“It is our duty as South Africans to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people” – Conversation with Suraya Dadoo & Muhammed Desai

Recorded 23/03/2014

LMaDO talks to Suraya Dado, researcher for Media Review Network and co-author with Firoz Osman of the newly released book “Why Israel? The Anatomy of Zionist Apartheid – A South African Perspective” & Muhammed Desai of BDS South Africa about Israeli Apartheid Week that took place last week in South Africa.

Frank Barat for LMADO: Muhammed Desai from BDS South Africa and Suraya Dadoo from Media Review Network joining us today from Johannesburg in South Africa. Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) ended last week in South Africa, and we are going to talk about this. And we are also going to talk about the broader Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and broader solidarity work in South Africa and the newly- released book by Suraya Dadoo and Firoz Osman called Why Israel? The Anatomy of Zionist Apartheid: A South African Perspective. So to start with you Muhammed. As I just said IAW South Africa ended last week. Can you tell us was it a success, in your opinion?

Muhammed Desai (MD): Absolutely. It was phenomenally successful. If you just consider the sheer size of the campaign. We had over 77 South African organisations, ranging from the ruling party (the African National Congress) to the South African Council of Churches and several other sporting, student and civil society groups that endorsed, and actively backed, and participated in the campaign. On the one end you had a large number of organisations participating, and this translated into a number of people – a mass number of people at our events.

For example, some events had over a thousand, 1500-200 people attending. You had debates where you had 200-500 people that came out to listen to the debates. They were very well-attended debates in terms of numbers. [This is] something we haven’t seen before in South Africa, not only in terms of Palestine, but also in general – other than probably elections or government-run campaigns. IAW is proving, at least in South Africa, to be one of the largest civil society-led campaigns on any issue. In addition to the size and magnitude of the campaign, you also, this year in South Africa, had interesting and unique activities taking place. So beyond the traditional rallies and lectures, you also had music concerts that took place, you had sporting events, you had soccer tournaments, fun runs all in solidarity with the Palestinians people.

And again these events were held both at places where solidarity movements in South Africa is strong, for example at university campuses. But it was also held in communities and townships across the country. One interesting aspect this year is that the South African Council of Churches as well as the Muslim Judicial Council called on all South African churches and all South African mosques to dedicate their Sunday services and their Friday prayers to the plight of the Palestinian people. So IAW has proved to put the Palestinian struggle out there in the public domain and we really hope that this will now set the tone for the rest of the year, for the rest of our boycott campaign, for the rest of our BDS campaign, and our solidarity efforts. We also hope that this is the last year that we would have to organise an IAW.

LMaDO: Of course it sounds amazing. I want to ask you Muhammed, but Suraya you can intervene. The size of the event, the impact, and the fact that the churches and the mosques were behind it as well sounds incredible. One of the goals of IAW, and of any solidarity work we’re doing, is to reach the unconverted and to break the world of silence that the mainstream media imposes on us. Did the mainstream media show any interest or did they cover any events?

Suraya Dadoo (SD): Absolutely. I think that’s a turning points in the struggle against Israeli Apartheid in South Africa. Mainstream media across the board, whether it was the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s TV channels, radio stations, they all covered various events relating to IAW as well as the guests that visited South Africa. For example, Qassam Barghouti, the son of the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti. He was interviewed on Morning Live, a show with one of the highest ratings in South Africa. Miko Peled, of course, is an American- Israeli author that was our international guest. He also got a lot of mainstream coverage. In addition to that, newspapers were running op-eds covering the comparisons between South African and Israeli Apartheid. What was interesting is that those op-eds were written by a very wide variety of people. So, mainstream media coverage this IAW has been the most successful in that regard.

LMaDO: South Africa, due to its history, and the fact that the end of South African apartheid was really not that long ago. And the fact that most people, and I know this myself as I was with you guys 2 years ago for the Russell Tribunal, the level of solidarity showed towards the Palestinian people is pretty incredible. The level of your institutions; even the ANC has endorsed some forms of boycott (and you’ll tell me more about it in practice. I’m not sure if they’re doing enough) but the fact that Archbishop Tutu is behind it, the Muslim Judicial Council is behind it. I think you are in a particular and specific case in South Africa, and in a way the level of solidarity, and also the fact that the media (and again, I saw this with the Tribunal) is covering your events is very different from the rest of the world. So, in your opinion (and I also know that the Israeli lobby is also quite small in South Africa but its very powerful) what’s the next step for South Africa in terms of activism for Palestine? What would you like to achieve next?

MD: We, as South Africans, are not doing anything special, even though the activities may be numerous, and even though the organisations may be several that are backing this campaign. In a way, the Palestinian solidarity movement allows us South Africans to “pay back” and to give back to all of you in Europe, in the US, in Asia, and others places that stood in solidarity with us South Africans. In a way, the Palestinian solidarity movement, or even campaigns like IAW, allow us to relive our history. It is unfortunate that in some countries, the Palestinian solidarity movement is not being covered as much as the anti-apartheid movement was. However, we do feel that the international movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people is definitely going to be overtaking the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980’s very soon. We see the Palestinian solidarity movement in general, the boycott divestment and sanctions campaign in particular, growing at supersonic speed. And so us being in solidarity with the Palestinians is really not a favour, it is not “charity work”. It is something that we owe the international community in general, and the Palestinians in particular.

It was the Palestinians after all, that supported us South Africans, during the darkest days of apartheid – when it was unfashionable to support the South African struggle. We also painfully recall that it was the Israeli government and the Israeli lobby, not only in Europe, but in the States and elsewhere, that firmly backed the apartheid government that mowed down our comrades and mowed down our people here in South Africa.

But, in terms of moving forward. Currently, the Israeli lobby in South Africa is running around like a headless chicken: not being able to figure out whether to look left or to look right, simply because Palestinian solidarity is not just located in one organisation or in one office. It’s located within the student movement, within government, within political parties, within the churches, and I think that this is the way that we need to go. We need to ensure that the BDS campaign and the solidarity movement is located in as many spheres, and in as many sectors, as possible.

And of course, all of this combined will eventually lead our government and the governments of the world to exert more pressure on Israel, that will bring about the necessary conditions for a just peace to be realised in Palestine – similar to a just peace that was achieved here in South Africa.

SD: You were asking “where to next?” after IAW. I’d like to think that in South Africa, Israeli Apartheid Week is going to be every week, because a lot of young South Africans, as Muhammed has just indicated, realise that we owe the freedoms that we currently enjoy, to international solidarity, and that is what young south Africans are currently doing. They’re paying back and they’re speaking for people who are currently being silenced in the same way that we were silenced a generation ago.

In this regard, in terms of trying to have IAW every week, what all the Palestinian solidarity organisations in this country are doing, is that we are all embarking on various programmes of education, and rather than preaching to the converted as it were, we want to ensure that every South African understands exactly how similar, and in some cases, how much worse Israeli apartheid is for the Palestinians.

So, we want to embark on education programmes in the form of books like Why Israel? for example, in the form of op-eds, school programmes, lecture programmes, and also in terms of popular culture. As Muhammed has said, it is becoming increasingly uncomfortable to be a friend of Israel in this country and show any kind of support for the Zionist state in its current form. That is what our programmes are aimed at doing. We really need South Africans to understand exactly how bad Israel’s Apartheid policies are for the Palestinians.

LMaDO: Before we go further into the book “Why Israel?” Muhammed talked about governments, so I’ve got two questions. One is about when Nelson Mandela passed away a few months ago, the Israeli government was not present and the excuse that was given was that the trip was going to be too expensive. My first question is “ do you think that it is the real story and Netanyahu didn’t come because it was too expensive or is there something more? The second question is about the South African government and the ANC, in words and statements, have been very supportive of the Palestinians. The ANC Youth League has endorsed the boycott, but in practice, would you like your government at the highest level to do more? Or do you think they are doing enough in terms of not engaging at all with Israel or in terms of supporting the Palestinians?

MD: First to answer your question on the Israeli presence at Madiba’s funeral. It is an absolutely absurd reason that was given by the Israeli government that the flight to South Africa was too expensive for the president or the prime minister. But we do think the reason why they did not come is because they would’ve been faced with major protests by South African civil society. SA civil society, as mentioned earlier, remembers painfully Israel’s collaboration with the Apartheid government during the 1980’s, but also the oppression that is meted out on our Palestinian comrades on a daily basis by the Israeli government. And so, both the Israeli prime minister and president would not have been welcomed at the funeral of our Madiba, because the government they represent stands firmly in contradiction to what Madiba stood for all his life. However, we do welcome the fact that they did not come, we do not think that this would’ve been the right place for them. We do hope, however, that the Israeli government pays particular attention to the lessons of the Anti-Apartheid struggle, Madiba’s words, and they do pay attention to the fact that a single democratic country that was created in South Africa has brought about the necessary peace that was sought for.

As for our government, there are two things: the one is that we are proud that our government is actively behind the Palestinian people but we want more. We want more to be done by our government, both at an international level, as well as locally in South Africa. We do think that the time has come for the South African government to lead the international community with regard to sanctions against Israel. In the same breath, whilst we do understand the pressures that are put on our government for a pro-Palestinian position, we want to – in no uncertain terms – condemn the kind of pressures that have come from, for example, the USA and other backers of Israel. As soon as our government makes a move in solidarity with the Palestinian people, these governments, such as the government of the USA, places blackmail, literally, on the South African government.

However, we also remember that it was many African countries that paid a very high price for their solidarity with South Africa. It was a very high price, not only paid by African countries, but also by other countries that decided to boycott Apartheid South Africa. So we are calling on countries from around the world, including our own government, to take a firm stance against Israel. This was done during the 1980’s against Apartheid South Africa, it proved successful and it can be done now regarding Israel.

LMaDO: Suraya do you want to add something or are you okay?

SD: Well I think in terms of the South African government, as Muhammed has said, they are clearly moving in the right direction. An example of this would be on the 6th of February the South African parliament hosted a solidarity conference in support of the peoples of Palestine, Western Sahara and Cuba; and this was a world first. One of the things that was adopted at this conference, that has now been called the Cape Town Declaration, which basically called on the government to consider things like BDS, the funding and the sale of settlements goods and a whole host of measures that I think can put the Israeli government under extreme pressure in this country. That declaration is in the pipeline and, of course, has come under intense scrutiny and pressure from the Zionist lobby in this country. But we are very optimistic that the resolutions in that declaration will be upheld and we are very proud of the fact that the government has been moving in the right direction and we hope that they set a precedent for the rest of the world to follow.

LMaDO: Actually something that I haven’t talked about is the fact that the campaign to free Marwan Barghouti and all prisoners was launched in Cape Town, actually on Robben Island, on the 27 October 2013 by Ahmed Kathrada, who is a South African Anti-Apartheid struggle stalwart. What do you think about the campaign and the fact that it was launched in South Africa and the symbolism of it?

MD: Well, its highly significant because Ahmed Kathrada, this close friend and comrade of Nelson Mandela, was also the person that launched the Nelson Mandela campaign during the 1980’s. He led this campaign, of course, before he himself was imprisoned on Robben Island. And so there was a symbolic importance and I think it did put the issue of Palestinian political prisoners onto the landscape. It has also propelled the BDS campaign. The campaign around the Palestinian political prisoners has also activated people to start paying attention, and asking what can be done to assist in the liberation of Palestinian political prisoners. Of course, one of the things that can be done is participating in the campaign against the security company called G4S. G4S, in fact, a week after the launch of this campaign from the historic Robben Island, lost its first contract in South Africa because of its involvement in Israel and in the incarceration of Palestinian political prisoners. The issue of Palestinian political prisoners is very close to South Africans because so many of our grandparents, mothers and fathers, and people we know were imprisoned during the 1980’s.

LMaDO: I want to end by talking about the book that, Suraya, you’ve co-authored with Firoz Osman. The title of the book, again, is ‘Why Israel? The Anatomy of Zionist Apartheid – A South African Perspective’. The he foreword is by Ronnie Kasrils. Why did you write this amazing book that I have the honour to have read. Why now? Why the book? Why the South African perspective? Who is your audience? What was the idea behind the book?

SD: Well the title of the book ‘Why Israel?’ is actually a response to a question that everyone in the Palestinian solidarity movement faces in South Africa. One of the first questions we get asked if an op-ed is published in a newspaper or if you have been on radio or on a TV programme is: Why Israel? Why do you people always pick on Israel?’ ‘Why is that Israel should be the subject of boycott, divestment and sanctions?’ So, in a nutshell what ‘Why Israel?’ does is answers that question very comprehensively. The book is aimed at everyone, from high school students to activists to researchers, academics, absolutely everyone. The aim of the book is to explain to people the nature of Israeli Apartheid, the origins of the conflict, what the specific policies are, how it is similar to South African Apartheid and how it differs, because in some instances Israeli Apartheid is far more brutal than South African Apartheid ever was.

More importantly, we look at what’s the future and how do we fight it; so we look issues of BDS, lawfare etc. We want people to understand the nature of the so-called peace process, and we want South Africans to just basically become more informed and more educated about the issue. Clearly the passion is there and the commitment is there, but we also want people to be knowledgeable and to have all the information about this conflict at their fingertips. So, that is really the aim of the book.

LMaDO: So has it been well received? I see on Facebook and social media that you’ve done loads of events around the book. What was the response like?

SD: Yes, it’s been very well received. It was officially launched in September last year at the rather symbolic and highly appropriate Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Thereafter, we moved to Cape Town, Durban and smaller areas like Port Elizabeth and Polokwane. So it’s really gone all around the country.

In terms of mainstream media coverage, as well, the Star Newspaper which is Johannesburg’s most widely read newspaper covered it quite in depth, as have mainstream newspapers in Durban and Cape Town. The coverage has been there. We also have a billboard that is up in Johannesburg which has the words ‘Israeli Apartheid exposed, at book stores now’. Despite efforts by the Zionist lobby to have the billboard removed it’s still there.

Most interestingly, you mentioned social media, there was actually a social media campaign launched to have the book removed from the shelves of South Africa’s leading retailer . This is a mainstream retailer that stocks ‘Why Israel?’. There were many in the Zionist lobby that were quite upset that a book about Israeli apartheid, written from a South African perspective, was so widely available. All in all I think it’s been received well, we’ve gotten the opposition we expected from the usual quarters. I’m most pleased that a wide variety of people have told me that they have read it and benefited quite a lot and that it has opened their eyes up to a lot of issue that they would not normally have heard about.

LMaDO: Comrades it was great to have heard your voices again. I hope I see your faces again in the short term future. Thanks a lot for participating in the show. Thanks for everything you do on the ground and hopefully we’ll see you soon again.

SD & MD: Thanks Frank.

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