What Mandela once tried to tell the Middle East may still inspire the solidarity movement today.

It was almost like in the old days of the struggle against apartheid. A mass march in Cape Town against an oppressor whose discourse was racial; who regarded people of a different ethnicity as alien, dangerous and in need of containment. An oppressor who invaded peoples’ living areas with military might; bulldozed their houses; arrested people in the streets, beat them and humiliated them, often in front of their families. The oppressor, then, justified what he was doing as self- defence. The townships sheltered terrorists, the oppressor said, and he was protecting the very places he invaded from the terrorists. He was protecting the people whose homes he destroyed.

Yes, there are many parallels between the oppressor then in South Africa and the oppressor now in Gaza.  But the reason why the protest march looked so much like the old days was not the oppressor –he wasn’t there, now, after all. It was the people who were in the march. They were of all colours and all religions and beliefs. Some of them –many, actually- were even of the same colour and religion as the oppressor himself. These people were united not because of any creed, colour or ethnic difference, but because they shared the same humanitarian values.

Jews at the front

In the marches against apartheid then, many of the participants had been white. Mandela’s movement, even his guerrilla army, counted quite a few whites who fought against fellow whites together with the ANC. At the pro-Palestinian, pro-boycott Israel march in Cape Town, it seemed like that South African tradition had stuck. Many participants were Jewish.  Some of them clearly even identified as such with their placards. They were invited to the forefront of the march. Everybody cheered and clapped.

Protests against the injustice in Palestine have been multi-coloured in some other places in the world, too: the recent surge in numbers of progressive Jews in the US who publicly support Palestine springs to mind, as do other Jewish progressive initiatives in Western countries like the Netherlands. But there have also been places where support events for Palestine, even if similarly attended by people of different backgrounds, have hosted anti-Semitic slurs, pro-ISIS flags and have, in France, been followed by attacks on Jewish shops.

These incidents have given fodder to hawkish Israeli PR about how not just Israel, but Jews everywhere are ‘under attack’, by what is in this context called an ‘international terror movement’ that comprises Hamas to ISIS to Al Qaeda to Boko Haram. Surely this proves, the hawkish-Israeli side says, that Israel must defend itself? Is there any question that this is an us-versus-them situation? That there is, good old George Bush style, an international axis of evil, well-organised and united, and hell bent on destroying Israel and all Jews? This reasoning is identical to the one that underpinned the US War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq, -and just as counterproductive.  It committed the cardinal sin of political strategy: it glued together and strengthened the opposition. It united a motley crew of different violent movements in different places, equipped them with a catchy narrative and made them completely attractive to every disaffected youth with some reason to dislike ‘the West’, the establishment, or any injustice or powers-that-be.

If there is anything that the South African freedom struggle has taught South African activists of all colours and creeds, is how damaging this is. ‘Never unite the enemy’, was a tenet of the ANC, that made a point of inviting whites, Indians and coloureds to join it, no matter their address, their wealth, or their establishment jobs. It is this inclusivity that still echoes in many of South Africa’s social movements’ strategies, from the NGO ‘Equal Education’ that keeps the dialogue with government about improving schools going in spite of all failures, to the healthcare activists of the Treatment Action Campaign who welcome any civil servant wishing to do a good job, to the feminists and gay rights activists who operate within traditional communities. To win a battle, you must melt the enemies’ support away, win hearts and minds; not antagonize perfectly nice fellow human beings into joining the hardliners on the other side.

“Not in my name”

It is therefore perhaps not a coincidence that it was in this country that, early in August, a petition against ‘violence committed in the name of Islam’ started circulating among Muslim citizens. Or that it attracted hundreds of individual democratic activists of Muslim background, who all openly stated ‘Not in my name.’  (Muslim organisations in other countries have expressed themselves likewise, but the South African initiative was the first grassroots community initiative since the Islamic State started its rampage.)

The ANC-nurtured tradition of inclusivity in the struggle for justice in South Africa had been developed since its founding in 1912. The founding fathers, Pixley ka Seme and the group of black intellectuals around him, had understood, from the start, that chasing whites away would probably fail as a strategy and, more importantly, was morally wrong. The whites might see them as savages and little more than animals; they recognized white human beings for the human beings that they were, and always acted accordingly, expressing their desire to live with other humans in a situation of sharing and equal rights.

The later generations of the Mandelas and Tambo built further on this wisdom and even incorporated it into the armed struggle, which was by then deemed inevitable. The result was a guerrilla army that, amazing for a people that had to endure so much humiliation and trauma, consistently avoided targeting white civilians –and therefore terrorism. It did fail sometimes in protecting civilian life; ANC bombs did cause casualties. But these were regretted publicly and they were, most importantly, never strategy. In contrast to the venom-spitting, finger wagging of the PW Bothas, the ANC’s language was never one of hate.

The Freedom Charter, crafted at the Congress of the People in Kliptown, Soweto in 1954, at a mass meeting of South Africans of all such colours and creeds, was far ahead of its time in its principles and values. “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, it said. It educated and permeated generations of South Africans, and filled a majority with the desire to help create this society.

The fear of difference

It is this Freedom Charter, though the young student Saul Musker may have never read it (but I think he did), that inspired an article he wrote after his (all-Jewish) SA debating team was criticised for having posted a pro-Palestine status on Facebook. That the article defended their stance was not surprising; but what made a powerful point was Musker’s quoting of a number of characteristics of fascism as listed by Umberto Eco in a 1995 treatise. Where ‘Disagreement is Treason’, Musker quoted; where there is a ‘Fear of Difference’; and ‘Obsession with an Enemy Threat’, it is there where one is very close to finding fascism.

Saul Musker's status on Facebook
Saul Musker's status on Facebook

Muskers’ article obviously enraged pro-Israel hawks more than it enraged pro-Hamas hawks, (since the latter would consider him an enemy by virtue of his Jewishness anyway), but the key point he made was that it is not the membership of a certain ethnicity that makes a fascist. It is these principles. On the basis of Eco’s characteristics, the Hamas Charter, which calls for the killing of Jews ‘even if hiding behind a tree’ is fascist, but so are Israeli hawks who feel that oppressing and bombing an entire people, and ostracising, chasing and harassing dissent from own ranks, are the right things to do.

Even the white Afrikaans traditional-thinking secretary who became Mandela’s assistant,  Zelda la Grange,  describes in her book ‘Good Morning Mr Mandela’ how she was captivated by the humanity and inclusivity in his thinking.  Her pages about a visit she paid with Mandela to the Middle East show how the antagonistic and ‘altogether unreasonable’ behaviour of both parties was, by now, as alien to her experience as it was to Mandela, who didn’t get very far in getting the parties to talk. ‘Everybody was a victim’, La Grange noted: the fact that people here were guided by own resentment and trauma was something she had not experienced in her own country.

The specific history of Israel –less than a century ago and slam bang in the middle of another society on a small piece of land,- probably goes some way to explain why an ANC-type moderate movement of locals, willing to work with the status quo and willing to welcome ‘all who now lived’ in the area, did not form. It also probably explains why ethnic hatred continues to be a basis for policy making on both sides of the divide. Academics Adam and Moodley, in their book ‘Seeking Mandela:  Peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians’, delve much further into this question and come up with historical specifics, such as the fact that in South Africa, both black and white majorities share the same Christian religion (a result of four centuries of missionary work conjointly with colonialism).  As a second factor they mention economic interdependence: rather than consider the other only as a nuisance that must go away, white and black in South Africa have always recognised one another’s much needed added value.

Music, good food and interracial sex

But that doesn’t mean that a solidarity movement with Palestine cannot learn from South Africa. The pro-Palestine movement already regularly refers to South Africa’s apartheid experiences, after all, and, as shown above, in South Africa the movement is adopting the freedom struggle approaches.  At the Cape Town march, white and black, Jew and Muslim, Christian and atheist, showed that the good side is where the multi-coloured fun is.  Life was always more vibrant and interesting in the anti apartheid movement than it was in the resentful ethnic bastions of hatred. The music was better, the food too –not to mention the interracial sex.  The combination won over tens of thousands of white housewives, artists, academics and even soldiers.

Recently, and perhaps again not coincidentally, references to the anti apartheid movement in the context of Gaza have come from two eminent South African struggle veterans. Both Muslim ‘liberation’ theologian Farid Esack and Bishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu described the movement and its values in solidarity appeals for Palestine. Esack, addressing a march by pro-Palestine supporters in front of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pretoria, made a point to show participation of churches and Jews in the protests. He rejected accusations of anti-semitism and repeatedly referred to ‘our struggle’ in South Africa as multi-coloured and multi-religious. Tutu, in a recent petition, addressed not a protest march, not the solidarity movement, but the very people of Israel, impressing on them how they themselves are not free as long as they are oppressing others, calling them, in true ANC style, to join the moral side of freedom and equal rights.

There are signs, and not only in South Africa, that there are fertile grounds for such calls. Terror by the Islamic State and a belligerent Israel continue to present problems, but the ‘compromise’ movement is growing, too. Youngsters in Gaza have told reporters that they are as fed up with the local religious fundamentalists who forbid them any fun or social life as they are with Israel; whiz kids and young professionals of the West Bank imagine the future of their country in websites and designs for new shopping malls and coffee places, where people can meet and, yes, talk. The newsroom of the progressive newspaper Haaretz in Tel Aviv has long expressed inclusive views; and activists in New York, London, Paris and Amsterdam have made it clear that they long for a ‘struggle home’ where all who share the same vision are welcomed.

In this age of social media, and petitions reaching all over, maybe nowadays one wouldn’t need a physical Congress of the People to take place anywhere. Maybe a Freedom Charter for Palestine could grow on Facebook.