South African BDS Coalition activist Salim Vally: ‘Israel’s regime is worse than Apartheid’

June 19, 2024
people protesting
Delegates to the recent Global Anti-Apartheid Conference on Palestine protesting outside the United States consulate in South Africa's capital Johannesburg. Photo: @anti_apartheidsa/Instagram. Inset: Salim Vally

Salim Vally began his activism back in 1976 as a student leader fighting against his country’s apartheid regime. Today, he heads up the South African BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) coalition , which helped organise the recent Global Anti-Apartheid Conference on Palestine.

Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke to Vally — who will be a guest speaker at Ecosocialism 2024 — about the global campaign against Israeli apartheid.

* * *

What has Israel’s war on Gaza demonstrated about the realities of Israeli apartheid today?

In March last year, I was invited to give the annual Palestine lecture at the University of London’s School of Oriental African Studies.

In that address I said that if we allowed Israel to continue to act with impunity, I had no doubt that the coming atrocities and massacres would eclipse the wholesale slaughters meted out in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere during the previous decades of Israeli inhumanity and savagery.

This has now come to pass.

This assessment was based on the makeup of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s government, which includes ministers who are clearly fascist: [Minister of National Security] Itamar Ben-Gvir, [Deputy Minister of National Jewish Identity] Avi Maoz, [Minister of Finance] Bezalel Smotrich.

These are extreme right-wing racists who now have responsibilities for key areas, such as building settlements and security.

That is why I said that while Israel has always been a settler colonial apartheid state, we needed to be very concerned that under this government the situation would not just go from bad to worse but that, at a certain point, the quantitative change would become qualitative.

In that sense, what has happened in the past eight, going on to nine months, did not come as a surprise.

Sure, no one was prepared for the level of cruelty and deplorable depravity, even if Israel has been doing this from time to time over the past eight decades.

The present destruction of infrastructure, hospitals, universities and schools, and the killing of more than 40,000 men, women and children from a population of just 2.3 million, is really staggering.

The number of people murdered, those buried under the rubble and those maimed is equivalent to more than 1.5 million Australians, excluding those who have died from starvation, illness and lack of medical treatment.

It was clear for some time that this government had a genocidal strategy, unencumbered by what some people call “international opinion”, and that the horrors it was willing to unleash would create very distinct challenges for Palestinian resistance and movements of international solidarity — but also opportunities.

How do you assess where we are at in terms of building international solidarity?

Despite many attempts to repress the mass protests around the world they continue.

We continue to see student and staff encampments on campuses in the United States, Europe, South Africa, Australia and many other places around the world.

Something that has been particularly heartening to see is anti-Zionist Jewish organisations, primarily led by young people, coming out to say “Not in our name” and raising the slogan “Never again means never again for everyone”.

So too the workers around the world blocking boats destined for Israel and refusing to handle Israeli goods.

The response in some key US states during the primaries, where people have refused to endorse Biden, is another good sign.

In terms of what we are seeing, many of us feel that a tipping or inflection point has been reached.

For a long time, Israel was allowed to act with impunity and without restraint.

But we are starting to see changes we would not have thought possible a few years ago. Primarily in the US, but also in Germany and some other European countries, there are cracks and fissures starting to show.

For example, sanctions are now on the cards for many countries and even United Nations’ agencies. Malaysia has refused to allow Israeli-flagged cargo ships to dock in its ports. Namibia has sanctioned the sale of diamonds to Israel. So, things are changing.

Something similar happened with South Africa.

The first call for a boycott campaign against Apartheid was made as early as 1959.

But it was only when dockworkers in Liverpool started refusing to load and unload South African goods; when supermarket workers in Ireland started refusing to handle South African products; when people in New Zealand started to protest against touring South African sporting teams, that governments started to change their positions.

Today, the hard work of activists throughout the world has enabled us to make very rapid gains.

Of course, this has come at a huge price for Palestinians. And we still have much work to do. The reality today looks very grim — as it did in the ’80s in my country.

But there is a well-known phrase that “the night is darkest just before dawn breaks”. Many Palestinians feel this current moment may be a moment of change.

How valid are comparisons between Israel and Apartheid South Africa?

The first thing to note is that the extent and brutality of the Israeli regime is much more staggering than that of Apartheid South Africa — which is saying a lot.

The difference [is] Israel feels it can dispose of the Palestinian people whereas the South African apartheid regime could not do that with South African workers, because they needed to super exploit their labour in order to accumulate capital.

At the same time, there are many points of commonality.

For example, Apartheid South Africa was a settler colonial formation formed by Europeans and initially overseen by British imperialism, just like Israel.

There are also clear similarities between the 65-odd pieces of discriminatory legislation in Israel that govern all aspects of everyday life with what existed under apartheid in South Africa.

All of this has led a number of organisations to conclude that systemic and widespread discriminatory Israeli policies and practices against Palestinians amount to a violation of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

[However], in her September 2022 report to the UN General Assembly on human rights in the occupied territories, UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese speaks to some limits of the apartheid framework.

For example, she notes that recent reports on Israeli apartheid exclude the experience of Palestinian refugees. She says recognition of Israeli apartheid must address the experience of the Palestinian people in its entirety, including those who were displaced in 1947‒48.

She also notes that a focus on Israeli apartheid alone misses the inherent illegality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.

Finally, Albanese notes that the apartheid framework does not address the “root causes” of what she calls settler colonialism — a war crime under the Rome Statute.

All this is worth considering when discussing Israeli apartheid.

South Africa filed the genocide case against Israel in the International Court of Justice. But could South Africa be doing more?

Absolutely we could be doing more.

For example, sanctions have not even started. People are often quite surprised to hear that we still trade with Israel.

Israel relies on coal imports from Colombia, Russia and South Africa to fuel its economy. Colombia has just announced that it is banning coal sales to Israel, but South Africa continues to sell coal to Israel.

The South African government should be following Colombia’s lead.

There are other things the government could be doing.

There are a sizeable number of people with dual citizenship who have fought in the Israeli Occupation Force. We have put together a dossier of their names and details and sent it to the national prosecuting agency. But no action has been taken against these mercenaries.

In the sporting arena, there are athletes who still compete against Israelis and even train in Israel. There are also business owners in South Africa who fund groups that are directly implicated in land theft, such as the Jewish National Agency. The government should intervene to stop this.

At the level of universities, while we have a number of university senates that have embraced the academic boycott, there are still universities who are yet to sign on.

As for the ICJ case, we are determined to ensure that it proceeds, irrespective of the composition of the new government. Given the prestige and tremendous support that our legal team enjoys in South Africa, I think it will be very hard for any government to pull out of the case now.

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