This article was written in 2010 as a contribution to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005. Click here to read other articles in the magazine.
During Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) in South Africa this year, the chant of “Siyaya” – We are coming” led by the Congress of South African Trade Union’s (Cosatu) international officer, Bongani Masuku, resonated through a protest march on the Israeli Embassy. With the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) gaining impetus in South Africa, the use of the phrase serves as a serious reminder that we are not only engaged in lending our voices of support to Palestinians, but that we are also, together with a growing international movement, actively taking steps to challenge and dismantle Israeli apartheid.
Over the past decade, and particularly since the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in 2001, groups from a diverse array of sectors have engaged with, developed and steadily entrenched not only the comparison between Apartheid South Africa and the State of Israel, but also furthered the case that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid. The publication of the Goldstone Report as well as the recent withdrawal of the South African Ambassador to Israel (as a result of the flotilla attacks) has placed increased pressure on South Africa’s diplomatic ties with Israel. Locally, a dossier (the Gaza Docket) was lodged with the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions in August 2009 against a number of Israeli political and military figures. It requests that South African authorities investigate and prosecute individuals involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. The request further requires authorities to assess whether Israel is practising a form of apartheid. Independently of these initiatives, the South African government officially commissioned its statutory research agency (the Human Sciences Research Council) to investigate the question: “Is Israel guilty of Apartheid?”. This reflects the extent to which the problem of Israeli Apartheid has steadily been raised on the public agenda.
It is within this context that furthering BDS, as a strategy against the apartheid regime in Israel, has generally become a dominant focus for solidarity work and activities. Individuals, groups and movements are now drawing on the history of boycotts and sanctions against the old South African regime to inspire and inform campaigns, strategies and actions for ending collaboration with Israeli Apartheid.
As a group dedicated to realising BDS in South Africa, we write this article to provide a moment of reflection on some of the recent gains by a diverse range of groups that have been propelling BDS forward. It also provides us an opportunity to consider, together with comrades in the international community, challenges and possibilities.
South African academics and academic institutions are increasingly being challenged to consider their collaboration with Israel. Below we point to some academic boycott related actions from various campuses across the country. It should also be noted that academics not formally connected to solidarity groups or initiatives, and from a range of disciplines, are on their own accord refusing to partake in Israeli linked programs and initiatives.
University of the Witwatersrand (wits)
At the beginning of 2009, a seminar was organised by campus organisations and academics on the question: “Should Wits Boycott Israel?”. Panelists presented overwhelming support for the academic boycott and opened a space for a critical and nuanced approach to its implementation.
The debate later set the background for a serious challenge to the University’s decision to allow an external organisation, Limmud, to host Israeli Lieutenant-Colonel David Benjamin (an accused was criminal) on its campus. Staff and students at the University, supported by relevant trade unions and solidarity organisations, protested against the University’s complicity in Benjamin’s actions. A vigorous campaign was led thereafter, eventually resulting in the Vice-Chancellor of the University appointing senior advocate, Geoff Budlender SC, to investigate the matter. The subsequent report by Advocate Budlender supported the position that boycotting a speaker such as Lt.-Col. Benjamin would not violate the University’s commitment to freedom of expression and that, in future, should a university decide not to permit such persons to speak on its campus it would be within its rights.
University of Kwa-zulu Natal (UKZN)
Professors Alan Fowler (former International Society for Third Sector Research president), Adam Habib (Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg) and Dennis Brutus (late sporting boycott stalwart) withdrew their endorsements and attendance at the Ben-Gurion University (BGU) Israeli Centre for Third Sector Research international conference in 2009. The academics conditioned their participation at the conference on the inclusion of Palestinian input. BGU refused these conditions and as a result the academics withdrew their support.
University of Cape Town (UCT)
In September 2009, UCT academics publicly supported Professor Neve Gordon, an Israeli academic who had been threatened by his university for aligning himself with the BDS movement. In their letter of support, the academics argued: “External trade and other embargoes played a key role in bringing an end to apartheid and the verbal attacks being made on Gordon are reminiscent of the discourse in apartheid South Africa”.
University of Johannesburg (UJ)
[Editor's note: University of Johannesburg has voted in March 2011 to severe links with BGU. Read statement here]
In August 2009, supported by the Israeli Embassy, Ben-Gurion University (BGU) renewed its apartheid-era academic cooperation agreement with the University of Johannesburg, relating to water purification and micro-algal biotechnology research.
Following initial steps that were taken by UJ staff and students demanding that the University reassess the agreement; a nationwide academic campaign and petition was launched in September this year by academics supporting their UJ colleagues for a termination of the Israeli partnership agreement on the grounds of BGU's direct and indirect support of the Israeli military and occupation.
To date the campaign is supported by some of our country's leading voices, including Professors Neville Alexander, Kader Asmal, Allan Boesak, Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Furthermore, the petition is also backed by South African Vice-Chancellors (the highest non-ceremonial management position within universities). This unprecedented support for the academic boycott campaign has been considered by both Palestinians and South Africans as a substantial landmark in the movement to denormalise the “business-as-usual” approach to Israeli institutions that are complicit in the occupation.
UJ’s Senate (one of its highest decision making bodies) subsequently met on the 29th of September to decide on the relationship. At this meeting the independent university appointed task team confirmed that:
1. There is significant evidence that BGU has research and other engagements that supports the military and armed forces of Israel, in particular in its occupation of Gaza; and
2. As a university embedded in a highly militarized Israeli society, BGU’s obligation to implement state policies, and its research and other relationships with the Israeli armed forces does have a significant impact on the society, and therefore on the continued subjugation of the Palestinian population in Israel.
Based on the task team's finding, UJ's senate decided not to continue its relationship with BGU in its present form, but set conditions that BGU must meet within 6 months, failing which the relationship will automatically and permanently terminate.
Notwithstanding the breakthrough made by the petitioners and the campaign, UJ academics and supporters of the campaign feel that UJ could have gone further. As a result, campaigners are closely monitoring developments as well as stepping up the campaign so as to ensure complete termination of institutional ties. More information on the ongoing petition campaign can be accessed at www.ujpetition.com.
Whilst the question of academic boycott is mostly located within education institutions, consumer and cultural boycotts enable engagement by a broader public – with individuals often taking the lead. The story of a couple in the township of Lenasia (Johannesburg) provides a glimpse into this commitment and dedication. The couple have staged consistent challenges to Israeli products being stocked at a local business, regularly loading their trolleys with Israeli products, passing through the checkout counter and then refusing to pay for the goods. This “guerrilla shopping” strategy was taken up by a mass campaign led by the Coalition for a Free Palestine, representing a wide range of organisations and unions. Launching this campaign, on the 30th March 2010 the Coalition staged a day of stop-shop guerrilla tactics, used to draw public attention to the consumer boycott and to persuade retailers not to stock Israeli goods.
Also on the consumer front, over the past year the Palestine Solidarity Alliance (PSA) drew the public’s attention to the relationship between a local date produce company, Karsten Farms, and a settler-connected company, Hadiklaim. Community members are now increasingly vigilant about the origins of fresh produce, choosing to boycott where such links are made. Information uncovered by the PSA relating to how the South African company had been marketed as the “grower” of Israeli dates lends to our understanding also of the ways in which Israeli brands are marketed as “produce of South Africa”, thereby possibly circumventing European Union (EU) labelling legislation when entering the European market.
Last year saw the launch of a cultural boycott campaign, harnessing the support of South African artists and cultural workers. A series of events were held to raise awareness, including: the release of the album "Amandla Intifada" in February 2009 and concerts held at different venues. The proceeds of the events have been used to further build and strengthen the cultural boycott.
Part of the cultural boycott has also included responding to Israeli cultural projects in South Africa. In 2009, the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) presented the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) with information that the orchestra had been used by a regional body of the South African Zionist Federation (de facto agency of the Israeli state). The management of WEDO had no knowledge that their name was being used to raise funds and seek public credibility for the Israeli-linked group. As a result, WEDO condemned the “illegal appropriation” of its name.
Following the Israeli attacks in Gaza, and at its 15,000 strong solidarity march, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) in Cape Town openly called for the full implementation of sanctions against the state of Israel. In Johannesburg, the Jamiat Ulema (a South African muslim-based organisation) set up a dedicated group to furthering BDS.
This year, an official South African response to the Kairos Palestine Document was the result of an initiative supported by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the South African Council of Churches. This response pledges to “specifically develop solidarity, by endorsing the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) . . . as a way to put maximum non-violent pressure on Israel to lift the boot of oppression from the neck of the Palestinians”.
During the 1980’s the United Democratic Front, in its goal of challenging the Apartheid regime, brought different faith based groups together towards a common goal. Similarly, solidarity work and BDS specifically, in its challenge of Israeli Apartheid, has begun to create a platform for inter-faith conversation and solidarity.
Trade Union Actions
Union support for the BDS initiative has been vital in South Africa, and has inspired not only other solidarity BDS initiatives within the country but has connected with international actions as well.
Following the attacks on Gaza, workers belonging to Cosatu, the largest trade union in South Africa, called for a national day of action against Israel under the banner "Free Palestine! Isolate Apartheid Israel!". In February 2009 one of its members, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) displayed a historic show of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Reminiscent of anti-Apartheid actions initiated by Danish dockworkers in 1963, Durban dockworkers refused to offload a ship that was carrying Israeli goods to South Africa. SATAWU workers affirmed: "This is the legacy and tradition that South African dockworkers have inherited, and it is a legacy we are determined to honour".
Also far-reaching is the most recent call by the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) for every municipality in South Africa to be an “Apartheid Israel Free Zone”.
Drawing on his experience in the banking sanctions campaign against Apartheid South Africa, Terry Crawford-Browne is actively working on pursuing a similar strategy in relation to Israel.
Interbank transfer instructions are conducted through the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), which is based in Belgium. A Belgian court would be entitled to order SWIFT to reprogram its computers to suspend all transactions to and from Israeli banks under exceptional circumstances. Crawford-Browne makes the case that such circumstances are incontrovertible in relation to Israel, being well-documented in findings such as the Goldstone report.
He is currently in conversation with Palestinian civil society groups as well as Belgian legal representatives and there is good indication that similar gains made during the 1980s can be made now.
Within the Jewish community
Working actively within the South African Jewish community, Open Shuhada Street (OSS) has opened a space for engagement on the question of BDS, sometimes against heavy criticism from a large Zionist contingent. For example, the organization recently hosted a public debate with Professor Steven Friedman, well-known political commentator and supporter of BDS, on the efficacy of implementing boycotts. The organisation also hosted four shministim at the end of last year, who spoke nationally and endorsed the call for boycotts. On conclusion of the tour, one of the shministim, Yuval Auron, commented:
“Like during Apartheid I believe this [challenge to Israel] should be done by targeting the Israeli academic institutions and the economy, and focusing in particular on boycotting international companies who are involved in military activity or who have any connection with the development of the settlements.”
Reflections and Conclusion
The BDS Working Group is an autonomous unit affiliated with the Cosatu-led Coalition for a Free Palestine and works closely with existing groups involved in Palestinian solidarity. Our focus is on researching SA-Israel links within the economic, cultural, sporting and academic spheres, as well as developing focused, sustained and strategic campaigns. The BDS actions outlined in this article are a foundation from which we hope to contribute toward the overall intention of realising concrete BDS gains in South Africa.
Whilst inspired by these successes, we are also reminded of Amilcar Cabral’s cautionary words: “Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories”. There are indeed many challenges facing BDS work in South Africa. As BDS work gains ground, there are increasingly difficult challenges to uncovering SA-Israel links. Israeli companies and individuals rely on “middlemen structures” that hide Israel’s connection to consumer goods, diplomatic and other relations. Further, by inserting itself into seemingly neutral and beneficial projects (such as green technology initiatives) it becomes harder to focus the public’s attention on Israel’s violation of international law and apartheid policies.
Finally, as shown above, BDS work in South Africa is often led by a diverse range of groups and on multiple fronts. The relevance of a diverse and active civil society is particularly important when pressuring government to take a strong stance against Israeli Apartheid. The voices of public figures, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ronnie Kasrils (previous Minister of Intelligence) and Zackie Achmat (leading Aids activist) lend to this pressure. Most recently Kader Asmal (leading anti-apartheid icon and previous South African minister), in a public statement that endorsed BDS, commented:
“It is time to delegitimize this entity [Israel]. We did that to the apartheid government in South Africa, and the same must happen to Israel. We spent years trying to isolate South Africa, and the campaign grew to embrace a worldwide call for state-ordained boycotts, including military, economic, sporting, academic and cultural sanctions. These campaigns stirred the conscience of the world.”
The BDS Working Group is an autonomous unit affiliated with the Cosatu-led Coalition for a Free Palestine and works closely with existing groups in South Africa involved in Palestinian solidarity. Our focus is on researching SA-Israel links within the economic, cultural, sporting and academic spheres, as well as developing focused, sustained and strategic campaigns to further realize BDS in South Africa. For further information contact us at [email protected]
 The request is primarily driven by two South African non-governmental organisations, the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance and the Media Review Network. International Jurist, John Dugard, and law professor Max du Plessis are the legal advisors supporting the dossier.
 South Africa has a strong network of dedicated Palestine solidarity groups (including, but not limited to, the Palestine Solidarity Group, Palestine Solidarity Alliance, Palestine Solidarity Committee, Wits University Palestine Solidarity Committee, and the End Occupation Campaign), but the issue also receives support from trade union groups, religious organisations, students and a wide diversity of individuals.
 For example, most recently, a senior lecturer that was invited to contribute to an Israeli edited journal refused participation after being made aware of the publication’s links to Israel.
 Wits University Palestine Soldiarity Committee together with the South African Student Congress and the Young Communist League were the primary organizers of this event. The seminar was held at the beginning of 2009 as part of Israeli Apartheid Week activities at the University.
 Formal charges were laid against Lieutenant-Colonel David Benjamin, by former anti-apartheid activist, Professor Farid Esack, based on the dossier lodged with the National Prosecuting Authority (refer to note 2 above).
 Some member organizations include the South African Council of Churches, South African Young Communist League, South African Communist Party, Muslim Judicial Council, Muslim Students Association, Palestine Solidarity Group, Palestine Solidarity Committee, Wits University Palestine Solidarity Committee and the Palestine Solidarity Alliance. Some member unions include Cosatu, Nehawu, Numsa, Satawu, Samwu and others.
 Headed by respected benefactors, Mariam Said and Maestro Daniel Barenboim
 Shiministim is the term given to twelfth grade Israeli student conscientious objectors.