Two Walled Cities: Jerusalem and Johannesburg, Apartheid and Palestine

The Palestine Center
Washington, DC
1 December 2006

William Fletcher:

Thank you and it’s an honor and a pleasure to be here.

When I was invited, I was asked to speak in terms of what was called “Two Walled Cities: Jerusalem and Johannesburg.” I thought that was a very good metaphor to look at the issue of apartheid and the occupation. But before but I get into that, I want to preface it by actually speaking about some differences between Israeli-occupied Palestine and apartheid-era South Africa, in fact, a very dramatic difference.

Within a few months of my taking over as President of TransAfrica Forum in January 2002, I received a call from none other than the Israeli Embassy congratulating me on the appointment. This came as an incredible shock. I said to myself, do they know who I am? They then went on to propose a meeting with me to discuss a cultural program that the Israeli Embassy wished to jointly sponsor with TransAfrica Forum that focused on Ethiopian Jews. The meeting never happened. They called me and claimed that someone on their staff had gotten sick. I guess they’re still sick because the meeting was never rearranged. But in any case, I concluded that they probably did a little investigation and just said that there wouldn’t be much of a point to having the meeting.

I raise this for two reasons. One is that I never received a congratulatory call from an Arab Embassy. And this is not an attack on Arabs, but it is something I’ve noticed in terms of the unwillingness or inability to carry out outreach in the USA in order to promote an Arab viewpoint. The Israelis, on the other hand, are phenomenal in terms of outreach. The South Africans during the apartheid era were not. I’ll get into that in a second, and it’s a very, very big difference in the approaches of the two countries. So the approach of the Israelis really does contrast remarkably with the approach that the South African apartheid regime took towards the whole notion of developing allies and constituencies externally. The Israelis have always had an active outreach program, and while they have consistently portrayed themselves to be victims, they have done so in a way that constantly seeks international support. Interestingly, other settler states like South Africa and Australia took a very, very different view when it came to this matter and did not, by and large, seek non-governmental constituencies, even though both of these other settler states, in their own ways, portrayed themselves as victims. The South African apartheid regime obviously had a close alliance with the United States but did not spend a lot of time trying to cultivate a relationship in the United States. The slight exception to this was the effort, backed by the Reagan administration, to promote the South African-aligned Angolan movement of Jonas Savimbi (called the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola [UNITA]) in the USA in connection with certain right-wing African American churches. Even here, however, while UNITA was aligned with South Africa, it was not the South Africans who were trying to develop a constituency in the USA.

The logic of both Israel and apartheid-era South Africa can be found in their common origins as settler states. In both cases, the settlers created myths, semi-religious or explicitly religious, including that God had provided the land for them and that the land was unoccupied upon arrival, a very, very common theme in every settler state, whether it’s the United States, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc. In both cases, the settlers portrayed themselves to be victims against natives who were described as semi-barbaric and/or intolerant. Given the permanent state of siege, every settler state aggression came to be described as a defensive act, an approach also common with the United States. By way of example, for South Africa, incursions into Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe or anywhere else always against alleged terrorists were justified as alleged defensive actions.

For the settler state, there is a zero sum calculation when it comes to the natives. This does not necessarily mean that the natives must be annihilated, but it does mean that the natives can never be allowed to prevail. In this context, one can look at Jerusalem and apartheid-era Johannesburg as emblematic of settler strategy and the settler state as a whole. Though there are significant differences between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa, for example, the religious significance of Jerusalem, the settler approach in both cases with these cities shared much in common. In the case of Jerusalem, the entire city has been seized by the settlers who have no intention of sharing it with the Palestinians. The settler plan is one of driving out the Palestinians through a combination of intimidation and inconvenience, otherwise known as psychological warfare. By inconvenience I mean the painful difficulties encountered by Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem.

Johannesburg, however, was constructed to be for whites only. Blacks could enter the city during the days to work but had to clear out at nightfall unless they had explicit permission to stay. Blacks lived in what can only loosely be described as suburbs or townships, the most well known being Soweto, which is an acronym for South-West Township. It’s not a name in and of itself. Security, as in occupied Palestine, was ever present in Johannesburg and Soweto. Blacks carried passes and travel was always limited. Johannesburg stood as a top of the line First World city while townships like Soweto were Third World and often-quite marginal.

The walls in the case of Johannesburg were actually around Soweto and other townships as opposed to being around Johannesburg itself. In fact, one of the remarkable things in going to Soweto is that there is only one road and gate in and out. As apartheid crumbled, so too did much of Johannesburg. Whites left the city in mass and they abandoned their often-luxurious high rises to squatters or general squalor. They retreated to their nearly always heavily militarily guarded and gated communities. And there was a remarkable reversal that unfolded. Whites would be in the city by days, and then they would be in their communities at nights. But they would not stay in Johannesburg during the evening.

The apartheid plan was for the removal of blacks from the best of land. In this case, it followed the model that was established by the British in Ireland in the 1500s when they drove the Irish out of the best lands in the north and forced them south and settled the north with Welsh, Scots and some poor English. It also follows what we see in other settler states such including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and obviously Israel.

Yet each settler state has handled its indigenous population somewhat differently. In Australia, New Zealand and the United States, there was an overt effort at extermination. Case in point, there are no Tasmanians left on this planet. Not only were the indigenous removed from the land, they were removed from the living. In Ireland, South Africa and to some extent Canada, the premium was placed on the removal of the natives from the land and their socio-political marginalization. In the case of Palestine, I’d argue, a bit of both seems to be underway, though the emphasis seems to be on the removal from land.

In both the Occupied [Palestinian] Territories and apartheid-era South Africa, the settler state wishes (or in the case of South Africa, wished) to make the situation so inhospitable that the indigenous people leave on their own. It combines violent coercion with what can be described as hassling, or what I said earlier, psychological warfare. In the case of South Africa, the apartheid regime created those fictitious homelands like the Transkei and Ciskei. These were actual large territories with limited resources and limited anything with the exception of sources of entertainment such as Sun City. The key land always remained in the hands of the whites. The Occupied [Palestinian] Territories are replicating this pattern. And just as the apartheid regime presented itself to the world as visionary by allegedly “liberating” the homelands, so too do the Israelis in their vision of a Palestinian state or statelet. The situation raises some uncomfortable strategic questions. For the black South Africans, the struggle was not one to build legitimate and self-sustaining homelands. The objective was not to take over the Transkei and Ciskei and make those viable states. It was instead to destroy apartheid and create a democratic South Africa. In that sense, it’s interesting to see discussions under way in the Palestinian movement regarding the viability of the two-state solution in light of what Israeli practice has been.

Finally, the Holocaust separates Israel from apartheid-era South Africa largely in terms of the perspective of the rest of the world. The treatment received by the Boers (what are now known as Afrikaaners), in the original British concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer war, may have helped to shape Afrikaaner consciousness, but it had little impact on the way that the rest of the world viewed the Boers as a people or their efforts to eventually justify the apartheid state. The Holocaust, however, shuts down much discussion. This is not helped by comments such as the contradictory and rhetorically provocative, if not stupid, statements by the Iranian President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad questioning the reality of the Holocaust. Yet the Holocaust, a horrific act committed by one group of Europeans against another, is presented in a white supremacist framework in order to trump any and all discussions regarding Palestinian sovereignty and the legitimacy of any settler state.

The struggle against apartheid carried with it many valuable lessons for the Palestinian movement. Yet I would suggest that the struggle of the First Nations, or the Native Americans (here in the USA), also carries invaluable lessons. The First Nations in the United States and Canada were demonized, dehumanized and, ironically, romanticized by the settler state. The settler myth was used to justify continuous expansion, the breaking of treaties, murder and land removal—actually the removal of the people from their land. The settler state justified its atrocities by reference to what eventually came to be known as the “facts on the ground.” In other words, from the standpoint of the settler, it does not ultimately matter whether ‘we’, that is the settler, robbed ‘you’ of your land and dignity. ‘We,’ meaning the settler, possess all the cards. That is, the settler possesses all or most of the weapons and, therefore, from the standpoint of the settler, the game is over and, as the bumper sticker says, “Things just happen.”

Thank you.