'At Home' in South Africa:Reflections

Dr. Randa Farah is a Research Associate based at the Refugee Studies Center (RSC), University of Oxford.

Most of her writing and research pivots around forced displacement, exile, nationalism and children living with the effects of prolonged conflict. Dr. Farah has conducted several seminars on diasporas and refugees in different academic institutions, and was involved in developing and teaching a short course on Palestinian refugees and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the University of Oxford. Her current research and interest are of a comparative nature, mainly, in Africa (South Africa and Western Sahara), Cypriot refugees and Latin America, primarily Guatemala.

 This article is based on a visit by the author to the University of Western Cape in South Africa between the 11-17th of March, 2001

  Apartheid Regimes
"'The 6th of April, 1652, Jan Van Riebeeck came in ships…and we were forced to listen and study this history at school. We were taught.. black people were barbarians....they raped our women... If they did not come and rape my grandmothers… we would not be here and yet they crucified me for the colour of my skin.

During apartheid I was classified as 'coloured'!!" (Marcia Scheepers, Cape Town, South Africa, March, 2001).
The El Al and South African Airlines are positioned right next to each other at the boarding gates at Heathrow airport, where I began my journey to a country with a rich history of struggle against one of the most vicious forms of oppression - Apartheid!

A symbolic arrangement, I thought, as I walked through the gates filled with excitement and trepidation. The two racist states prided themselves in having exported 'civilization' to both Africa and Asia! I recalled the words from Herzl's 'Der Judenstaat,' (1896) that the 'Jewish state' would form a 'bulwark of civilization against Asiatic barbarism.' When Zionism emerged at the turn of the 19th Century as a political colonial movement, the Europeans had already provided various models for their Zionist (also European) allies of racist colonial settlement, mainly how to uproot, relocate and enslave indigenous populations. South Africa's geographical distance from Palestine collapsed as I pondered over its historical and political proximity to the Palestinian experience.

"There were acts that became crucial for Apartheid, the Mixed Marriages Act, for example, the Immorality Act, (you couldn't mix
socially with other groups). They had divided the country into groups, Africans, Coloureds (mixed descent), Indians and Whites. Then they divided the African population into ethnicgroups, the Xhosa, Sutu, Zulu, Zwana and then  they gave each group a 'Homeland', so if you were Xhosa your Homeland (bantustan) was either Transkei or Siskei. It was the old divide and rule strategy.

A lot of areas were mixed prior to institutionalized Apartheid, like District Six, so they picked out each group and put them in other areas. Most people were just given a shorttime to move, if you didn't they uprooted you by bulldozing your home and place" (Saliem Patel, lecturer at the School of Government at the University of Western Cape. His research interests is the political economy of Southern Africa with a specific focus on investment in the region, March 2001).

The Israeli government also classified 'non-Jews' as Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouins, forcing the Druze for example to join the army and treating them as 'non-Arabs' though never treating them on equal footing with the Jews. 'Arabs in Israel' are second class citizens and the institutionalization of racism also began in 1948 through many laws that privileged Jews over the indigenous Palestinian Arab population, whom they had dispossessed and displaced. Classification and segmentation in Palestine and South Africa is/was a strategy to further social schisms and hinder collective action.

Until late in the mid-sixties, martial law prevailed, of course, applied to Palestinian Arabs only, it is still applied in the West Bank and Gaza. Travelling from one area to the next was not allowed without Dr. Randa Farah is a Research Associate based at the Refugee Studies Center (RSC), University of Oxford. Most of her writing and research pivots around forced displace ent, exile, nationalism and children living with the effects of prolonged conflict.

Dr. Farah has conducted several seminars on diasporas and refugees in different academic institutions, and was involved in developing and teaching a short course on Palestinian refugees and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the University of Oxford. Her current research and interest are of a comparative nature, mainly, in Africa (South Africa and Western Sahara), Cypriot refugees and Latin America, primarily Guatemala.

This article is based on a visit by the author to the University of Western Cape in South Africa between the 11-17th of March, 2001.
by Dr. Randa Farah 20 March 2001 permission from the military authorities, neither were Palestinians allowed to organize politically, socially and culturally. How familiar! South Africa and Israel. Suddenly the eleven-hour flight did not seem very distant.

Memories of Beirut - 1982 crept back. The Mediterranean land, air and sea were obscured with Israeli-American glittering metal as they dropped internationally prohibited cluster, pressure and phosphorous bombs. Civilization indeed! The nightmare continues. Today the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza confront F-16s and a variety of sophisticated deadly weapons donated generously by the USA to Israel.

Mobs of right wing settlers assisted by the Israeli Occupation Army (IOP) attack villages, kill, demolish and burn crops. The sounds of bullets reaching the hearts of children drown my being. Steve Biko, Muhammad al-Durra and so many other innocent men and women of all ages, whose names and humanity remain anonymous to the world. In Gaza, Beirut, Sharpeville and Soweto death, destruction and struggle for freedom are inseparably wedded.

More layers of silenced memories unravel and I was suddenly a child in Haifa. A second class citizen. It was comforting to feel understood by Marcia, Saliem, Leon and a number of friends I made in South Africa. In many places the words fail to express the internal rupture that occurs when the land and the human networks that carve its social and physical landscape are torn apart. Apartheid and colonial settlement disrupt a familiar rhythm of life, a melody carried through centuries, enriched and transformed by those who create it, suddenly scattered into distant horizons. Colonialism is when the humanity and dignity of the colonized are
diminished by systems and processes that irreversibly uproot, alienate, segregate, fragment and isolate individuals, families and communities.

I remembered Yosi, a Yemeni (Arab) Jew who lived in one of the areas on my way to school in Haifa. I feared him as a child, he often called me a 'dirty Arab.' Not surprisingly, Israeli 'statesmen' and Rabbis even today, refer to Arabs as 'dogs' and 'cockroaches.' Upon birth, Yosi was classified as an Israeli Jew, but he was a Sephardic, a term used in Israel to describe Jews from non-European origin, mainly those from Arab countries and of Spanish- Arab origin.

The Ashkenazi Jews of European origin look down upon the 'Sephardim' who occupy a diminished status in Israeli society. I was a 'nonentity' a 'non-Jew' or at best an 'Arab in Israel!' At the airport I wondered if Yosi and his family ever heard the echoes of yearning and the silent weeping of the original owners of the house that they occupied. Did the Palestinian Arab family end up in Sabra or Shatila camps? It is possible.

Once, Jews of the region constituted part and parcel of a different geo-political boundary, roughly between the 8th and 14th Centuries. The Arab- Islamic civilization incorporated various ethnic and religious identities. Maimonedes and Avirroes, a Jew and a Muslim, two great philosophers, thinkers and scientists had coexisted in one cultural and social milieu.

"African people, were not allowed in the Reformed and Dutch Churches... They quote from the Bible something about ' a white bird will not mate with a black bird'… …It is something you just grew up with…. Two of my sisters look 'white', suppose we were late to catch a train, my two sisters would be able to get on the train and the other two would not be allowed, because we were dark and had curly hair" (Marcia, Cape Town, SA, March, 2001).

Apartheid was implemented in a country wherein the Africans constitute approximately 80% of the population, while the whites are no more than 7- 8%. The rest were classified as 'Coloured,' and 'Indian.' In 1948 Palestine more than half the Palestinian population were forcibly displaced and Zionist Jewish settlers constituting a third of the population seized statehood and territory. 1948! The year is quite a catastrophe, a 'nakba' for many people, in South Africa, Palestine and in India.

The Spaces of Apartheid Social and spatial discrimination are inter-linked and apartheid betrays its hideous ways in territorial spaces and the mapping out of how and where the colonized may move. Although in Israel/Palestine there are areas where Jews and Arabs have forged various kinds of social and economic ties, nevertheless, the vast majority of both populations live in two incongruous worlds mirrored in inverse ways: two sides of the same coin. Palestinian Arab and Jewish schools are segregated. The buildings of the first group are run down and the education system suffers from neglect and censorship.

Palestinian villages, which look dilapidated and run down highlight the affluence of Jewish areas. Townships, refugee camps, urban poor areas belong to the colonized, while across the road or over at the top or at the slopes of mountains (Haifa and Capetown) European settlers squeeze the human and material resources around them. African fishermen, hunters and pastoralists were no longer able to practice their familiar tasks and their modes of livelihood were radically transformed.

Similarly, Palestinian farmers were uprooted and their lands seized, many of them transformed to a disadvantaged proletariat. Following WWII, with increasing displacement from the land in South Africa, the indigenous population began to migrate to urban centers looking for jobs. This frightened the Apartheid regime and an 'influx control' law was passed.

Identification Cards and passbooks became the symbols of racist classifications restricting the movement of all 'non-whites.' No 'African,' 'coloured' or 'Indian' could 'trespass' into 'white' areas! It was against the law! The Palestinians today can only move with Israeli ID cards, denoting their status as an occupied and 'controlled' population.

"The Africans and Indians needed a passbook to come to Capetown, they had to get it stamped and signed and if they overstayed they wouldbe picked up  and imprisoned." (Mrs. Scheepers, Cap  Town, SA, March, 2001). In South Africa and Palestine, the indigenous populations were/are accused of violating the 'law' if they are caught in different areas on their own land. Palestinian Arab residents of Jerusalem, for example, are increasingly losing their right to continue to live in a city in which they have ancient historical roots. Their residency ID cards are being daily revoked. Similarly, 'illegal' workers in Israel are often picked up and accused of not having a 'pass', or a permit to work.

"You will see the whole beach front, the mountain slopes are all white areas, because it is prime property. They threw us into places called the Cape flats, windy, horrible, small little box houses, overcrowded…still overcrowded...then there were black townships …Even between Africans and Coloureds they segregated us too…They just told us, you can't live here or there.

When I was young we only drove past white areas and as children we often thought, what would it be like if we lived in a house like this..the white people had many bedrooms, swimming pools, etc. we had none of that…If you wanted to go somewhere there were signs that said 'whites only' you know how that feels?..it makes you very angry…it is our country. They came here ..and said they tamed us…they said we were living like animals.." (Marcia, Cape Town, SA, March, 2001).

For my Palestinian parents and for all those born prior to the establishment of the Israeli state, the experience of becoming uprooted in their own land was tragic. The places of their being and being in their places, had suddenly closed upon them andshifted, as if walls of iron were suddenly erected.

Palestinians were not only isolated from the larger spaces that go beyond the territories occupied in 1948, but new ethnic and political boundaries were erected around them. They did not move, the boundaries did! When they 'removed' our family, my father had a shock, he was in his seventies…people had property and then suddenly they were placed in match boxes…they took people away from their friends and family and language…my father did not speak Afrikaan…(Mrs. Scheepers, Cape Town, SA, March 2001).
Townships and refugee camps, the other side of territorial apartheid.

The former denoting segregation based on colour and ethnic belonging, the latter on national identity. A huge road and/or a railway violently separates the white areas from the townships, usually a reservoir for cheap labour in white owned industries and companies. Jewish settlements are heavily guarded and Gaza is totally imprisoned by barbed wire to 'protect' the settlers. In refugee camps, water has become a rare commodity, as Jewish settlers splash in swimming pools.

Jewish settlements that never 'freeze' and Jewish-only streets that connect them to each other are spaces for the colonizers. In Arab countries, refugees hold ID cards, stateless refugees, a third of them in camps, which are monitored closely by state institutions. More dramatically, refugees forcibly uprooted from their land cannot return to their homes, they would be considered 'illegal infiltrators!' I feel at home in South Africa.

The Intifadas of South Africa: Resistance Palestinian students today play an important role in the struggle. Schools, universities and camp streets are important places for mobilizing, raising political awareness and organizing demonstrations and civil protest. The Israeli strategy has been to close schools and universities for long periods of time as a way to prevent collective action. In an attempt to quell Palestinian protest, Israeli soldiers shoot to kill, throw tear gas and arrest youngsters without any consideration of the value of human life or for that matter international law and treaties it has signed.

"I will never forget one day…what happened. Students were boycotting, and the police came into the school property and started chasing these kids around, beating them, tear gas, rubber bullets, it was mayhem. ..By then these people (the apartheid regime) had developed Caspers that could go over anything, a big armored vehicle that they used.

They would take aim among the kids and start shooting…. This particular day my sister's best friend slipped into a puddle of water... This policeman came down on her with his baton... He was hitting her as he would hit a man, he was standing there and hitting her until she lost consciousness, because after all she was nothing, she was black!... Women in our community …when the kids needed to go into a house, they opened their homes and would hide the kids." (Marcia, Capetown, South Africa, March 2001).

With minor changes to the aforementioned quote, the scene could be in the West Bank. Similarly, Palestinian mothers are viciously protective of their sons and daughters, often throwing themselves at soldiers to save a child dragged away by Israeli soldiers. In the 1980s, schools became major places of mobilization, organization and protest and the Apartheid regime was intent on crushing their resistance.

As is the case with Israeli policies today, the Apartheid regime began to close down schools for extended periods of time, a way to demobilize student and fragment their efforts. Schools began boycotting, we refused to support white people or their economy, collective action was effective, people would walk, not take buses, would not buy meat, …burning tires and throwing stones…a lot of people got killed, they chased children…they used to come into churches, schools, everywhere…they used to open fire on whoever ….in a normal day in the township there would be smoke, gunfire and tear gas…we saw no future, we never thought this is going end, they were strong militarily, had support, etc. Some of the clergy played an important role, they used to walk in the front of demonstrations. (Sharron, Cape Town, SA, March, 2001).

The Legacy of the Past: The Struggle Continues A critical edge There is no doubt that the struggle in South Africa succeeded in defeating a powerful 'bulwark' of barbaric oppression- apartheid. People move in and out of areas freely, they have the right to vote and participate in the political and social life of society.

Institutionalized racism has been abolished. Nevertheless, poverty and unemployment plague the country and though new jobs are being created, many more are being lost. Government housing projects are not sufficient to absorb the population living in squatter areas and squalid townships. Thus, a new struggle is emerging and in the process, the critical edge is intertwined with new interpretations of the past in a changing present. The critics in society point out that the ANC's political decisions in the past have had negative repercussions on post- Apartheid South Africa.

"I don't want to belittle the work of people outside South Africa. A lot of ideas emerged, but I think the actual turn around was from a combination of internal and external factors. Internally the movement within the country had become extremely strong, but the repression of protest was violent from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, when the apartheid government used the 'state of emergency' law to detain thousands of activists. State repression weakened the movement between 1987 and 1990 and at that point the ANC leadership shifted closer to a reformist position and towards a negotiated settlement that fell short of what had been aimed for in the struggle.

Consequently, a reformist/ stalinist trend emerged within the movement to 'cleanse' the ANC and the democratic movement of leftists who opposed certain compromises and who might have stood as obstacles to the settlement. During this period (1987-1990) the leadership of the movement, began to rid itself of the leftist elements, often hurling false accusations against them as a tactical maneuver of being CIA, collaborators, etc. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of socialism acted as catalysts resulting in the defeat of the leftist trend within the movement and the ANC's shift to the right.

It is important to recall that the resistance within South Africa was inflicting losses on the economy to the extent that many of the reforms that were required for capitalist regeneration had failed and a number of its policies could not be implemented. If you wanted to make a simple change in the work place it became a political issue. In terms of policies relating to housing, education, employment, etc.

ironically, all those policies that were already being crafted by the Apartheid government are now being fully implemented by the ANC government. As mentioned earlier, initially, the ANC was not able to make the compromises without itself going through transformations and it became increasingly intolerant of different ideas. The 'cleansing', which included expulsions and isolation, allowed the ANC leadership to make political and economic compromises.

(Saliem and Leon, University of Western Cape, Cape Town, SA, March, 2001. Leon Pretorius is a lecturer at the School of Government at the University of Western Cape and a founding member of the Western Cape Teachers Union. He taught in Namibia and worked for the Namibian Transport and Allied Workers Union (NATAU). He has spent the greater part of the past two years involved in labour migration issues.)

Historically, the ANC was a nationalist and not a socialist organization and since 1993, on the eve of a negotiated settlement, the ANC guaranteed that the interests of the business community would be respected and by 1996, it developed a pro-business  macro-economic strategy. At that point, The Afrikaaner and English business community declared its approval and satisfaction of the ANC and its current economic policies. These policies resulted in downgrading the conditions of employment and in rescinding workers' rights (Saliem and Leon, personal communication).

Lessons Learned From South Africa
"I think he [Nelson Mandela] has always been like the father of the nation….You know when he came out, he told the people, we must learn to forgive, embrace one another, for me, that takes a very very great man to do that! …A lot of people took their cue from him. I would shudder to think what would have happened, if he wasn't there, it would have been absolute mayhem!….We were the Republic of South Africa, now we are just South Africa, we were classed as Whites, Coloured, African and Indian, now we are all South Africans. I am home, this is South Africa. (Marcia, Cape Town, SA, March, 2001).

On the way back from South Africa, the elevenhour flight seemed longer. I dreamt of the day when millions of Palestinian refugees would be granted their right of return, compensation and restitution and the reuniting of families and communities torn apart by wars and arbitrary political boundaries. I pondered on the lessons I had learned in South Africa, the cardinal principles that allow a people to overcome oppression.

 1. A leadership with vision and commitment played an important role in the struggle against Apartheid. The ANC had a clear objective towards which to lead the people and which was made public and engaged the cadres and grassroots organizations. The ANC had a political platform beyond and below which the leadership did not trespass.

This commitment cost Mandela and many of the leaders and cadres their lives or their freedom, because they did not compromise on cardinal principles of the struggle. The Palestinian leadership lacks the vision, the short- and long-term objectives around which to mobilize. There are no democratic structures that allow the majority to participate in interpreting the past, or to participate in the present for the future.

2. During the struggle the people of South Africa began to realize that they gained more out of what unites them than what separates them.

The ANC included Coloured, Indians and Whites who fought against Apartheid and racism and followed a policy of inclusion rather than exclusion. Today, Palestinian society 24 March 2001 seems fragmented and unable to visualize what and who is incorporated in the struggle. The Palestine Liberation Organization, when still in the Diaspora provided a framework through which the majority of Palestinians could express their political will. However, with the Oslo agreements, this has been shattered leaving Palestinian communities with a weakened collective representational body.

3. Bringing down the apartheid regime required a sensitive reading of the international milieu and the political environment in Africa but also in the North. The ANC solicited international support, which manifested itself in massive demonstrations in North American and European cities. The pressure on governments in the West lead to the economic blockade against South Africa, which was a catalyst in bringing down the Apartheid government.

The lessons for Palestinians on this front are numerous, mainly, that international advocacy and mobilization are crucial, due to the pervasiveness of Zionist institutions in the West and their impact on public opinion. International support does not refer to satisfying demands made by the US or European governments, but refers to the societies and the citizenry who pay a high monetary price (taxes) towards the survival of the Israeli state.

4. The secret negotiations conducted betweenMandela, while he was still in prison with the government, is the center of much of the criticism today. The lesson to be learned from this is that it is necessary for the leadership to obtain the consent of the majority in crucial decisions pertaining to the future of a society. A large number of the cadres, for example, did not agree on forming the Interim Government, or on economic policies. Today, the deterioration in the economic conditions show that the opinion of the opposition might have been correct and their economic platform more successful than the current program.

Last but not least, I learned that repression cannot hinder the will of a people to fight and aspire to regain their dignity and freedom. As so many people told me in South Africa, there were times when the racist government seemed like an impenetrable bastion of oppression. The Apartheid government was powerful and supported by many states, such as Israel, with which it had close economic and military links. However, after a long and tortuous march, Mandela and South Africa walked out to freedom. For Palestinians, we need to re-read our history and evaluate our  actics and strategies.

There is a great deal to be learned from the South African struggle, its past and present. The Palestinian determination to be free and regain their legitimate rights is beyond question. Today, we need to channel the will and struggle within a larger strategy. We need a leadership with commitment and a vision that is encompassing of the smaller and larger geo-political map. Most of all, there is a need for democratic public forums and structures that allow the majority of Palestinians in their various  places of exile and within Palestine/Israel to participate in debating the current situation and in collectively seeking solutions for the future.

Author's Comments: I am deeply indebted to Marcia Scheepers, her family and friends, particularly Fuzzy Hendricks, for their hospitality, kindness and their willingness to share with me their memories and experiences of their struggle against Apartheid. I am also very grateful to Professors Saliem Patel and Leon Pretorius, both lecturers at the School of Government at the University of Western Cape for their insight and the time they spent in sharing with me their knowledge of the political history and situation in South Africa.

I am also indebted to Awatief Daniels and the Immigrant Women's Organization in Cape Town. In addition, I am grateful to all those with whom I spoke and who helped me in learning about South Africa. My visit was kindly facilitated by Lisa Thompson, the post-graduate and publications co-ordinator in the School of Government, and a Ph.D. in international relations from UWC and Naison Ngoma, to whom I am very grateful. The visit gave me the opportunity not only to acquire a better understanding of South Africa, but maybe more significantly about Palestine, by acquiring a wider perspective of struggles in various historical, political and geographical contexts.