Cries of “Free Free Palestine” and “Isolate Apartheid Israel” fill the streets of South Africa to oppose the Israeli officials’ visit.
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Cries of “Free Free Palestine” and “Isolate Apartheid Israel” fill the streets of South Africa to oppose the Israeli officials’ visit.

***image2***The streets of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban reverberated this weekend with cries of “Free Free Palestine”, “Isolate Apartheid Israel”, “Boycott Israel” and “No to Bantustans”, to mark the forthcoming visit of Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to South Africa. Thousands of people took to the streets. On Saturday’s evening news, scenes from the vibrant protests interspersed with footage from the latest deadly Israeli raids into Gaza left viewers questioning why the ANC government, supposedly a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, could be entertaining such a key representative of Israel.

While a stone faced Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad attempted to downplay the visit, claiming it to be part of a strategy to encourage the Israelis into negotiating with the Palestinian Authority (PA), the real intentions behind the visit had begun to surface.

Olmert, also the Trade Minister, is the highest ranking serving Israeli to ever visit democratic South Africa. He is due to arrive on Tuesday the 19th of October with a delegation of 23 elite business figures. Israeli high-tech, security and industrial exporters will visit South Africa in order to increase Israel’s exports which already top $130 million worth of goods (not including diamonds) every year. Olmert and his South African counterpart Mandisi Mpahlwa are expected to cement a protection of investment treaty during the course of the week.

In Israel, Likud spokespersons boasted openly about the visit, while in South Africa, the government attempted to down-play the trip, embarrassed at how bluntly they have put profit before principle. While the Israeli trade department expects trade with South Africa to increase by 5% at the end of the year, more important for the Israeli Apartheid state is the use of South Africa as a launching pad for trade with the rest of the continent. Neo-liberal politics overrides any moral considerations for trade with a rogue state. Israel depends on trade and international acceptance just like the Apartheid regime in South Africa did. Incidentally, the ‘constructive engagement’ policy of the South African state with Israel is in essence the same policy of Thatcher and Reagan towards Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, correctly maligned then by today’s South African government officials.

At the recent United Nations Conference on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinians, held in Cape Town, John Dugard the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine and Jody Kollapen the Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission supported the views of the Palestine Solidarity Committee of South Africa. This was a call for sanctions and boycotts against Apartheid Israel. This view was vociferously challenged not only by South African Cabinet Ministers present but also representatives of the PA including Saeb Erakat. Ironically, the kind of concrete support offered by the South African state at the conclusion of the UN conference came in the form of an agreement between the Mayor of Nablus and a representative of the Cape Town municipality to supply pre-paid water technology to Palestinians! This technology is condemned by South African social movements as a form water privatisation burdening poor communities even further.

Last month, at a gathering of anti-war and anti-corporate globalisation movements in Beirut, close to 260 organisations from 41 countries unanimously endorsed a boycott campaign against Apartheid Israel. Recently, the Anglican Peace and Justice Network (APJN) agreed to support the many churches, universities and trade unions in the West that are increasingly calling for a divestment campaign modeled on the popular boycott of Apartheid South Africa. APJN said it would press leaders of the 75 million Anglicans and Episcopalians worldwide to impose sanctions on Israel after an eight-day visit to the occupied territories. In July, the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States which has 3 million members, voted overwhelmingly for a boycott of Israel.

Following the South African government’s very laudable submission to the International Court of Justice on the Apartheid Wall, the government should follow through by leading an international sanctions campaign against Israel, the kind of campaign that the ANC promoted during the darkest days of Apartheid in South Africa. Further trade and relations with Israel marks an important turning point in the strategy of the ANC, which smacks of hypocrisy and double talk given its previous strong support for the Palestinian cause. It is squandering the moral high ground earned by the people through great sacrifice. Yet, most dangerously, it gives legitimacy to the so called “peace ” plans of Sharon. These “peace” plans – the disengagement and creation of a prison state in the Gaza Strip while carrying out further extermination of the Palestinian people and the annexation of their remaining lands in the West Bank, is a declaration of war and imperialism that makes Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s appear moderate.

Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s legal advisor, stated in Haaretz last week that “the significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process … in a legitimate manner” Keeping the status quo enables further colonialism. It enables the Apartheid Wall to be completed, stealing just under half of the land left in the West Bank. It serves to further the number of assassinations and murders which already total 3600 since the start of the second Intifada. It seeks to give credence and acceptance to a state which has destroyed over 7000 Palestinian homes in the last four years.

For those of us in solidarity movements with Palestinians our task becomes easier to define, albeit, more challenging than ever to implement. It is up to us to initiate from the grassroots level an international campaign to isolate and boycott Israel. We have received numerous messages of support from grassroots Palestinian organisations to oppose Olmert’s visit. It is in line with these calls from organisations in Palestine that we must begin the task to isolate Apartheid Israel – economically, culturally, academically and morally. In South Africa, the most ardent supporters of Palestinian liberation are the new social movements such as the Anti-Privatisation Foru m, the Landless Peoples’ Movement, Anti-Eviction groups and Jubilee. The leadership of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and COSATU in alliance with the ANC while rhetorically supporting the Palestinian struggle stops short of active involvement in solidarity. This does not reflect the rank-and-file of these organisations who relate extremely warmly to the Palestinian solidarity movement. Fundamentally, when our own government gives into the logic of neo-liberalism and the market over a peoples struggle for freedom and justice, it is up to us to speak out and find spaces in the quest for democracy, peace and social justice.

A meeting with the Deputy Foreign Affairs Ministry obtained was held yesterday. It is highly unlikely that the state will rescind the invitation to Olmert. An invitation we are now told that was issued three years ago by the then Trade and Industry Minister, Alec Erwin, also an executive member of the SACP The protests continue and in an encouraging sign the Campaigns coordinator of COSATU”s strongest region has indicated that they might join the protests.