Over 120 people filled the Friends Meeting House in Ramallah on Sunday evening to hear from South African Professor Patrick Bond, a veteran anti-Apartheid activist and academic at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Professor Bond's presentation, organised by the BDS National Committee of Palestine (BNC) and chaired by Birzeit University academic Samia Botmeh, a steering committee member of PACBI, focused on the efficacy of the South African boycott campaign and useful lessons for the Palestinian BDS campaign. Citing examples from history such as the Irish boycott campaign of 1880 against British land agent Charles Boycott (from which the tactic takes its name) and the Indian boycott of imported British cloth, Professor Bond emphasised the crucial role that boycott has played in many liberation campaigns, especially against Apartheid South Africa, and the role it could play in attaining Palestinian freedom and self determination.
Boycott began in South Africa as an indigenous tactic used by local committees to reduce the bus fares in Alexandra, Johannesburg. In later years, boycott was developed as an international weapon of solidarity to support the struggle inside against Apartheid policies with notable examples being the boycott of fruits, the sporting boycott and the expulsion of South Africa from the International Olympic Committee in 1970. Government support for boycott and sanctions, most notably UN Resolution 1761, passed in 1962, calling for a voluntary severance of diplomatic ties and a cessation of trade with Apartheid South Africa subsequently added an official component to the grassroots campaign.
Accompanying the presentation was a short film on the role of Chase Manhattan Bank, whose refusal to roll over its short-term loans lead to a major financial crisis in South Africa and accelerated the end of Apartheid. The strength of the anti-Apartheid campaign eventually led business leaders to seek reconciliation between their business interests and the political demands of the ANC. It was in direct meetings between ANC leaders and these business representatives that the transition of capital’s allegiance from formal Apartheid was confirmed, dealing a powerful blow to the Apartheid system. A price was paid by the South African liberation movement, however, in the form of accepting some liberal measures that would allow capitalists to maintain class privileges in the post-apartheid era. The film also showed the vibrancy and strength of the grassroots movement which made South Africa ungovernable in the last phase of apartheid rule.
Questions at the end of the presentation focused on role of churches in the boycott, the fragmentation of the Palestinian national movement on the ground in Palestine and the role of collaborating elites both in Palestine as well as the South Africa. The meeting ended with a warning by Professor Bond about the limitations of boycott tactics if not anchored in sustained grassroots struggle in Palestine. The strength of the boycott movement was only possible due to the uprisings in the South African townships and its success in Palestine would similarly depend on the revitalization of the nationalist struggle on the ground. Further, Professor Bond warned that whilst South Africa provided a concrete example of how Apartheid could be overcome, it also represented an example of how Apartheid can reconstitute itself in economic forms which precipitate an even greater degree of inequality along class lines rather than racial ones. One can only hope that Palestine, in this respect, can provide a new model of a post-colonial experience in which the horrors of colonialism are replaced by a future based on genuine political social and economic justice and equality for all.
A full video of the event will be available on youtube soon