Comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa is all the rage again. A United Nations agency recently published (and the United Nations secretary general rejected) a report accusing the Jewish state of having “established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.” Campuses around the world are currently marking Israel Apartheid Week to “raise awareness of Israel’s settler-colonial project and apartheid system.”
The question of whether today’s Israel is akin to the old South Africa was forcefully rejected by former anti-apartheid activist Benjamin Pogrund in an op-ed in The New York Times last week, once more triggering passionate discussion over the question.
The African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s revolutionary movement that freed South Africa from apartheid and currently rules the country, endorses the Israel-apartheid comparison. In 2012, ANC chairperson and former South African deputy president Baleka Mbete accused the Jewish state of being “far worse than Apartheid South Africa.”
But in recent months, a growing number of young black South Africans — including members of the ANC’s youth division — have visited Israel and now forcefully reject the parallels drawn between the racist regime under which their parents suffered and the current reality for Palestinian Arabs — in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Prominent among them is Nkululeko Nkosi, a 23-year-old member of the ANC Youth League.
“Precisely because we South Africans know intimately what apartheid involved, we have a duty to question whether it is an appropriate term to be used in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Nkosi wrote in a recent article for a pamphlet published by “Africans for Peace,” a group trying to change the narrative about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Put simply, because nobody knows the pain of apartheid better than we do, we are able to guide the rest of the world on when to describe a situation using that term and when to avoid doing so.”
Nkosi, who hails from Kathlehong township in Johannesburg and recently obtained an undergraduate degree in law, went on to argue that apartheid was about race, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict encompasses both religious and territorial disputes.
“On my last trip to Israel, I found that unlike apartheid South Africa, there is no deliberate effort by the government to segregate a specific group in Israel,” he wrote. “In day-to-day discussions with ordinary Israeli citizens, I learned from Arabs and Jews, and I sensed their burning desire to live together as harmonious neighbors. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaners disdained black South Africans, and these sentiments are still in evidence today.”
Nkosi ended his article with a plea to fellow South Africans not to “steal” the term apartheid by inaccurately applying it to the Middle East.
“For black South Africans, apartheid was more than just systematic discrimination against our people. It was a project that aimed to rob a specific race of its history, culture, dignity, and humanity,” he wrote. “Those who apply the term ‘apartheid’ to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse are guilty of perpetuating that same theft, by denying the uniqueness of the racism and hatred that we faced, and which we have overcome with much blood and tears.”
Israelis and Palestinians may feel that one group hates the other, but this reality “is very different from the legally-blessed racism, based on the discredited idea of white supremacy, that once reigned in my country,” he posited.
Nkosi, who once hoped to run for national office for the ANC but has been shunned by the party for his pro-Israel views, first learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2013, when a group of students disrupted a performance by a famous Israeli pianist.
“For a while, I held the view that Israel was an apartheid state and suspected that something was amiss when a couple of colleagues visited Israel only to face backlash here at home,” he told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “I then also wanted to visit Israel for myself and develop my own views on the matter. It was after my trip to Israel that I started to question a lot of things and sought more information and made comparisons between apartheid South Africa and Israel.”
Even though the ANC officially discourages travel to Israel, thousands of South Africans visit the country every year. According to Israel’s ambassador in Pretoria, Arthur Lenk, the number of South African tourists who visit the Jewish state “significantly” increased in 2016.
“Many are Christians who come as pilgrims, others are business leaders of all faiths looking to boost trade or tourists to discover Israel or to visit friends or family,” Lenk said. “I am glad so many South Africans are seeing Israel for themselves instead of believing politically motivated rhetoric of some who gain from divisiveness.”
Nkosi’s all-expenses-paid visit to Israel in 2016 was organized and sponsored by the South African-Israel Forum, a nonprofit seeking to promote bilateral relations. “I got the opportunity to meet with Israelis and Palestinians,” he said, recalling that he visited universities with “vibrant Arab student populations,” as well as the Qalandia refugee camp.
In 2015, the ANC publicly denounced the South African-Israel Forum’s work, calling it a “campaign by Israel to distort our stand on Palestine” that will put the party “in disrepute.”
Ironically, perhaps, it was the ANC’s encouragement to think differently that impacted Nkosi. “My view differs from the ANC’s because I have been taught by the ANC to discuss and question everything,” he said.
Nkosi joined the ANC Youth League in 2012, during his first year as a law student at Wits University. Having been inspired by the party’s “radical stance on various societal issues,” he eventually became the chairman of its chapter at Wits.
“I used to have hopes of ascending the ANC ranks,” he told The Times of Israel, but its current politics “suggest that there may not be an ANC to inherit for young people like myself.”
The disdain is mutual, as the party not only officially discourages travel to Israel but also publicly shames members who speak positively about the country.
‘What is clear is that my political career in the ANC and youth structures is finished’
Last week, the ANC Youth League’s secretary-general issued a statement condemning a “certain individual [who] is parading around, on a pro-Israeli trip in the USA, claiming to be a youth leader of the ANC.” He and “other foreign agents” who “advance the agenda of the imperialist Israeli regime,” automatically lose their membership, according to the statement.
“Any South African caught in bed with the enemy should be distanced by progressive forces,” the text read. “He or any person parading around as an ANC youth leader at counter-revolutionary pro-Israel events must consider their membership revoked as they have placed themselves outside the organisation and the movements policies and resolutions.”
Nkosi, too, has been insulted and intimidated due to his pro-Israel activism, he said.
“What is clear is that my political career in the ANC and youth structures is finished. In addition to my discontentment with the ANC and its leadership, it seems my trip to Israel and my subsequent views translate to the end of any [political] ambition.”
And yet, Nkosi is optimistic regarding the future of Israel-South Africa relations. While he acknowledged that the ANC, which is closely affiliated with the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, is unlikely to engage in constructive political dialogue with Jerusalem, he hopes that Pretoria’s current economic worries will lead to some sort of rapprochement down the line.
Standard and Poor this week downgraded South Africa’s credit rating to “junk status,” he noted, hoping this could compel the country to look to establish new relations, including reaching out to the Israeli government “for help with innovation and more importantly, water and agriculture technologies.”
“The recent credit rating downgrade means our government must find innovative ways to strengthen our economy and Israel may be one of the answers,” he said. “I am one of the optimistic people.”