Explainer: How South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle and Palestinian resistance are linked

Explainer: How South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle and Palestinian resistance are linked
Palestinian and South African solidarity dates back decades, with similar experiences of occupation, colonialism, and apartheid.
5 min read
12 January, 2024
South Africans have been some of the most outspoken supporters of Gazans amid Israel's war [Getty/file photo]

This week, South Africa presented its case against Israel accusing it of carrying out a genocide against the people of Gaza, amid a relentless war waged for over three months which has killed over 23,000 people.

South Africa was governed by the apartheid system for decades form 1948 until the early 1990s, with racial segregation and discrimination institutionalised and the white minority dominating the country socially, politically and economically.

Israel’s occupation and wars on the Palestinian territories and its treatment of the Palestinian people have been likened to the apartheid era in South Africa, which naturally prompted Pretoria to rally behind the Palestinian cause over the decades due to similar struggles.

But how far back does Palestinian support in South Africa date back to? The New Arab takes a look.

ANC, PLO solidarity

The African National Congress (ANC) has voiced solidarity with the Palestinian cause as far back as the 1950s and 1960s, as did many African nations. A majority of the continent’s nations were European colonies until the early 1960s.

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) worked with a number of African revolutionary movements. The PLO and the ANC supported each other’s causes enthusiastically as they both embarked on an anti-colonial struggle, and traded weapons and resistance tactics with each other.

A significant event which marked the long-standing friendship between South Africa and Palestine was Yasser Arafat’s meeting with Nelson Mandela in Zambia, two weeks after his release from prison in 1990.

Arafat hugged and kissed Mandela when he saw him, firmly confirming the solidarity between South Africa and Palestine and their struggle for liberation in the face of apartheid.

After his release, the South African anti-apartheid icon sported the Keffiyeh – an emblematic symbol of Palestinian identity - on many occasions.

He was most famously seen wearing one in a summit in Algiers in the same year.

Mandela and Arafat met multiple times after the former was released and became president of South Africa, and in 1997 Mandela called Arafat an "icon".

"We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians," he added

South Africa was among the first countries to label Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian lands as apartheid.

In 2022,  Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, said: "The Palestinian narrative evokes experiences of South Africa’s own history of racial segregation and oppression."

After Mandela’s death in 2013, his family – including grandson Mandla Mandela, have continued the South African’s legacy in expression of Palestinian solidarity.

"We have stood with the Palestinians and we will continue to stand with our Palestinian brothers and sisters," he said at a rally in October, in protest against Israel’s military onslaught in Gaza.

Nelson Mandela in Algiers in 1990, wearing the Palestinian Keffiyeh [Getty/file photo]

Nuclear goals: Israel and the apartheid regime

On the other hand, the apartheid regime in South Africa led by the National Party had a close relationship with Israel.

In the 1970s, Israel's government under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin formed close ties with the regime. Then-Defence Minister Shimon Peres was instrumental in creating an alliance that helped keep apartheid afloat while the international community grew increasingly critical and hostile.

Israel supplied apartheid South Africa with military advisors and arms and the armed forces of the two countries trained together. They cooperated in their fights against the ANC and PLO.

Over 10 years ago, secret documents revealing that Israel had offered to sell nuclear warheads to apartheid South Africa were uncovered. Israel is currently believed to possess between 80 and 400 nuclear warheads but has never publicly acknowledged this.

South Africa’s then-Defence Minister, PW Botha, had asked for the warheads in secret meetings held in 1975, with Peres offering them in "three sizes".

The two had gone on to sign a number of military deals, thought the main clause of such agreements was that they had to "remain secret".

When the documents were uncovered in 2010, a spokesperson for Peres denied the allegations, calling them "baseless".

South African documents showed that the apartheid-era military wanted the nuclear missiles as a deterrent and for potential strikes against neighbouring states.

At the time of Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, Shimon Peres and current PM Benjamin Netanyahu did not attend his funeral ceremony, underlining Israel's sympathy with the apartheid-era regime.

Jews against apartheid

It is worth mentioning, however, that South Africa's struggle against apartheid wasn't limited to the Black population.

Many of South Africa’s anti-apartheid activists were white and Jewish, with many being Holocaust survivors or descendants of Holocaust victims.

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Among them is Denis Goldberg, who once likened Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and Arabs as akin to the apartheid experienced in South Africa.

Goldberg, who was one of the original members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC and was sentenced with Nelson Mandela, also criticised Israel’s wars in Lebanon.

Another Jewish activist, Ronnie Kasrils, said last year that the Israeli occupation reminded him of what was experienced during apartheid.

He noted Israel's "repressiveness, cruelty, police brutality, restrictions on movement, arrests, detentions and illegal settlers who have taken Palestinian land."

South Africa solidarity amid Gaza war

Today, South Africa remains one of the most prominent defenders of the Palestinian cause amid Israel's war in Gaza.

Thousands of pro-Palestinian activists have staged frequent protests denouncing the military onslaught. Meanwhile, the South African branch of the Anglican Church declared Israel an apartheid state in the wake of its repeated attacks - other high-ranking figures have echoed similar sentiments.

The country has also suspended diplomatic ties with Israel, before taking the country to the ICJ on genocide accusations. Israel has lashed out at the allegations, and laid out its defence on Friday. A ruling should be expected in the next few weeks.