On January 28, 2020 President Donald Trump’s administration revealed the details of its so-called “Deal of the Century,” the US plan to establish peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The deal amounts to a unilateral “declaration of terms for Palestinian surrender,” argues Washington Post journalist Ishaan Tharoor.[1] The plan features 181 pages of policies that purport to resolve the existential and daily crises Palestinians endure, but actually grants impunity to Israel as it gears up to annex more Palestinian land, permanently deny refugees the right to return home, unilaterally lay claim to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and further fracture Palestinian geography.

In violation of international law and countless United Nations resolutions, the plan sustains—and in fact exacerbates—the Israeli military occupation and leaves Palestinians with particles of land that constitute no more than an archipelago of ethnic enclaves strikingly similar to the Bantustans that South Africa used to segregate and exclude Africans during apartheid. Political scientist Sheena Anne Arackal argues that, “The ‘Deal of the Century’ resurrects and restores grand apartheid, a racist political system that should have been left in the dustbins of history.”[2]

Understanding the parallels between the Palestinian and South African liberation struggles has been galvanizing and productive for activists, but many Palestinians are questioning both the utility of the apartheid analogy and its limitations.

While there may be increased references to apartheid in South Africa as a result of the US plan, the analogy has credibly been used for over a decade now. Understanding the parallels between the Palestinian and South African liberation struggles has been galvanizing and productive for activists, but many Palestinians are questioning both the utility of the apartheid analogy and its limitations. They are not concerned with questions of whether or not apartheid currently exists in Palestine. They have accepted apartheid as a critical characteristic of Israeli occupation. Rather, they are examining whether or not apartheid adequately explains the Palestinian condition in its totality and if the analogy is helpful in mapping out the terms and strategies of their own liberation.

Global solidarity efforts for justice in Palestine have grown exponentially over the last 20 years. Many of the achievements—including hundreds of successful Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns—were made possible by international legal precedents that use law as a tool for advocacy, and by learning from the role played by global boycotts in ending apartheid in South Africa. Two legal precedents in particular have made the South African struggle an important reference point for Palestinian efforts: the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which defined and criminalized apartheid as a system of racial domination, and the 2004 International Court of Justice ruling that deemed Israel’s separation wall a violation of international law. South African political figures also frequently draw critical parallels between the Palestinian struggle and their own struggle against apartheid.

Palestinian Youth Delegation to South Africa

Young Palestinians are finding ways to engage in conversations about the apartheid analogy, alongside the many other conundrums affecting Palestinian social and political life more broadly. In April 2019, a group of 19 Palestinian youth took part in a fact-finding delegation to Johannesburg, South Africa organized by the US-based Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) in partnership with the Johannesburg think tank Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC). The delegation visited two weeks after the historic Teaching Palestine Conference and Study Tour in Johannesburg and just as the South African government was downgrading its embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office in solidarity with the Palestinians.

Members of the Johannesburg delegation included Palestinians between the ages of 20 and 33 who reside in Palestine, Lebanon, Qatar, Germany, Turkey, Greece, the United Kingdom, the United States and South Africa. They represented a diversity of political, social and organizational backgrounds that comprise the scattered Palestinian nation—Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, students from Palestine studying abroad, and refugees from the camps in the surrounding region, those displaced to Europe and those born and raised in exile. The delegation organizers recognized this pluralism as central to the goals of the program, which sought to mend the hardened fragmentation affecting Palestinian social and political life and “assess the current condition of the Palestinian national struggle through a comparative lens with South Africa’s anti-Apartheid and anti-colonial/decolonial struggle.”

The Palestinian Youth Movement delegation at a women’s hostel in the Alexandra township of Johannesburg.

The decision to bring young Palestinians to South Africa came out of a PYM February 2016 workshop in Malmo, Sweden where some Palestinian youth expressed their reluctance to use a racial lexicon and the apartheid analogy to define the Palestinian struggle. For these youth, discourses on race were inherently linked to struggles of segregation. They worried that the apartheid framework negated attributes of colonial settlement and dispossession that characterize the Palestinian experience. They preferred the framework of colonialism, which they argued would guide a more complete strategy toward decolonization. By contrast, other Palestinian youth organizers saw the utility of the apartheid framework as a legal means for Palestinians to make their struggle legible to the international community and pragmatically end formal racial segregation in Palestine. They argued that racial inequity was innately a part of the Palestinian struggle and referred to racially designated roads, license plates and other physical markers of segregation in the West Bank.

While many of the PYM members had long expressed a political uneasiness with relying on the apartheid framework to define the Palestinian struggle, the credence that the framework was gaining as a result of growing BDS campaigns and legal advocacy, demanded a deeper theorization that the PYM was not yet prepared to provide. As a result, the PYM developed a fact-finding delegation to South Africa. Organizers developed several areas of inquiry: to investigate the utility and limitations of the apartheid analogy between South Africa and Palestine; to question why frameworks like (settler) colonialism are less often used to define the South African struggle; and to compare the Palestinian and South African struggles in the lead up to the early 1990s negotiations processes and understand how they concluded with such disparate outcomes.

The delegation’s visit included lectures, seminar discussions, workshops, field trips to sites of historic and contemporary struggle and meetings with political figures, community and student movement leaders—all of which yielded many important lessons for the Palestinian youth organizers. One of these lessons is that Palestinians must more seriously account for racial capitalism and social liberation as part of their struggle. Racial capitalism refers to the racialized forms of labor dispossession, exploitation and disposability that fuel capital accumulation and inequality. The participants also recognized that a negotiated settlement with colonial forces that does not completely overthrow repressive colonial structures and ideologies cannot lead to a decolonized future. But this critical analysis was also accompanied by a renewed commitment to revitalize ethical, two-way forms of solidarity with everyday South Africans and other peoples struggling against oppression globally.

Diverse Forms of Colonialism

One important particularity of South Africa is that before the start of apartheid in 1948, the country had already endured 300 years of colonialism. This history included the settlement of Dutch and British colonists in a “colonialism of a special type,” as described by both the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). This “special type” had the characteristics of franchise colonialism, premised on the exploitation of Black labor and the seizure of land and extraction of resources, alongside characteristics of settler colonialism that allowed settlers to naturalize their presence as a dominant racial and economic class rather than being viewed as foreigners or colonists.

This long colonial history became a vital departure point for examining both the history of South Africa before 1948, and the ways in which legal definitions of apartheid might obscure characteristics of both settler colonialism and franchise colonialism.

This long colonial history became a vital departure point for examining both the history of South Africa before 1948, and the ways in which legal definitions of apartheid might obscure characteristics of both settler colonialism and franchise colonialism. Delegates received a political orientation session led by members of the Afro-Middle East Centre who explained the structure of the apartheid system and contextualized the creation and function of different legal race categories in South Africa including White, Indian, Colored and Black. Understanding the racial landscape beyond a white-Black binary was crucial to understanding how a gradience of power was structurally created through racial caste and how such a structure lives on in South Africa even after the end of apartheid in 1994.

The orientation sessions prompted delegates to revisit Palestinian history prior to the 1948 Nakba. They examined the historical roles of both Ottoman rule and the British Mandate in creating the right conditions for Zionist conquest. Delegates also explored the racial distinctions between South Africa and Palestine—in particular how the South African struggle was composed of multiple indigenous nations with different cultural, linguistic and ethnic subjectivities as well as many other national, ethnic and racial groups. They saw how such racial and ethnic pluralism did not exist in the Palestinian context at the same level. The delegates also argued that popular political discourses on Palestine suffer from an anemic racial lexicon, often mistaking religious and ethnic identities for socially manufactured racial constructions of power and oppression. They insisted that it was necessary to revisit the Palestinian radical intellectual and political tradition to understand how Palestinians have articulated race in relation to the struggle and to consider how the new generation could borrow from those articulations to offer a more adequate race analysis today.

Identifying Racial Capitalism

The delegation learned an important lesson about how racialized capitalism shapes and differentiates the two cases—both at its origins and in its present form in the aftermath of the early 1990s negotiation processes. Prior to arrival in South Africa, Andy Clarno, drawing upon his own comparative research on Palestine and South Africa, urged delegates to consider the role of racial capitalism in South Africa and how Black economic subjugation persists even after the end of legal apartheid. This lesson was emphasized during the visit by Noor Nieftagodien and Salim Vally who cited the theories of racial capitalism by South African scholar Neville Alexander.

The delegates then witnessed racial capitalism’s effects in the Alexandra (“Alex”) township of Johannesburg. A five-minute drive from Sandton, one of the wealthiest communities on the African continent, Alex is an overcrowded slum with thousands of Black South Africans living in abject poverty. Along the right bank of the river in the township waste and sewage is piled up and toppling onto homes, while on the left side newly built homes for Johannesburg’s rising elites are elevated on a hill and separated by security barriers. The jarring contrast strikingly paralleled the aesthetic distinctions between Palestinian towns and nearby Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Delegates also met with the youth of an underground land movement that takes over half-built housing complexes. They explained that the South African government hires state-sponsored contractors to leave construction projects only partially finished while politicians pocket funds. The youth confided that they have no faith in a political establishment that caters to the greed of elites through government corruption and sustains economic violence against the poor, a sentiment that resonated with the Palestinian youth who share similar feelings about the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian Youth Movement delegation meets with South African youth in the Alexandra township.

The youth drew linkages between the insurmountable poverty found in Alex and that found in Palestinian refugee camps, particularly in Lebanon. However, the delegates pointed out one major distinction. Whereas Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have long been barred from working in legal labor markets and are stuck, to an extent, in the camps as they await their return to Palestine, Alex is a major destination for South African migrants from rural areas and Africans from across the continent. Thousands come to Alex each year seeking employment in Johannesburg. As a result, tensions are high in the township since space for housing is scarce. The delegates learned that there were even more extreme forms of poverty than they had previously encountered. This experience taught them a lesson about the ways advanced forms of neoliberal racial capitalism pits surplus labor populations against one another.

Alex illustrated for the delegates how, even following the celebrated end of the apartheid system, capitalism was weaponized against Black Africans—the decimation of organized labor movements allowed for the privatization of labor and land—in order to maintain a racialized asymmetry of wealth and power. The most profound lesson drawn from the South African context for the delegates is that the Palestinians must also grapple with racial capitalism and that if solutions do not allow for a complete redistribution of land, wealth and power there will be no true Palestinian liberation.

Gender Justice and Social Liberation

Throughout the program, delegates heard community leaders discuss the social ills within South African society, including unparalleled rates of death by preventable disease and some of the highest rates in the world of HIV infection, gun violence and rape. What particularly stood out were accounts of how violence against women and rates of feminicide skyrocketed following the end of legal apartheid. Delegates learned about two forms of historical, gendered violence: racialized and gendered state violence perpetrated by the apartheid regime, and gendered violence within the movement which went unaddressed and was effectively silenced in the name of prioritizing political liberation before social liberation.

On a field trip to Constitution Hill the delegates visited the women’s jail and learned about the torture, dehumanization and sexual assault South African women experienced at the hands of the apartheid regime. In Alex, delegates visited with women living in gender-segregated hostels, who spoke of how current forms of family separation are a result of gender segregation policies created during apartheid to control the labor and mobility of Black men. In a meeting with a female former fighter in MK (the armed wing of the ANC), delegates learned that South African women who had been raped by their comrades in the training camps had never been properly granted processes for accountability within the movement.

The contributions of South African women were also written out of the dominant narratives of the anti-apartheid struggle. Feminist leader Fatima Shabodien warned delegates that Palestinians must consider liberation strategies comprehensively, addressing social and political liberation simultaneously. Further, she encouraged an understanding of liberation through communal wellness, restorative justice and social healing as well as through systemic and institutional change on all levels.

Reflecting on what they learned, delegates articulated two important lessons. First, to break cycles of gendered violence in the struggle for political liberation, institutions must mandate trauma-informed approaches to social healing as integral to, not at the periphery of, the liberation movement. It is important to build popular grassroots movements that account for women’s liberation as part of national liberation, but which also reject colonial, Orientalist and imperial feminist discourses that have become especially prevalent in the funding criteria for non-governmental organizations in Palestine since the beginning of the so-called war on terror. A second lesson follows that if Palestinians are to achieve true liberation, political movements must implement models of accountability and justice at every level of struggle. For example, the Tal3at Movement is using grassroots approaches to make ending violence against women and national liberation inseparable.

The Dangers of a Negotiated Settlement

The agreements that brought about the formal end of apartheid in South Africa enshrined an array of democratic freedoms and human rights protections first outlined in the Freedom Charter. Among the most noteworthy of these changes was the removal of the stigma on resistance leaders and movements. Since the adoption of the 1967 Terrorism Act, they had been legally criminalized as terrorists. Despite these newly acquired freedoms, neoliberal racial capitalist development ushered in increased racialized securitization, privatization and Black labor disposability. The agreement ultimately normalized British and Afrikaner settlements and wealth and exacerbated chronically poor material conditions for Blacks. Apartheid continued in a new form.

Grassroots political participation was decimated as politics became top down after 1994, just as it had in Palestine.

Scholar and organizer Salim Vally said to the delegates, “We did not have a revolution, we had a negotiated settlement.” The revolutionary ANC was transformed from the largest group to spearhead the country’s anti-apartheid movement into a political governing force in a system riddled with corruption. This change left a new generation with no investment in movement organizing. Grassroots political participation was decimated as politics became top down after 1994, just as it had in Palestine. Many of the consequences in South Africa are parallel to the political betrayals by the Palestinian leadership through the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords—heroes of the liberation movement became agents of a politically inept and repressive government regime.

Hoping to find inspiring models for reversing the deteriorating conditions in Palestine after the Oslo Accords, the delegates expressed frustration in learning about the aftermath of South Africa’s negotiations process. They were also disappointed to learn that the Truth and Reconciliation Process, established to produce restorative justice for the victims of apartheid, was premised on truth in the absence of justice when perpetrators were given amnesty. So long as perpetrators told the truth of what they had done, they were not held to account through any material means, which is how whites have maintained their cultural and material power following the end of apartheid. Delegates concluded that true change cannot be achieved through a negotiated settlement with a colonial force and that it will only be achieved through a comprehensive process of decolonization, one that will also hold colonial violence to account.

Limitations of the Politics of Analogy

Delegates recognized that drawing comparisons between the grotesque violence in Palestine and South Africa has led to a flattening of some crucial distinctions in the nature of the two struggles and the strategies used to achieve liberation. One distinction between these two contexts is the role of labor exploitation in South Africa. Exploited Black workers were able to play a major role in making the country ungovernable through labor strikes because of white South Africans’ substantial economic dependence on their labor. This dynamic gave industrial, commercial and trade unions an upper hand in mobilizing masses of people in the service of political struggle.

By contrast, Zionists had, from the onset of settlement, intentionally alienated Palestinians from the labor force and replaced them with Jewish settlers. After annexing the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, the Israeli economy exploited increasing numbers of Palestinian workers but it was a relatively small population compared to the industrialized labor force in South Africa. While labor exploitation in part shaped the conditions that led to the outbreak of the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987, organized labor revolt was less effective for Palestinians who were unable to shake the entire infrastructure of the settler state through large-scale strikes as their counterparts had done in South Africa.

Following the 1993 Oslo Accords, but particularly following the Second Intifada, which began in 2000, Palestinians came to play a much smaller role in formal labor markets within the Israeli economy. Still, the various industries of containment, policing, surveillance, imprisonment and crowd control that Israel developed in new iterations of its occupation of Palestine produced a racial-capitalist economy whereby Israel has created a profitable industry off Palestinian labor, as the subjects of siege and captivity. Israel simultaneously relies on policies of ethnic cleansing in order to supplant the presence of Palestinians and naturalize foreign settlement in the land. While elimination was the governing logic of settlers during the first 200 years of colonialism in South Africa, following the discovery of gold and diamonds in the 1800s, whites developed a reliance on Black labor.

Even more than the parallels in power and oppression, delegates were fascinated by the parallels between the liberation movements. Though leaders of the two struggles came to negotiations at similar junctures—in part because of reconfigurations of global power as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union—and though both Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat had strikingly analogous trajectories before the early 1990s and an intimate friendship across decades, the conditions that shaped the negotiations were very different. By the early 1990s, Mandela had achieved the return of all exiled leaders and the release of all political prisoners. Furthermore, the apartheid regime had become ungovernable due to factors such as global boycott movements, pressure from the international community, an insurgent armed resistance, popular protest on all levels, a public sector shaken by white worker flight to private industries and Black organized labor revolt.

It has been argued that both Arafat and Mandela utilized the popular grassroots uprisings taking place at the time in order to broker their agreements and stabilize their own positions of power because they were threatened by an organic new leadership emerging from the streets. Despite the similarities in the trajectories of the two leaders, it must be acknowledged that the Palestinians had not achieved the same political gains by the time they arrived at the negotiation table and the PLO’s long exile had made Palestinian political and armed resistance precariously dependent on regional forces that were increasingly colluding with Israel and imperialist forces.

They argued, however, that it is fundamental not to impose a single framework—such as settler colonialism, apartheid or franchise colonialism—as if it alone can define the Palestinian struggle.

In sum, youth delegates recognized the importance of not allowing parallels with other struggles to obscure important differences. They explored the way various frameworks can highlight different Palestinian experiences and characteristics of the Zionist project. They argued, however, that it is fundamental not to impose a single framework—such as settler colonialism, apartheid or franchise colonialism—as if it alone can define the Palestinian struggle. They insisted that revisiting the history of Zionism is necessary in order to understand the historical, geographic and contextual specificity of the Palestinian struggle and to protect prospects for liberation from being limited by the politics of analogy.

Reviving Relations of Joint Struggle

Palestine has mobilized increased global solidarity across the world in the last decade, which led to the final lesson learned by the youth delegates: how important it is to revive two-way solidarities with other global struggles. Witnessing the racial, gendered, economic, social and political violence and oppression in South Africa, the delegates insisted that Palestinians must do what they can to lend their lessons and solidarity to South Africans who continue to struggle against de facto colonialism and apartheid.

The Palestinian Youth Movement delegation meeting with the Young Communist League of South Africa.

Meeting with the Young Communist League (YCLSA) in Soweto, youth exchanged poetry, a commitment to building transnational solidarities from the grassroots and their aspirations for the future. In meeting with ANC political representatives, Palestinian youth learned of the government’s commitments to realizing Palestinian freedom. Despite their appreciation of the government’s bold positions, the delegates maintained their commitments to the struggle of everyday South Africans struggling against government corruption, violence, economic precarity and an incomplete process of decolonization.

The delegates were particularly moved by the resilience and steadfastness of struggle that persists in South Africa, particularly among students within the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall Movements, which both foreground demands for the decolonization of knowledge and education. As the youth delegation concluded their visit, they resolved that a robust embrace of the principles of the Palestinian struggle and a rebuilding of grassroots struggle of all Palestinian communities transnationally must be accomplished alongside rebuilding buried and interconnected, if distinct, joint-struggle alliances and relationships.

[All photos courtesy of the Palestinian Youth Movement.]


[1] Ishaan Tharoor, “Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ is no Deal at all,” Washington Post, January 28, 2020.

[2] Sheena Anne Arackal, “The ‘Deal of the Century’ is Apartheid,” Mondoweiss, January 28, 2020.

How to cite this article:

Loubna Qutami "Moving Beyond the Apartheid Analogy in Palestine and South Africa," Middle East Report Online, February 03, 2020.

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