estimated that no more than 5% of the student population at Wits had any real participation on either side of IAW even during the event’s most intense years.
BDS in South Africa, as elsewhere, is very much an elite-driven, top-down enterprise. The current spokesperson for BDS South Africa is Tiesto Magama, a former senior ANC parliamentarian and the one-time head of the body’s international affairs committee. One of the country’s most prominent anti-Israel figures is Mandla Mandela, Nelson’s grandson; back in April, South Africa’s foreign minister was Lindiwe Sisulu, an apparent supporter of reducing diplomatic ties with Israel and the daughter of the ANC icon Walter Sisulu.
Yet even in South Africa, a country often touted as the example of how economic pressure can topple human-rights-abusing regimes, there have been no significant BDS wins—a high-profile mid-2010s campaign urging Woolworths to stop stocking Israeli tomatoes ended in failure. While reducing the South African diplomatic mission in Israel to a “liaison office” is an official policy of the ruling African National Congress, mandated during a highly opaque party conference in late 2017, no one knows when or if the downgrade will ever happen. Though it has few actual victories, South Africa’s BDS has still proven itself effective at motivating young university activists and influencing the country’s senior political leadership—thereby establishing itself as an article of faith among a significant faction of the country’s ruling party, the ANC.
Mokgomole had been involved in the ANC Youth League since he was 16. When he arrived at Wits, he joined the student union, which is how he became part of the 27% of South Africans who knew anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “BDS came to us and presented issues in Middle East: They’d show babies dying in Gaza, schools getting bombed. I went, wow,” he said, miming his astonishment at these atrocities. The presentation had its intended effect: “We took a resolution to boycott anything Israeli-related on campus.” Later that year, in 2013, Mokgomole was one of 11 students who faced expulsion from Wits after disrupting an Israeli pianist’s performance.
Over the next year, he realized just how little he knew about the faraway conflict for which he had apparently sacrificed his education. “In 2014 I started realizing a number of things. I’m from a village, my parents are unemployed. I’m an activist but I joined the struggle of the Middle East that I didn’t know much about. So I asked myself: Why did I join this thing?” Mokgomole realized he didn’t have a convincing answer.
Jews have always faced the question of how they should relate to societies, but South Africa has a way of making matters of identity starker and more urgent than elsewhere.
In its outreach to activists, South Africa’s BDS movement generally avoids the specifics of the issue at hand. One of the movement’s most effective propaganda tools is a video called Palestine 101, which viewers describe as being almost unwatchably gruesome. “It’s a reflection of Syria right now, a David versus Goliath scenario,” Justice Nkomo, another ANC Youth Leaguer and former BDS activist, said during a SAUJS-sponsored Apartheid Week talk at UCT. It is not the only such film that the South African BDS movement uses to win converts. Mayekiso told me that he had recently met with two former senior officials in South Africa’s foreign ministry and began discussing Israel with one of them. “Immediately I realized that he’d watched the World Council of Churches recruitment video—he was talking about homes being demolished and Jewish kids in South Africa donating money for trees to be planted in Israel.”
BDS’ real achievement is changing the parameters of South African public discourse in a way that seems aimed in some large part at discomfiting the local Jewish community. The near-boycott at UCT, arrived at through a series of procedural workarounds and an activist hijacking of the university’s Academic Freedom Committee was one of several recent episodes showing how creepily obsessed South African society had become with Jewish and Israel-related matters. Conjuring this obsession has been the BDS movement’s defining victory in South Africa so far.
In 2016, a Jewish day school purchased a disused property in Sea View from the Western Cape provincial government. This obscure local land deal soon became a national controversy, with activists picketing and suing to halt the sale. The aforementioned Lindiwe Sisulu, then the national housing minister, took the Western Cape government to court. ANC members of the Western Cape provincial legislature accused the Democratic Alliance of manufacturing the city’s 2018 water crisis in order to satisfy the “Jewish mafia” that supposedly controls the party. In November of last year, Stellenbosch University removed the names of all Israelis and a moderate Palestinian professor from a program for a conference on historical trauma amid BDS pressure, leading all of them to pull out of the event.
On even less sophisticated levels, the point of the campus BDS movement in South Africa appears to be the licensing of open anti-Semitic aggression and intimidation toward Jews and anyone who might associate with them too closely. A photo of the provincial chairman of the ANC-affiliated Congress of South African Students posing with a pig’s head in the kosher section of a Cape Town Woolworths went viral in 2014. In 2015, Mcebo Dlamini, who correctly noted earlier in this article that South Africa’s black people were “poor as fuck” and who was then the elected head of the Wits student body, praised Adolf Hitler for his prolific murder of white people (remarks for which, it should be noted, he has since apologized). In one of the stranger and most public of South Africa’s recent Jewish or Israel-related controversies, the country’s BDS movement hauled supermodel Sashi Naidoo before a nationally televised press conference in the summer of 2018 to pledge fealty to them. Her crime: Writing derogatorily about Gaza in a social media post defending herself for posing for a picture with a South African musician who had performed in Israel. “It was as if there was no other news in South Africa that week,” a member of the Johannesburg Jewish community recalled to me.
The ANC seems happy to damage the country’s economy in order to enforce the idea that Israel is bad. An Israeli company’s purchase of a leading South African milk producer has been in a protracted diplomatic limbo—thanks to the opposition of the ANC-linked Congress of South African Trade Unions and the ANC Youth League, among others—even though the deal would have injected billions into the country’s flagging economy. The ANC has also actively explored stripping South Africans of their citizenship if they ever serve in the IDF, while considering no equivalent move for any other group of people.
“Dozens and dozens of politicians, people from the top sweeping all the way down to the local traffic cop—everyone’s been stealing money, the country’s bankrupt, and here we are worrying about Israel,” said Michael Bagraim, a Jewish MP for the opposition Democratic Alliance who has led parliamentary delegations to Israel. “We’re falling down the death spiral. We’ve got real issues. And I think our issues are bigger than Israel’s issues and quite frankly Israel be damned, it’s got nothing to do with us.”
Jews have always faced the question of how they should relate to societies in which they are a small and often-imperiled minority, but South Africa has a way of making matters of identity starker and more urgent than elsewhere. Jews were classified as white under apartheid. This, along with the Israeli government’s alliance with the apartheid regime in the 1970s and ’80s, makes it easy to cast present-day South African Jews as proponents of a system elsewhere that favors their own people by oppressing other races or ethnicities—and for blacks to thereby inhabit the roles that their parents had filled in an earlier struggle.
“It’s hard for any white person to argue with a black person about apartheid,” said Mokgomole. “White people don’t understand apartheid the way we understand apartheid.”
The apartheid analogy cannily ensures that South African debates about Israel are fought on the battlefield of black pain, a topic on which almost no white person may claim any real moral authority. This gets at the inherently fraught position of South African Jews, an incredibly successful and comfortable but very small minority group that lives in a chronically dysfunctional country in which powerful people frequently compare a core part of their identity to the worst possible evil.
The majority of South African Jews trace their ancestry to immigrants from Lithuania, who began arriving around the turn of the century. By 1945, 90% of the Jews who stayed in Lithuania had perished in the Holocaust. “This wasn’t just a number for them: They’d been intimately connected to the people killed,” noted Milton Shain, professor emeritus at UCT and former director of the Kaplan Center. This might explain why South Africans were so overrepresented in the Palmach’s combat forces, and why they were largely responsible for organizing the Jewish State’s nascent air force during the 1948 war. Bagraim remembered his mother selling her jewelry to help support Israel in the run-up to the Six-Day War, when it seemed as if the Jewish state was weeks away from destruction. “You’ll find a lot of South Africans did that,” he added.
One of the more compelling explanations for the South African community’s historically strong support for Israel has to do with the oddity of the community’s existence, along with the sheltering and nurturing effects of the society’s racism. South Africa has perhaps the most physically isolated large group of Jews on earth—aside from the other city, Johannesburg and Cape Town have the only kosher shawarma for thousands of miles in any direction. South Africa’s Zionist federation is older than the country’s Jewish Board of Deputies; Weizmann and Jabotinsky both visited. “In 1917, the entire white South African political spectrum was supportive of Zionism,” explained Adam Mendelsohn, a historian and the current director of the Kaplan Center at UCT. Many Afrikaners, including the influential statesman Jan Smuts, were essentially Christian Zionists; meanwhile, Anglo-South Africans supported the Balfour Declaration as imperial policy. Decades later, the first foreign head of state to visit Israel was D.F. Malan, one of the visionaries of apartheid. Malan also wrote the forward to The Birth of a Community, a 1955 history of Cape Town’s Jews written by Chief Rabbi Israel Abrahams. “[Malan] saw Jews as a model of survival to be emulated by the Afrikaners,” explained Shain.
Still, the Jews were not always so beloved or so comfortable. Anti-British Afrikaner nationalists nearly voted to ally South Africa with Nazi Germany during WWII. The British didn’t have a clean record either. A 1903 immigration restriction law banned all immigrants who did not speak European languages—Yiddish was only included among them after outcry from South Africa’s Jews. The 1937 Aliens Act banned nearly all immigration by Jews fleeing the Nazis, a cruelty the community did not forget over the coming decades.
The result of this strange and menacing combination of privileges, isolation, threats, and insults is that South Africa’s Jews have built one of the strongest and most self-sufficient Jewish communities in the world outside Israel. As Cape Jewish Board of Deputies Director Stuart Diamond explained, South African Jews “built a cradle-to-grave community. If you fall on hard times or need support or you need a place to stay; if you’re handicapped, or elderly, you will be helped. If your children need a Jewish education, they’ll get it.” Sea Point, in Cape Town, might be the most pleasant Jewish neighborhood in the entire world—the food market at Mojo Hotel has three kosher options, all of which are excellent. Some 85% of South African Jewish children attend day schools; youth movement participation and even synagogue attendance remain strong. The isolation and small size, with around 13,000 in Cape Town, 55,000 in Johannesburg, and 3,000 in Pretoria, breeds a sense of cohesion. “Sometimes it’s good to be the outsider,” said Howard Feldman, a columnist for the Jewish Reporter. “I think you count here. I think people know that they count.”
Maybe South Africa’s Jews became too excellent at fending for themselves. Over time, the Jews “built a laager around themselves,” as Diamond explained, using a Dutch word for a defensive wagon circle—specifically of the kind used during Boer domination of the interior in the early 19th century. Apartheid is one reason the laager became so strong. While Jews couldn’t really partake in the Afrikaner project, they had unlimited space to build their own communities within the space that was legally defined as “white.” Mitchel Joffe Hunter, a graduate student at the University of the Western Cape researching the Jewish community’s “history of complicity with unjust power dynamics,” says that even today, South African day school students tend to grow up in a “bubble of white Jews,” and might not engage with black people “as equals” until they’re in college. “That’s ridiculous. Whites are 7% of the population. … There’s something wrong there.”
In the 1970s, Israel, which had lost its former African allies to the Soviet sphere of influence and was then at its most internationally isolated, grew closer to South Africa. Pretoria had other, more important economic and political allies—some 9 million tons of oil from the Islamic Republic of Iran made its way to South Africa between 1979 and 1987. But the alliance meant that Zionism’s status as the civil religion of South African Jews never faced any serious challenge during that time. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, which is not an activist organization, and which represented a small and historically persecuted minority living in a police state, did not condemn apartheid until 1985.
At the same time, every white person arrested with Nelson Mandela in Rivonia was Jewish, as were nearly all of the lawyers that represented the captured ANC leaders in the ensuing trial. ANC icons, including Joe Slovo and Ronnie Kastrils, both senior commanders in the ANC’s armed wing who became government ministers after the fall of the regime, were Jewish anti-Zionists. Arthur Goldreich, an artist and ANC leader, fought for the Palmach in 1948 and eventually fled to Israel after escaping from a South African prison in the 60s. The country’s Jews tended to vote for the Progressive Party of the apartheid opponent Helen Suzman, who was herself Jewish.
Nor was the Jewish laager especially unique within South Africa. South African society is dotted with national, linguistic, and religious enclaves. Explicitly identitarian parties like the Afrikaner Freedom Front-Plus, the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, and Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters all surged in last May’s general election at the expense of the comparatively broad-based ANC and Democratic Alliance.
When he was head of the Kaplan Center, Shain, who is now in his 70s and considered one of the country’s leading Jewish scholars, oversaw surveys of South African Jewish communal attitudes. He recalled a 2005 study showing that a quarter of the country’s Jews expected to emigrate within the next five years. The vast majority ended up staying, as bore out in the next survey. “People adjusted and they weren’t leaving. But I think it’s different today.” The country’s current Jewish population is down from the 118,000 who lived there in 1970, and aliya has notably increased over the last two years, according to Rowan Polovin, head of the Zionist Federation in Cape Town.
Shain and I met at a cafe on Beach Road. Out of one window, you could see the Atlantic Ocean crashing across the street; out of another, the amber dome of Lion’s Head peak towered over the nearby Green Point golf course. This paradise was just a 10-minute drive from downtown Cape Town. In South Africa, it is common to discuss the supposedly catastrophic state of things amid comfort and splendor. The disconnect can be head-spinning: In Johannesburg, the high-speed Gautrain, built for the 2010 World Cup, cannons past the Alexandra slum, which is itself across the highway from Sandton, Africa’s wealthiest square mile. It is a country rich in every conceivable resource where almost no one feels fully secure. I asked Shain whether he was optimistic about the future of South Africa’s Jews. He thought for a moment. “I think at the moment I’m pessimistic about the future of the country, full stop.”
Justice Nkomo, an ANC Youth League activist and former BDSer, spoke at a lecture hall at UCT the Wednesday afternoon of IAW, as part of a series of counterevents that SAUJS had organized. Like Mogkomole, he was one of the students punished over the protest at Wits—both had moderated their views after being taken on a South African Israel Forum-organized trip to the Jewish state. Four of the so-called Wits 11 have now traveled to Israel, Mokgomole said, along with perhaps a half-dozen others involved in the 2013 concert disruption. None had returned to BDS activism.
Nkomo was a vehement public speaker, charismatic even in voicing his ambivalence toward the entire topic. “If you are really going to take a side, the least you can do is have a better, in-depth understanding,” he said, explaining why he’d agreed to go to a country he once despised. He recalled the shock of going straight from Ben-Gurion airport to Ramallah. “There was no war zone. I said: ‘I don’t understand. There’s no war zone!’ This is not what I saw.”
A young man in the front row stood up at the beginning of the question-and-answer session. He wore a keffiyeh and a #boycottapartheidIsrael T-shirt. “It’s quite sad, comrade, that you would accept money from a particular lobby group to undermine the movement,” he declared, his voice remaining perfectly level and calm. “The movement,” in this case, was the ANC. The denunciation continued: “How much money are you receiving, chief? Why are you still a member of the ANC? At the ANC national conference, what were the resolutions you contradicted? It’s sad you’ve degenerated into the kind of person you are.” He claimed Nkomo had been expelled from the ANC Youth League and kicked off the party’s candidate list for the Gauteng provincial legislature.
“This is a scare tactic,” Nkomo responded, a smile spreading as his antagonist whipped out his phone and began recording. “I’m glad this is happening. In the ANC, we debate.” Afterward, Nkomo told me this sort of thing was pretty typical, and assured me he hadn’t been expelled from anything. “I’ve been interrupting events since I was still young. So I know these things, trust me,” he said. “You dislodge the speaker. It works sometimes, depending on who the speaker is.”
In a place of widespread anxiety and social fracturing, hostility toward a tiny, faraway country is a source of potential meaning and coherence. The ANC’s anti-Israel ideology still has plenty of noncynical reasons behind it, though. The ANC is a rarity in the democratic world: A former leftist liberation movement and militant group that transformed itself into a mainstream elected governing party. Hostility toward Israel, as well as the Russia-, Cuba-, China-, Venezuela- and Iran-friendly Cold War-type foreign policy that the ANC generally follows, are some of the party’s last authentic connections to its pre-1994 self, before it was generally regarded as a corrupt disappointment.
The person who confronted Nkomo was an international relations graduate student and ANC Youth League leader at UCT named Lwazi Somya. “The ANC holds itself as a broad church, which means that it accommodates everyone within society,” he explained. “However the ANC takes a principled position in support of oppressed people of the world. The Non-Aligned Movement, which is a global entity of third-world states, states two major struggles against colonialism. One is freedom of Palestinians. The other is freedom of the people of Western Sahara.”
It was strange to hear anyone speaking about the Non-Aligned Movement in 2019, or to describe a political organization as a “broad church” while demanding absolute loyalty to its party line. He wore a red pair of Volcano noise-canceling headphones, which were incongruent with the 1970s leftist rhetoric of their owner. The venom toward Israel plowed through all contradictions: The country had “created a de facto one-state solution through repression, dispossession, and murder and ethnic cleansing,” Somya said.
What precisely do South Africans mean when they accuse Israel of being an apartheid state? When Klaas Mogkomole arrived at Ben-Gurion airport in 2015, he said he asked a security guard whether black people were allowed to use the bathroom in the baggage claim area.
Knowing nothing about the Middle East, a faraway place of minimal relevance to their daily lives, South Africans who hear the ubiquitous phrase “apartheid Israel” naturally believe Palestinians are facing exactly what their people had faced. “There is no black person who wants anyone in the world to suffer apartheid,” says Mogkomole. “It’s like if Jewish people find out there’s a Holocaust happening anywhere in the world, even if it’s not Jewish people going through it.” Klaas’ name is just one small example of how fully the system hijacked the psychology of its victims: His parents gave him a white name simply because they had a white employer. “My parents don’t know the meaning of Klaas,” he said.
“Apartheid was a devil—devil’s work,” said Nkomo. “According to apartheid we didn’t even have the right to breathe … for us it is the worst atrocity that can ever be enforced upon any person. My people were killed for being my people.” Nkomo had been expecting to find something matching this description when he went to Israel. He said he had been “terrified” to go to the country and was shocked to find that on the Hebrew University campus “everybody was minding their own business.”
Every anti-Israel activist I spoke to in South Africa clarified that the apartheid comparison is not meant to be an entirely literal one. “What the analogy draws on is a state political, economic, and social system based on a racial hierarchy with a minority settler population and an oppressed majority that is from that area,” Mitchel Joffe Hunter, who is part of a small yet growing cohort of young South African Jewish BDS activists, explained. “Calling Israel an apartheid state is an attack on the state,” Hunter said, “but it’s not an attack on Jewish people or the idea that Jews should be allowed to live in Palestine. It’s an attack on the form of government.”
The analogy is superficially convincing. Israel is indeed an ethno-national state, founded as the result of mass migration that Ottoman and later British imperialists had enabled at certain times. Yet leaving aside the historically verifiable Jewish claims to aboriginal status in the region—a hard ask, since the 3,000-year-old Jewish connection to the land is arguably at the heart of Zionism—apartheid had a clear racial end-state. The aim of Zionism was to assert the national rights of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland; in contrast, the aim of apartheid was to solve the “problem” of black people vastly outnumbering immigrant European whites and their descendants, many of whom had no ancestral or cultural ties to Africa whatsoever.
The apartheid regime in South Africa expelled 3.5 million nonwhite South Africans from their homes between 1950 and 1982 for no other reason than the demented dream of a country without any black people in it. The official tool to realize this dream was a police state that criminalized dissent and ruthlessly persecuted internal critics. Black people were banned not just from elected office but from beaches and park benches; they had separate schools and hospitals and sports stadiums. Society was reconstructed at gunpoint so that the black population could be kept as supine, ignorant, and exploitable as possible.
Israel’s leaders harbored no equivalent ambitions. In late 1947, the country’s founders acceded to controlling a fraction of the territory assigned to them at the San Remo Conference and by the League of Nations mandate that had demarcated Palestine as a Jewish state after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. In the 1980s, ’90s, and 2000s, their successors gave up land won in defensive wars that was many times larger than Israel itself. Modern Israel is a multiracial democracy where Arab Israelis are free to write and say whatever they want. They vote in elections and serve in the country’s parliament and Supreme Court—and increasingly, in the army. Even without the Middle East conflict’s religious dimension, Israel and South Africa would still be very different countries with very different histories—just as both states are distinct from other ethno-national democratic states like Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Hungary.
Maybe the details just aren’t that important. As Mogkomole explained, post-apartheid South African identity is rooted in a centuries-long history of struggle, and in striving for some possible better world on behalf of oppressed peoples in their own country and beyond. “We feel like every generation has a duty to fulfill. You fulfill it or you betray that mandate,” he said. “There’s the mandate to stop apartheid in the Middle East. We fulfill it, or we betray it.”
Mokgomole showed me around the Wits campus: Like at UCT, the university is centered around a green colonnaded plaza that might have been imported from Northern California. As we walked downhill from the Great Hall, someone shouted from far up ahead of us. “It’s the black Jew!” a lanky man in his early 30s shouted at Mokgomole. “What’s up, rabbi?” We all exchanged pleasantries, since this was the kind of greeting you couldn’t just ignore.
“That’s the guy who praised Hitler,” Mokgomole said, after we were a safe distance behind him. I had just shook hands with Mceba Dlamini, one of the most divisive leaders of Fees Must Fall, an unabashed radical who had set South Africa’s campuses on fire.
Fees Must Fall was a nationwide student uprising that began at Wits in response to an announced 10.5% tuition increase in October of 2015. With Dlamini taking the lead, it took students just a few days to blockade the campus, temporarily forbidding anyone from entering or leaving. “Most of the challenges that we were facing here were black challenges, and they were mostly faced by black students,” Dlamini explained when I met him a week after our surprise run-in. For Dlamini, who spoke to me as if he were orating before a crowd of thousands, the universities, which had been founded as exclusively white institutions, “remained as racist as they were before there was democracy. But the racism now is institutionalized. You can’t see it with your naked eyes. You can only feel it.”
Participants remember the fall of 2015 as a romantic struggle against wrongs that were obvious to anyone, and that had become correctable only through the students’ force of will. “It came out of 10 years of marches at lunchtime, where we would submit a petition and nothing happened,” said Jaffe, who participated in the protests when he was a Wits undergraduate. On October 23rd, less than two weeks after the first protest, Jacob Zuma announced the fee increase would be repealed. The weeks dragged on. Exams were canceled; hundreds of students were arrested; protesters clashed with police in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria; pressure for compromise built. The protests became increasingly violent and chaotic. A lecture hall was burned at the University of Johannesburg; protesters injured security guards at UCT and Wits. Some $59 million in damages resulted from the unrest. The protests returned in a different, more divisive form in 2016—the movement became angrier and narrower, and the security response became more heavy-handed.
“Fees Must Fall brought back black pride. It brought back black power,” Dlamini proudly exclaimed to me, which to some is an accurate assessment of why the movement fizzled. Universities around the country upgraded their security systems, installing biometric entrances and other obstacles to potential organizers. Leaders of the movement were suspended, expelled, or slapped with criminal charges. Dlamini had a court date later the week we met. By the spring of 2019, Fees Must Fall, along with anger and fear for the country’s future that the movement had harnessed, belonged to a history both recent and disquietingly distant—at least until the Thursday of Israel Apartheid Week.
SAUJS’ strategy for IAW Thursday was to throw a blandly nonpolitical-seeming event, with a DJ and T-shirts that depicted a dove soaring over the words “#Noplaceforhate” inside of an outline of the African continent. Although no one said this out loud, the idea was for SAUJS to appear as unobjectionable as possible in the expectation pro-Palestine activists would violate the rules of engagement, as they did every year. “The only thing the PSC could possibly come here with is hate,” said Deena Katzen, the SAUJS chair. “If they’re coming to protest unity that is just ridiculous, so I’m not concerned.”
The groups formed battle lines as the dance party awkwardly continued in the background, although soon even the dancing halted. A few of the PSCers wandered into the SAUJS tent in search of respectful opposition, but they were in the minority. The rapidly forming trenches of students shouting at each other soon discovered a single thing to shout about: The presence of Ashager Araro, a young Ethiopian Israeli woman whom the Zionist activist group StandWithUs had brought in as a speaker for IAW counterevents.
“This woman is a trained soldier and I feel very threatened!” one PSC activist screamed, an accusation that any Israeli who had served in the IDF was a threat to public safety until proven otherwise. “Leave this strong lady out of this!” yelled one SAUJS supporter.
Security arrived within moments. One PSC activist bellowed his lungs out at Araro while two officers restrained him. “Where’s our freedom of expression?” one activist yelled. “People are dying in Palestine!”
More cries rang went out: “Why did you bring a soldier?” “Why do you support terrorism?” “We are faced with injustice and we’re supposed to hold hands and sing kumbaya?” “I’ve showed you she is a soldier. Take her away. You must take her away, it will calm the whole situation down.” “Take away the woman with blood on her hands!”
“You support Hamas!” someone alleged. “I do support Hamas! I do support the Islamic resistance!” bellowed the student who had been struggling against security moments earlier.
“It’s always the same,” a recent Wits graduate told me as things devolved. “It’s a great spectator event. Everyone loves it.”
One of the few who accorded themselves admirably was a tall young man in a kippah, surrounded at all times by at least a half-dozen antagonists. He never raised his voice above a quieter-than-indoor volume, whether he was explaining the finer points of the Camp David treaty or the origin of Israel’s control over the Golan Heights. It was a rare performance in the annals of campus Israel-Palestine politics, one person whispering to opponents who could only scream.
“At the end of the day you’re talking to another person,” the student, a Wits undergraduate named Ziev Shani, later explained to me. “You’re not talking to their viewpoint, you’re talking to the person who has the viewpoint.” Ironically, IAW explained why he could stand his ground so effectively. “It pushes us to come together, and engage people we wouldn’t otherwise,” he said, adding, “but in no way does that make it a week we would love to occur.”
For a time, Shani faced Nonkululeko Mntambo, the headline speaker from the IAW rally, in intense yet measured argument. Mntambo said she understood that Zionism was central to many Jews’ identity, but this recognition was not offered in a spirit of reconciliation. “I believe the thing that makes you who you are is murderous,” Mntambo said. “There’s no middle way.”
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.