Stop normalising apartheid: Lessons in solidarity from South Africa's liberation struggle

Stop normalising apartheid: Lessons in solidarity from South Africa's liberation struggle
Comment: Africa's Frontline States showed what real solidarity looks like, but the Arab world is ignoring the lessons of history, writes Suraya Dadoo.
7 min read
03 Sep, 2020
'Africa's Frontline States developed a blueprint for effective, sustained, principled regional solidarity' [Getty]
"Independent African states and the then Organisation for African Unity (OAU) showed far more backbone, unity and solidarity in the struggle against South African apartheid, than Arab states and the Arab League with respect to the Palestinian cause," says South African politician Ronnie Kasrils, as he candidly responds to the recent announcement that the UAE has normalised relations with Israel. There are few people better-placed to make that frank assessment.

Kasrils spent three decades criss-crossing the continent first as a member of the ANC's armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe, and later as its chief of intelligence. Between 1963 and 1990, he experienced first-hand the unwavering military, logistical, political, diplomatic and financial support provided to South Africa's liberation movements across the continent.

Initially, South Africa's fighters received military training and support from Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia. 
From 1975 onwards, independent Angola and Mozambique, and later Zimbabwe, joined Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia, and Tanzania as the Frontline States (FLS) in the struggle against South African apartheid.

At the centre of the Frontline States' solidarity was the belief that their freedom and prosperity was indivisible from South Africa's liberation and the ending of apartheid. Frontline states paid a high price for their principled resistance to the apartheid regime, as Pretoria embarked on an intensive destabilisation campaign, fomenting civil war in newly-independent Mozambique and Angola - destroying their infrastructure and causing massive loss of life.

Apartheid forces regularly mounted raids into South Africa's neighbouring countries of Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland, massacring local residents and South African refugees.  

Arab states have been happy to secure quick-fix, back-channel deals with Israel, dispensing with Palestinian national rights in the process

Despite the destabilisation campaigns, the Frontline States increased their pressure on the apartheid regime and its support for the anti-apartheid movement. The Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) was formed in 1980, and added to the isolation of South Africa that ultimately defeated apartheid. 

The Frontline States had developed the blueprint for effective, sustained, principled regional solidarity to defeat a militarily superior apartheid regime. But when it comes to pressurising Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian land, Arab states have turned their back on history, squandering the legacy of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Where African states regarded South Africa's liberation as non-negotiable and formed the frontline of resistance and isolation against Pretoria's brutal regime, Arab leaders have long been happy to barter Palestinian rights for regional power and western approval.

A century ago, Emir Faisal, then of the short-lived Hejaz Kingdom and later the king of Iraq, declared Arab support for the Balfour Declaration. In exchange, the Emir wanted the Zionist Movement's support for the establishment of an Arab state in the disintegrated Ottoman Empire that he would head. Emir Faisal didn't get his kingdom, but Israel's settler-colonial plans for Palestine had secured Arab support. 

In 1949, Israel concluded armistice agreements with Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon that effectively demarcated the borders of Israel and Palestine. Israel occupied 78 percent of the land, but there was little opposition from Arab frontline states - their silence legitimising the Israeli land grab. Arab "peacemakers" were, again, planning the future of Palestinians without Palestinians.

While Frontline States quickly recognised that isolating South Africa and ending apartheid was the best guarantee of long-term peace and economic development for southern Africa and the continent as a whole, Arab states have been happy to secure quick-fix, back-channel deals with Israel, dispensing with Palestinian national rights in the process.  

In 2002, the Arab League committed Arab states to normalising relations with Tel Aviv only after Israel withdrew to its 1967 borders; allowed for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital; and provided a just solution to the issue Palestinian refugees.

Read more: Pompeo's normalisation tour failed to replicate UAE-Israel deal in the Middle East. Here's why

But the Arab Peace Initiative exists on paper only. There's been years of informal normalisation and collaboration between Israel and Oman, Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait. Despite its violation of the Arab Peace Initiative, the Arab League has still not issued a statement on the UAE's normalisation announcement. Its silence can only be interpreted as a tacit acceptance of the deal. Is the Arab League walking back the Arab Peace Initiative?

Some Gulf states have also been happy to pay lip service to the peace process. Israel has never actually negotiated with the Palestinians, but as long as the "process" continued, these Gulf countries could justify their decades of deals and relations with Israel. In return, Israel has been helping them to fan the fires of war in the wider Middle East-North Africa region. 

For over a decade, Israeli companies have 
secretly helped build the UAE's military infrastructure. Israeli cyber companies, gun traders, terror-warfare instructors and hitmen are unofficial partners to the UAE/Saudi-led coalition that has been devastating Yemen since 2015. Israel has also lent its implicit consent to UAE's proxy war in Libya; and its destabilising policies in Tunisia and further afield in Turkey.

The Emirati deal has very little to do with supporting Palestinian rights, and everything to do with self-preservation

Israel's intimate involvement in these destabilising campaigns echoes apartheid South Africa's support of Mozambique's rebel RENAMO forces against the elected and legitimate FRELIMO party, and its repeated attempts to overthrow the MPLA government in Angola and push Jonas Savimbi's US-backed UNITA rebels into power. In the Middle East, history results in repetition rather than lessons.

Abu Dhabi insists that its normalisation with Tel Aviv is driven by solidarity with the Palestinian people and that it will continue to advocate for Palestinian self-determination. But the Emirati deal has very little to do with supporting Palestinian rights, and everything to do with self-preservation. In return for its arrangement with the UAE, Israel has simply agreed to continue to control the same territory it has occupied since 1967. This is hardly a win for Palestinian statehood, rights or dignity.

Since the UAE formally announced its normalisation of relations with Israel, the Gaza Strip has been under daily Israeli air attacks. While the Emiratis celebrate their "peace" with Israel, they have yet to condemn Israel's war on Gaza.

Abu Dhabi is also finding that relations with Israel will be anything but normal. Last week, UAE officials 
"indefinitely" cancelled a meeting with Israeli and American officials due to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition to the US selling Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi.

Israel's insistence that its military superiority in the region must be maintained has not gone down well with the Emiratis.

Those who defend the formal establishment of relations between Israel and the UAE claim that more can be achieved through diplomacy than sanctions. South Africa's history, however, shows that peace deals and reconciliation can only come after liberation has been achieved.

Reconciliation with Israel before it ends the occupation is simply a weapon of co-option to blunt the Palestinian liberation struggle. It was boycott and resistance that defeated Pretoria – not appeasement. While their leaders may be ignoring this lesson of history, the Arab street isn't.   

Peace in the region will come only after occupation and apartheid ends

Following the UAE-Israel announcement, several civil society actors and political groups in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar have issued statements calling for a unified Arab stance on boycotting Israel until it grants Palestinians full human and political rights. As convenor of South Africa's BDS National Coalition, Kasrils has applauded the move.

"It is so important that people around the world, who believe in justice for Palestine, protest and invigorate the BDS campaign to isolate Israel and denounce those collaborationist Arab regimes," Kasrils said.

As Africa's Frontline States showed, peace in the region will come only after occupation and apartheid ends and all people enjoy full political and human rights.

In the deal of the last century, Emir Faisal relinquished Palestine. A century later, very little has changed as the UAE and other Arab states - claiming to be allies of the Palestinians - seem to learn nothing from South Africa's liberation history or from their own sordid history of shameful deals with Palestine's colonisers.

Suraya Dadoo is a South African writer based in Johannesburg.

Follow her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.