I had to wake up at 5.30am to go to the bus station to catch the train to Port Elizabeth, 1,000 km and 14 hours away by bus. I had no time to get coffee in the morning, but the wake up jolt I needed came in the ride to the bus station, in a rickety little van whose driver seems to have had it confused with a Ferrari. It was a good morning from then on.
The trip from Durban to Port Elizabeth passes through the Eastern Cape’s gorgeous scenery, through the Wild Coast, the Transkei and Settler Country—which, as you can imagine, evoked images of land-thieves for this Palestinian. The beauty of this country is mesmerizing, and the land we passed is quite instructive about the history and current state of South Africa. Between the glitz, urbanity and modernism of Durban and Port Elizabeth lies a land of contradiction: neglect and poverty interspersed with sporadic affluence. Nelson Mandela was born in the small village of Mvezo in the Transkei, and we passed close by it.
The Transkei was a South African Bantustan from 1978 until 1994. Bantustans were a creative idea devised by apartheid leaders to solve their ‘black problem’. The idea behind it was to concentrate the blacks in some of the worst lands in the country, with the least natural resources and infrastructure, call these lands independent countries, make all blacks live in them, and use them as cheap labor for whites when needed. If they ever caused any problems, they wouldn’t be allowed into white areas. To make this work, the apartheid regime sought black tribal leaders that were willing to cooperate, gave them a lot of money and weapons and supported them against rivals that fought for equality. This divided blacks into supporters of apartheid and separation into separate countries and supporters of equality.
The world refused to acknowledge these joke political entities as independent nation states. Interestingly and tellingly enough, Israel was the only country other than apartheid South Africa to establish relations with these countries, providing their security forces with military training.
Seeing the Transkei was particularly interesting to me because of the parallels between the South African Bantustan model and the current situation in Palestine. Ariel Sharon, on a visit to his apartheid buddies in the old South Africa remarked at how impressed he was with the Bantustan idea and envisioned that it would provide the best way to resolve the ‘Palestinian problem’.
The analogy between Israeli occupation of Palestine and apartheid has been done before by many. Even former US President Jimmy Carter wrote about it in his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid.
There certainly are similarities and the analogy is persuasive. In both cases, some meaningless 19th century-based definition of identity (white/coloured/black in SA; Jew/non-Jew in Palestine) was used as the basis for determining what rights each individual has. One can view white areas of South Africa outside the Transkei as similar to the parts of Palestine occupied in 1948, and the Transkei (and other Bantustans) as the equivalent of the West Bank and Gaza. In both areas the local population was suppressed to the benefit of the colonialists. The settler areas in the Trasnkei were more developed and richer than the black areas, just like Israeli colonies on stolen Palestinian lands are richer and more developed than Palestinian areas.
But there are also differences. One is that the poverty and underdevelopment in the West Bank is the product of a deliberate policy of de-development implemented by Israel over the last 44 years of occupation, which is unlike anything apartheid South Africa ever implemented. The amount of impediments placed on Palestinian trade, movement and production are probably worse than anything that black South Africans had to endure. The level of spending on infrastructure during Israeli occupation was the lowest in the world—in spite of Israel collecting very high taxes. Factories were closed, trade with the outside world was heavily curtailed, and since the early 1990’s movement of goods and individuals within the West Bank has become nearly impossible. No other place in the world witnesses such a premeditated policy of economy-cide.
Another difference is that in the Transkei, the colonization happened at earlier points in history and was not the premeditated policy of the apartheid regime after the 1970’s, when they decided they would rather keep these areas for blacks. They sought to give blacks independence (however meaningless) in order to keep them out of white areas. Many white areas, such as some of the beaches of the wild coast, were deserted by whites as they sought to disentangle themselves from having to live near blacks. In Palestine, however, every single Israeli government has overseen a premeditated program of ethnic cleansing and land theft in order to appropriate the West Bank and Gaza for Jews only. The recent Israeli policy of isolating the Gaza Strip, however, is similar to what the apartheid regime wanted to do with the Transkei: close it off and leave the people there to their fate.
This is the biggest difference between apartheid and Zionism: apartheid sought to find arrangements for separate living of whites and blacks in South Africa. Zionism, from its inception as a militant political movement from the 1920’s until today, has sought to murder and transfer Palestinians from the land entirely. The supposedly “liberal” parts of the Zionist movement are the ones that wanted to ‘coexist’ with Palestinians, but separated away from them in a racist arrangement like apartheid.
For Carter and others making the apartheid analogy, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, if it were to continue, would result in a system of apartheid reminiscent of South Africa. Therefore, in order to avert this fate and rescue Israel from itself, the Palestinians need to be given their own state in which they can live in peace, side-by-side with the Israelis, and the two can then prosper economically using some Tom Friedman and Shimon Peres-approved model of economic development. Israel would, of course, maintain sovereignty and control over the Palestinian state as every proposal for a two-state solution has made clear.
But if you think about it for a second, it is precisely this sort of two-state-solution that best resembles apartheid. This point was driven home to me a few years ago when I read what former apartheid South Africa president F. W. de Klerk had said to a delegation of Palestinians and Israelis:
“…what apartheid originally wanted to achieve is what everybody now says is the solution for Israel and Palestine, namely – partitioning, separate nation states on the bases of ethnicity, different cultures, different languages.”
What we have today in Palestine is not apartheid, it is far worse. It is a methodic, systematic and premeditated process of colonization and ethnic cleansing. The Tel Aviv ruling regime continues to function upon the basic formula that inspired the Zionist project from day one: “More land, less Arabs”. Israel has, in the last 44 years, moved half a million of its citizens into stolen land in the illegally occupied West Bank. They have ethnically cleansed thousands out of it, and through a process of systemic urbicide and politicide are driving out many more. The construction of illegal Israeli settlements on stolen Palestinian lands continues at an accelerating pace supported and subsidized militarily and financially by every single Israeli government in the past 40 years, and funded by the US Taxpayer.
This was not the case during apartheid. At even its worst, the apartheid regime leaders never held the criminal determination to ethnically cleanse South Africa of its blacks. Even in their worst days, South African apartheid government never had people like Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s current Foreign Minister who is a fascist that openly advocates the ethnic cleansing, sterilization and murder of Arabs. Even South Africa’s white supremacists and extremists, who were part of illegal movements criminalized by the regime, wanted to live separately from blacks and not to ethnically cleanse them.
If one were to analogize the apartheid political spectrum with that of the modern Israeli political spectrum, one could see the equivalent of these white supremacists in the supposed Israeli “peace camp” and its allies in the American progressive movement, who want to achieve peace by separating Palestinians from Jews in Palestine.
Back on the bus, we only arrived at Port Elizabeth at 10pm, the ride taking a full 16 hours, 3 more than scheduled. But the trip was pleasant nonetheless, mainly thanks to the beauty of the scenery and the good atmosphere on the bus. There were many Dutch fans who were heading to PE for the Holland-Brazil match, and I spent a lot of time discussing the Dutch’s chances with them. There was a good sense of optimism about the team’s chances. Even though the Dutch were not playing their usual beautiful game, and even though their stars were not being as creative as they should be, there was a feeling that this team is geared to win, not to impress.
Usually I have an aversion for people who whip out a guitar uninvited and start singing, because they’re usually awful at it and end up annoying everyone in order to attract some attention. But on this bus, some guy got on and started playing his guitar really well. He sang rock ballads as well as African songs and most the people on the bus joined in. Everything is so great in South Africa that even douchebags with guitars are fun to listen to! It’s really been that sort of charmed trip.
We only arrived at Port Elizabeth at 10pm, two hours behind schedule. I was exhausted and needed to find something to eat desperately. Across from the backpackers’ hostel were I was staying, I found a Thai restaurant that was closing down. The owners were some of the most interesting people I’ve met on this trip, and I’ll recount their story in the next entry, so stay tuned.