From South Africa to Palestine, apartheid will fall

Dec 8, 2023

Photo: Palestinians in Gaza protesting the Israeli siege. Credit: hosnysalah/Pixabay.

This article was first 28 November 2023 on Liberation News.


For over a month, the world has watched in horror as Israel has carried out a genocidal campaign of violence in Gaza. Over 14,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel since Oct. 7, according to Palestinian health authorities, as Israel has targeted hospitals, mosques, housing complexes, schools, and even refugee camps.

While Israel has agreed to a pause in the violence, people who have become conscious of Zionism’s racist reality demand more: an end to the colonialism, genocide, and apartheid that has defined Israel since its creation 75 years ago.

Israel has one of the most well-equipped militaries in the world, backed by the U.S. government which has declared “unwavering” support for the Zionist state. Palestine, on the other hand, has a number of armed resistance groups, but no state military. It may be tempting to feel hopeless in the face of Israel’s seemingly omnipotent power over Palestinians, but in reality, Israel cannot win. We can look to the example of South Africa, where a colonial apartheid system was toppled in 1994, to understand some of the key factors that will ultimately lead to the end of apartheid in historic Palestine.

The reality of apartheid

South Africa was first colonized by Dutch settlers in 1652. After over 250 years of struggle between indigenous Africans, Dutch settlers, and British settlers who arrived later on, the Union of South Africa was founded in 1910. Although European settlers were a small minority of the population, they immediately enshrined a racist social system. For example, the “Natives Land Act of 1913” prohibited Black people from owning land in over 90% of the country’s territory. The few rights that Black South Africans had were systematically eroded when apartheid was implemented in 1948. Apartheid ensured that Black South Africans would be relegated to the bottom of society, socially and economically. For example, “pass laws” forced Black South Africans to carry a special form of identification that police and government officials could check at any time. Passes were used to control where Black South Africans could live, work, and travel, and pass checks were often used as a pretense to arrest and brutalize Black South Africans.

Israel’s apartheid system too was formally enshrined in 1948. But even before that, hundreds of thousands of European Zionist settlers had moved to Palestine in the decades prior, and they began the process of violently displacing Palestinians. Zionism itself was a European political movement. Its goal was to create an exclusively Jewish state by colonizing a land outside of Europe, in keeping with its 19th-century ideas of settler-colonialism, nationalism, and racism. Like in South Africa, the indigenous population in Palestine resisted this colonization from the onset. The Great Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, for example, was characterized by mass coordinated general strikes and armed peasant uprisings against the then-British Mandate government and encroaching Zionist settlements in a struggle for independence.

But in 1948, armed Zionist militias such as the Irgun, Haganah, and Stern Gang unleashed the Nakba — a campaign of terror, massacres, and the mass expulsions of over 700,000 Palestinians from their land that established the state of Israel. The Nakba laid the groundwork for Israel’s apartheid state, and in the 75 years since, Israel currently enforces over 65 laws that discriminate against Palestinians. Like in apartheid South Africa, these laws restrict where Palestinians can live, work, and travel. For example, Palestinians who are residents of East Jerusalem can have their residency status revoked at any time. This has happened to over 15,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem since Israel annexed and occupied it following the Six Day War of 1967.

It is not difficult to see the parallels between these two apartheid systems. Former African National Congress Chairperson and South African anti-apartheid activist Baleka Mbete said after visiting Palestine that the “Israeli regime is not only comparable, but far worse than apartheid South Africa.”

Inextinguishable indigenous resistance

Apartheid creates the conditions for resistance because no group of people would submit to permanently being denied basic human dignity. As resistance grows, an apartheid regime will double down on its repressive measures, which in turn increases the fervor of the resistance. This is one of the central contradictions of apartheid and is a key reason why it fell in South Africa.

Some of the earliest groups to oppose apartheid in South Africa were the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, and the South African Communist Party. In the 1950s and early 60s, these groups organized nonviolent campaigns against the pass laws and other pillars of the apartheid system. These campaigns were met with harsh repression by the South African government — one such case was the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, in which the police opened fire on a crowd of thousands of people who were peacefully marching.

The government’s routine violent repression of nonviolent protests drove the ANC to create an armed wing of its organization, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation,” abbreviated as “MK”). When speaking on trial in 1964, legendary ANC leader Nelson Mandela explained the motivations behind creating MK:

“Any thinking African in this country is driven continuously to a conflict between his conscience and the law. Throughout its fifty years of existence, the African National Congress has done everything possible to bring its demands to the attention of successive South African governments. But this government has set the scene for violence by relying exclusively on violence with which to answer our people and their demands … Government violence can only breed counter violence. Ultimately, if there is no dawning of sanity on the part of the government, the dispute between the government and my people will be settled by force.”

Early on, MK, which was also supported by the Communist Party of South Africa, carried out operations to sabotage economic and political machinery of the apartheid government, such as power plants and government buildings. MK remained active until the fall of apartheid.

In the early 1960s, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, and other key anti-apartheid leaders were imprisoned. This attempt by the South African government to repress the movement only created the conditions for new revolutionaries to emerge, like Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement.

For the next several decades, and climaxing in the 1980s, these anti-apartheid organizations led a mass movement of Black, Indian, and some white South Africans, and they succeeded in putting the South African regime on its back foot.

The history of Palestinian resistance has followed a similar pattern. Shortly after the Nakba in 1948, tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees attempted to return to their homes, now considered part of Israel. These refugees were labeled “infiltrators” and many were murdered, as directed by Israeli government policy. Yitzhak Pundak, a former Israeli military general, testified, “I was ordered to liquidate every infiltrator encountered by our forces, and as deterrence to leave the body in the field, to make an example of it.”

In the face of such callous brutality, several Palestinian organizations emerged in the 1950s and 60s, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Fatah. In 1964, these groups created the Palestine Liberation Organization, a broad coalition of secular nationalist organizations which became recognized by the Arab League and United Nations General Assembly as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” The PLO-affiliated groups provided leadership during the First Intifada (Arabic for “uprising”) between 1987-1993. This intifada was decades in the making. Palestinians had been subjected to years of forced displacement, home demolitions, low paying and arduous jobs, indiscriminate violence, and restriction of movement and other basic human rights. Palestinians primarily utilized nonviolent tactics during the First Intifada, such as mass protests, boycotts of Israeli products, and labor strikes. These tactics were met with brutal repression by the Israeli government, which drove more Palestinians to participate in armed resistance. It also led to the formation of new militant Palestinian groups, like Hamas, which was founded in 1987 during the First Intifada.

Israel’s expansion of settlements into the West Bank and Gaza, along with the failure of the Oslo “peace process” triggered the Second Intifada, which lasted from 2000-2005. This popular uprising took the form of mass protests, boycotts, civil disobedience actions, and other tactics of resistance. Once again, harsh repression by Israeli forces pushed Palestinians to become more militarized, and groups like Hamas, PFLP, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine adopted the use of guerrilla tactics, such as suicide bombings, in response.

In the years since, Israel has doubled down on its apartheid system. Over half of Israel’s laws that discriminate against Palestinians were adopted after 2000. Zionist settlements continued to aggressively expand into the Occupied Territories, the number of checkpoints increased, and Israel began its construction of its apartheid wall which snakes through the West Bank, annexing Palestinian land for settlements.

Between March of 2018 and December of 2019, Palestinians in Gaza organized the Great March of Return protests on the Gaza-Israel border to demand the right of return to their homelands. Every Friday for nearly two years, these protestors peacefully marched to the Gaza border wall. Israeli Occupation Forces regularly shot at these protestors, injuring over 9,000 Palestinians and killing over 200. This, and many other acts of Zionist brutality in recent years are the context in which the new wave of Palestinian resistance that started on Oct. 7 must be understood.

In both South Africa and Palestine, those organizations that have chosen to take up arms to resist a violent apartheid system have been characterized as “terrorists.” Nelson Mandela was on the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008.

When Leila Khaled, a leader of the PFLP, was asked if she was a terrorist, she responded: “Whenever I hear this word I ask another question: Who planted terrorism in our area? Some came and took our land, forced us to leave, forced us to live in camps. I think this is terrorism. Using means to resist this terrorism and stop its effects — this is called struggle.”

When an entire population is oppressed under an apartheid system, many different resistance groups will emerge. They will have differences in strategy and ideology, but unity in their opposition to apartheid. The combined efforts of these groups play the central role in creating the conditions for apartheid to fall. This was the case in South Africa, and it will be the case in Palestine. Since the Palestinian counter-offensive on Oct. 7, the Israeli political machine has been thrown into an internal crisis.

Building an international anti-apartheid consensus

In addition to the struggle within a country, the international political environment plays a major role in determining how long an apartheid system can sustain. This international environment is largely influenced by the internal struggle against apartheid.

In the case of South Africa, the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, referenced above, was the first major turning point in building an international consensus against apartheid. Just weeks after the massacre, the UN Security Council was pressured by 29 countries to pass its first resolution against South African apartheid. However, there was still a long road ahead to actually isolate the regime. In 1962, the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution that called on UN member nations to break political and economic ties with South Africa until apartheid was ended. Although the resolution passed, the United States and all of Western Europe voted against it. This made it clear that although these countries in the imperialist camp felt pressured to symbolically oppose apartheid, they were not willing to take concrete steps to topple it.

As the struggle against apartheid intensified inside South Africa, and from solidarity movements across the world, the South African regime became increasingly isolated. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the socialist camp in Europe utilized the UN as a tool to encourage more countries to cut ties with South Africa. International grassroots campaigns to boycott products produced in South Africa also had an impact. After the apartheid regime massacred Black students during the 1976 Soweto Uprising, a massive international outcry led to the UN implementing a mandatory arms embargo that prohibited countries from selling weapons to South Africa in the following year.

This growing political and economic isolation had a drastic impact on South Africa’s economy. By some estimates, South Africa experienced over $37 billion of “capital flight” between 1970 and 1988. In the same period, the rand (South Africa’s currency) saw massive inflation. The economic situation was not tenable in the long-run, especially as the imperialist powers were pressured to cut their support for the apartheid regime.

Again, we see similarities in the international struggle in solidarity with Palestine. The UN General Assembly has affirmed the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, and some countries either never normalized diplomatic relations with Israel, or withdrew relations at some point in the last 75 years. In the last month, in response to Israel’s most recent campaign of violence and the international movement against it, at least ten countries have suspended relations with Israel or withdrawn their ambassadors. However, the imperialists countries’ support for Israel gives the country leeway to withstand pressure from other parts of the world.

The struggle within the U.S.: Apartheid’s biggest backer

While the working class in every country has a role to play in the movements to isolate apartheid regimes, the U.S. working class has a particular responsibility. The U.S. government was apartheid South Africa’s biggest backer, and it has demonstrated the same fidelity to apartheid Israel.

Apartheid South Africa played the vanguard role in advancing U.S. imperialist interests on the entire continent of Africa. In coordination with the U.S., the South African government was able to weaken the socialist and progressive states in southern Africa via warfare. It assisted the racist regime in Rhodesia and mobilized full-scale military aggression in Angola, Mozambique and Namibia, which was at the time a South African colony. In an unfortunate turn of events for the apartheid regime, the South African military was humiliated by Angolan and Cuban troops during the South African Border War in the 1980s, another significant factor in the defeat of apartheid.

Israel, too, is an extension of U.S. imperialist interests. In 1986, Joe Biden infamously said, “[Support for Israel] is the best $3 billion investment we make. Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.”

Over the decades, Israel has fulfilled this role by attempting to keep the Middle East fractured and weak: invading Egypt and Syria in 1967, bombing Iraq in 1981, invading Lebanon multiple times, participating in recent US-led military operations against Iraq and Yemen, and constantly threatening war against Iran.

In the case of South Africa, the U.S. government stayed loyal to the apartheid regime for as long as it could. Its support for South Africa only wavered in the face of unyielding international pressure and a powerful domestic anti-apartheid movement that included mass demonstrations at South African consulates across the country, dozens of college campuses, cultural interventions by athletes and artists, and more. Only after the pressure generated by this movement did the US government finally pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986.

The seeds of a similar mass movement against Israeli apartheid have been planted and cultivated in the past month. On Nov. 4, a significant coalition of organizations held the largest pro-Palestine demonstration in U.S. history, with 500,000 converging in Washington, D.C. Over 9,000 artists, including Kehlani, Noname, and Kid Cudi, have signed an Artists Against Apartheid solidarity statement that affirms Palestinians’ right to “sovereignty, dignity, and self-determination.” In the weeks since, thousands of people across the country have responded to the international call to “Shut It Down for Palestine,” holding militant actions every week to build a political climate that makes Israel’s business of genocide unsustainable.

Already, the U.S. ruling class has begun to show cracks. Several articles have been published in the corporate media about growing internal divisions within the White House, the State Department, and Congress about U.S. support for Israel as it carries out its genocide. The White House, which initially expressed unconditional support for Israel, has since been blunt in disagreeing with some of its strategy in Gaza. As the genocide escalates, a growing number of Congresspeople and municipal governments have called for a ceasefire. And since Oct. 7, top UN and State Department officials have resigned over U.S. policy with regard to Israel’s onslaught.

This is not a reflection of Western leaders suddenly discovering their morality — it is an indication of the strength of a growing movement in solidarity with Palestine.

The past month and a half has clearly ushered in a new era of the struggle against Israeli apartheid within the U.S. While the U.S. ruling class hopes that public life will return to a passive acquiescence of Israel’s atrocities, progressives and revolutionaries here have an essential role to play in advancing the struggle in the opposite direction. It is the combination of a strong movement from within Israel’s biggest backer, the international isolation of Israel, and the Palestinians’ resolute struggle for liberation that will make apartheid fall again today, just as it did in South Africa.