South Africa anti-apartheid conference calls for justice in Palestine 'from the River to the Sea'

8 min read
South Africa
13 May, 2024

The first-ever world conference in support of dismantling the Israeli apartheid regime in Palestine kicked off in South Africa on Friday and concluded Sunday, with delegates unanimously condemning Israel's assault on Gaza.

Taking place at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg from May 10th-12th, the inaugural global anti-apartheid gathering coincided with Israel's escalating offensive in Rafah, further displacing thousands of desperate Palestinians who had sought refuge there from other areas of besieged Gaza.  Speakers at the conference included Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation; Ronnie Kasrils, a former South Africa Minister of Intelligence, Declan Kearney, the chairperson of Sinn Fein, the Irish republican and democratic socialist political party, and Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and politician. The event was attended by a delegation from Hamas.

“The aim of the conference is to set the basis for the mobilisation of a Global Anti-Apartheid movement to hold Israel accountable for its crimes against the Palestinian people and to work to dismantle Israeli apartheid from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean sea. This will see an intensification of the mobilisation, organisation and coordination for global action against Israel apartheid,” said its organisers on their website. 

The Global Anti-Apartheid Conference for Palestine comes at a critical time, as Israel has devastated vital infrastructure in Gaza, including hospitals, schools, universities, and homes, resulting in the deaths of over 35,000 Palestinians, most of whom children and women. 

The conference follows numerous solidarity protests worldwide by pro-Palestine supporters. Several South African universities have joined global student protests for Gaza and cutting academic ties with Israeli higher education institutions while the government has launched a historic genocide case against Israel at the world top court.

Cape Town University, Nelson Mandela University, University of Johannesburg and Fort Hare are among the institutions participating in academic boycotts. 

Former SA President, Thabo Mbeki, the Anti-Apartheid Conference coordinator, Frank Chikane and Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor

At the conference, South African former Minister of Intelligence Services, Ronnie Kasrils stressed the need to dismantle the apartheid system and called for global solidarity against Israel.

“Our four pillars took 30 years to develop and crystallize; we don't have 30 years now. The genocide has to be stopped now. It’s not about boycott, but to break the apartheid system. When we talk about from the river to the sea, we have to break Zionist Israel," he said.

"The question of genocide which is taking place, we have to find ways to force genocidal Joe (Biden) and all the other criminals of the former western colonial powers to listen to the student occupation, which is spreading this wonderful generational youth to stand up against Zionist Israel and colonial masters and colluders from USA to Britain to Germany to France and elsewhere and that's what this conference is about.

“We have no doubt that when we say from river to the sea, that is justice and peace and security for anybody Christian, Muslim or Jewish who live in the holy land.”

Refuting Israel's fears of being pushed into the sea once Palestine is free, Kasrils highlighted the historical atrocities committed by Zionists, stating: “The only time, and I have seen this in photographs from 1948, that I have seen people thrown and pushed into the sea, was in Palestine by the Zionists. The very thing they say will happen to them, they did it to others.”

He noted the increasing global disdain for Israel, citing growing support for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, particularly among students in the USA. 

A Nakba testimony

Mohannad al-Qaisi, a witness and victim of Israeli apartheid, recounted his experiences growing up in a refugee camp in the West Bank.

“We have experienced almost everything that could be experienced in hard times. But I have been to South Africa and I have been listening to people explaining apartheid to me. I think we are experiencing more than apartheid in Palestine if you compare it. I was born in a refugee camp, and the first thing I saw when I was born in 1988 was a fence outside my home. When we wanted to go out, we had to coordinate. There were 15,000 people in one square kilometer. We managed to take down the fence in 1994 as a result of the Oslo Agreement.”

Al-Qaisi recalled that his family was among 750,000 people displaced and forced to leave their villages in 1948. 

Al-Qaisi explained, “Many people think that the Nakba started in 1948, but from my readings, I believe that 10 years before that, there was a plan by the Zionists to occupy Palestine, and 1948 was just the outcome of what Zionist movements had been planning.

“It's important to mention that the Nakba did not only occur in 1948. Palestinian people living in the West Bank and Gaza witness the catastrophe every day, and there is no single house in the West Bank and Gaza that hasn’t had one family member arrested or lost. The entire population in Palestine is suffering, and I am just one of them. Maybe I suffered the least when I think of my friends who were killed.”

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Al-Qaisi also commented on his life as a refugee and said life was difficult. Since 1947, Al-Qaisi explained there have been several million refugees who are not allowed to visit Palestine, staying in squalor in Syria, Jordan, or Lebanon.

“We live under constant military raids in the West Bank every day. There have been over 6,000 Palestinians arrested since October 7, 2024, and there are a total of 11,500 of them in jail," said Al-Qaisi.

Al-Qaisi went on to say that soldiers shoot at children with impunity to injure their legs to ensure they are disabled and that there are many children who walk using sticks as aids after their legs are amputated.

Al-Qaisi concluded by saying, “Getting support from friends in South Africa means a lot to the Palestinian people. I have been asked to stand here as a victim or a witness. I have never felt until today, after experiencing all this, that I am a victim. I still feel I am a freedom fighter. Many people give me hope with all that we are going through, and it's very hard. I think many of us need doctors to work with us psychologically, not only physically, because we are witnessing a lot. But we still don't lose hope seeing the whole world standing with Palestinians; students in America and Europe give us hope to continue the Palestinian cause. It’s a global cause.”

South African academic and author, Professor Steven Friedman, also commented and said, “The struggle against Israeli apartheid is entering a new phase, and we need to think strategically about that phase and the opportunities it presents and how to respond to those opportunities.”

Prof. Friedman referred to the contents of his latest book titled Good Jew, Bad Jew, which he said resolves some of the identity intrigues of the Jewish people.

He said, “The basic argument in the book is that most of us are used to thinking that Zionism is an extreme form of Jewish identity. In other words, we regard Zionism as the ideology of people who are fanatical about being Jewish and are prepared to destroy the lives of Palestinians to be Jewish.”

Prof. Friedman said, “In fact, Zionists are not proud to be Jewish at all; they're deeply ashamed to be Jewish, and this is particularly relevant.”

Na’eem Jeenah of the Afro-Middle East Centre and currently a scholar at the Mapungubwe Institute Centre, said October 7th was a milestone in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The 7th of October changed everything, and if we don’t recognize that, we’re not really serious about our solidarity. The 7th of October was also the beginning of the new disruption of the global order, and so we have to recognize that value and that position. Our task is to deepen what has happened after October 7th, and I am very cognizant that I am talking about a period when there is a genocide taking place.”

He said there was a need to deepen the gains made by Palestine solidarity activists since October 7th and to keep in mind that the event of that day had changed everything.

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Jeenah quoted former Mozambican president, Samora Machel’s speech on international solidarity.

“It is not an act of charity, it is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains towards the same objectives. Solidarity is an assertion that no people are alone, no people are isolated in the struggle for progress. Solidarity is the conscious alliance of the progressive and peace-loving revolutionary forces in the common struggle against colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism.”

Minister Naledi Pandor said one of the objectives of the conference was to engage views based on the South African experience that will assist in ending Israeli domination in Palestinian lands and territories.

“As well as to support Palestine in raising international awareness on the plight of their people, particularly the expansion of illegal settlements by Israel. As South Africa, we actively lobbied for the withdrawal of Israel as an observer member of the African Union. We will continue our effort towards supporting a two-state solution and the right of self-determination. We, as South Africa, will also continue to support Palestinian efforts for membership in the UN.”

Pandor urged delegates to write to their foreign affairs ministers urging them to vote for a Palestinian state at the United Nations General Assembly.

“You do not secure victory by sitting in a conference room, you secure victory by action and we expect that of you,” she said.

(All picture credits to the author)