News  Lessons from South Africa

ANC minister Ronnie Kasrils examines Israel with South Africa in mind for McGill’s Israeli Apartheid Week

The Daily caught up with former African National Congress (ANC) Minister Ronnie Kasrils on his way to his keynote speech for McGill’s Israeli Apartheid Week. to discuss what South African apartheid can teach the world about Gaza.

Of Jewish Lithuanian descent, Kasrils was born in Johannesburg and was a founding member of the ANC’s military wing. He worked as Chief of Military Intelligence for the ANC while exiled to neighbouring African countries and was later involved in South African politics as Deputy Minister of Defence.

McGill Daily: There was a recent petition that was signed by 500 prominent Israelis calling upon the international community to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) for Palestine campaign…. Could you comment on the state of anti-apartheid activism in Israel?

Ronnie Kasrils: I think that the fact that there are 500 courageous enough to come out in support of BDS is fantastic. It’s almost treasonable in Israel… and 500 is a very significant number.

There were times when there were far less than 500 South African whites who were prepared to stand up and side with the liberation movement. [But] it’s not just the number; it’s the symbolism.

It’s the fact that [Israelis who support BDS] are breaking with the orthodoxy of the state and the doctrine which basically says with an exclusivist state, that if you’re white or if you’re Jewish then the only way we can all survive is by standing together. So those whites who broke with that in South Africa really challenged the essence of racism and apartheid. The same thing is happening in Israel.

MD: How do you feel about comparisons between the ANC and Hamas? And in the face of the reality of the gross asymmetries when it comes to armed conflict in Israel-Palestine, do you think that the ramifications of Hamas’s militant policies need to affect the way in which its leaders are engaged in the international stage?

RK: I’ve met with Hamas leaders, and we’ve had very interesting, useful discussions. They’re very interested in our experience, our strategy of winning over whites in South Africa, They are very interested in [winning over Jews in Israel] and they began to see quite frankly that using indiscriminate violence against civilians is counter-productive. We might not endorse some of the methods they use but Hamas has stopped suicide bombings…

These are people who are patriots, who are serious, who are human beings and shouldn’t be demonized. If you want to solve a problem in the end, it’s not your friends that you negotiate with, it’s your enemies.

And Israel has not taken the opportunity of getting together to resolve these problems and why? Because of the Zionist doctrine, they are not interested in negotiation. They want the entire land of the British Mandate to themselves, that’s the reason.

MD: In the case of South Africa, the end of apartheid meant integration and liberation for blacks: living in the same country under the same rights. What tack do you take in the Palestinian solidarity struggle vis-à-vis the one-state versus the two-state solution?

RK: With South Africa, right from an early time of the struggle we made it very clear that we were talking about the liberation of the whole country and the unity state in which all our people would be equal citizens. In 1955, [the ANC] came up with this blueprint for a free South Africa and it starts in the preamble, “We South Africans, together we say that South Africa belongs to all the people who live in it, black and white, as equal citizens.”

But when you look at Palestine, it’s not for us to decide for the Palestinians, or for the Jews living in the former British Mandate Palestine, how to struggle, or what the objective should be. We want to support a whole movement which is for justice, which is for equality of people and so on.

Up until the late eighties the Palestine Liberation Organization talked about one state…. But when [Yasser] Arafat went into Oslo from the Madrid talks and stated that they would settle for a two-state solution along the lines of the pre-1967 borders, it wasn’t for us to argue with that. We supported that.

But of course what’s happened since Oslo in terms of the two states has greatly undermined it. Israel has moved against the idea of real contiguity and sovereignty.

[Palestinian] territory is shrinking because the illegal settlements have been expanding over time no matter which party is in power. So from that point of view, [the two-state solution] needs to be reconsidered.

MD: If we look at the BDS campaign, designed as it is as more or less a blanket boycott of Israeli goods, industry, academics, do you fear that the majority of the Israeli public will be alienated by it?

RK: I think you’ll find [Israeli support for the boycotts] narrow when they are appalled and they will react with anger. [Support] in turn [widen].

In South Africa, initially, [whites] were affronted by this and asked “how dare these people challenge us this way? They’re crazy, they don’t understand.” But in time it opens people’s eyes, as you sustain such pressure.

So in 1959 when the international boycott started, the support was very narrow, but by 1989 huge numbers of whites were actually joining these anti-apartheid protests. They were tired of finding themselves treated like lepers in the world, seeing their sports teams being jeered at internationally, the life lines cut off for their trade, for their cultural exchanges. For the academics it all came home to roost; for the business people, it was biting their pockets.

– Compiled by Deborah Gutterman and Niko Block