The two apartheids: A comparison with Israel

20 December 2023

Today the Israeli state’s policy implemented against the Palestinians is quite rightly called “apartheid”.  It certainly looks like it in every respect.  But these two apartheids are not the same: the size of the Israeli and Palestinian populations occupying the whole territory is roughly equal (around 9m).  The white minority ruling South Africa, outnumbered by 6 to 1 throughout all of its years in power, never dared to resort to too much force against the population.

    What’s more, most Israelis and Palestinians look exactly like each other.  South Africa’s apartheid segregated and discriminated on the basis of skin colour.  It was enforced by law after 1959 (by white National Party prime minister and Dutch-Afrikaner, Hendrick Verwoerd), relegating all non-whites to second class status, without the vote nor civil rights.  Their right to own land had already been removed in 1913 by the British colonial government.

    The black Bantu-speaking peoples became the country’s super-exploited working class, relegated to live in black-only locations (dormitory townships like Soweto) and Bantustans, the “homeland” areas in rural South Africa, such that 20-30% of the country’s land was occupied by the black majority (87% of the population) and the rest, 80%, owned and occupied by whites, who made up 9%.  Repression was the main enforcing tool.  The 1950 Suppression of Communism Act drove the South African Communist Party underground in 1950, followed soon afterwards by the African National Congress.  A vast network of security police regularly swept activists into its net, as in 1963, when Mandela’s co-conspirators were arrested at Lilliesleaf farm and sentenced to life imprisonment after the notorious Rivonia Trial - for trying to obtain arms in order to undertake a campaign of...  terrorism...  against the oppressors.

    The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 which killed 69 people protesting against the pass laws, was the worst murder of civilians by the white-led police force, in fact.  “Passes” were ID documents meant to be carried at all times to monitor their movements - which, if you could not produce when asked, usually meant arrest and maybe jail.  The Gaza Strip and West Bank enclaves have been likened to Bantustans.  But Bantustans were never surrounded with barbed wire, nor walled-in like parts of the West bank, nor patrolled by the army.  And there were no military watch towers, gates nor checkpoints.  Black people could move around the country relatively freely (if they could afford the bus fare), although they could at any time be asked to produce their passbook (which contained their employers’ signatures), so that police could check on them.

    Below is part of what was written by the religious leader, and former anti-apartheid activist Allan Boesak, in July 2023, before the attack on Gaza this October:

     “Every Black South African who visits Israel/Palestine and spends a few days with Palestinians comes away with a profound sense of shock and trauma.  It is the shock of recognising, so far away from home, what has made home such a terrifying and tragic place for so long.  It is recognising apartheid.

    The first sense of shock is almost immediately followed by another.  In many ways, Israeli apartheid is much worse than South African apartheid.  We have had spatial apartheid, physical separation to the extreme.  But completely separate roads, for Jews only?

     (... ) In my more than 40 years of activism in the streets of protest, I have seen violence.  Massacres every week somewhere.  With Archbishop Tutu, I have preached at the funeral service of 27 persons, some of them children, massacred in one single day.  Even so, South African apartheid violence does not come close to what Israeli apartheid is inflicting on Palestinians day after day.  

    The targeted killings and assassinations are the same (though the snipers are unique to Israel), but we have not seen violence at the level of a full-scale war as in Gaza, not once, but thrice, or as in Jenin just in the last few weeks.  This and the brazen, open theft of land, the continued building of settlements, the chutzpah of settlers to try to drive the remaining Palestinians from the few homes left.

     (... ) But there’s one other thing that makes Israeli apartheid worse, and the old apartheid vanguard in South Africa go green with envy: the impunity with which this is all done, and the unwavering support from the Western world, no matter how heinous the crime”.

    It would thus have been expected that the South African government today - of all governments - would have taken a firm stance against the Israeli apartheid regime’s current one-sided war on Palestinians.  Of course, President Ramaphosa condemned the attack on Gaza, and said his government stood with the Palestinians.  He rushed to attend the Middle East banquets hosted by the Arab League countries in order to condemn Netanyahu.

    A tit-for-tat withdrawal of diplomatic staff from Tel Aviv followed.  But a vote to suspend diplomatic ties with Israel, as such, was delayed until 21 November, and in fact the Israeli ambassador withdrew herself, before she could be withdrawn.

    The position at this stage is that the government will “restore ties” with Israel as soon as there is a ceasefire...  And that is not too surprising, if the historic links between the former South African apartheid regime and Israel are taken into account.  During sanctions, Israel’s door was always open; there was an exchange of military personnel, security technology and South Africa’s Impala training jets...

    Successive ANC governments took up where the racist Afrikaner Nationalists left off; it is all about salvaging profits for their capitalist friends - and no doubt also for quite a few ANC ministers and MPs...

19 December 2023