Without achieving economic justice and liberation at home, the South African state allows conditions to persist that enable Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine.
Nelson Mandela famously declared in 1997 that the freedom of South Africans was “incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians”. Indeed, for decades, those who have fought for the dismantling of Israeli and South African apartheid have looked towards one another for inspiration and support, and useful comparisons, analogies, and connections drawn between the lived reality of Palestinians and Black South Africans abound aplenty in mutual discourses of liberation.
However, without detracting from the unquestionable importance of the Palestinian-South African relationship, two uncomfortable truths remain spoken only in hushed tones: first, that the role of corporate capital in the story of South Africa’s overthrow of legal apartheid detracts from the value of its use as a blueprint for Palestinian liberation, and second, that the South African state cannot meaningfully contribute to the liberation of Palestinians from Israeli apartheid without more substantively addressing the matter of economic justice at home.
In a 1985 interview, then-president of the African National Congress (ANC) Oliver Tambo suggested disapprovingly that corporate capitalists wanted “to reform the apartheid system in such a way that the end result is a system that secures their business but is minus racial discrimination”. It was also during that year that representatives of major South African corporations opened up a dialogue with the ANC to ensure that, as Zack de Beer of the Anglo American Corporation put a year later, “we dare not allow the baby of free enterprise to be thrown out with the bath water of apartheid”.
Less than a decade later, the reforms Tambo warned of were realised in a series of concessions the ANC leadership made to “win the support of white South Africans and global capitalist elites”.
The resultant system – where apartheid in its constitutional and legal forms was abolished while its economic form remained – succeeded in safeguarding the economic interests of a small, but now slightly-more-diverse, economic elite. Dale McKinley, a critic of the ANC, argued that after 1994, “the main outcome of liberation [became] the ‘art’ of accessing and deploying state power fundamentally in service to the dominant economic system, the power of capital”.
This applied not only domestically but also at the international level since, as political economists Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin note, nation states manage their “domestic capitalist order in a way that contributes to the managing of the international capitalist order”.
Therefore, as with any other modern nation-state, an analysis of South Africa’s foreign policy and diplomatic relations cannot be isolated from its domestic economic policies. One example of this is in how South African private security firms and military contractors form an essential component of the global military industrial complex that has entrenched itself in many parts of the world.
To be more explicit, South Africa’s domestic economic inequalities – the greatest in the world – are in significant part subject to a clear transnational dimension.
Like Black South Africans, Palestinians are also victims of transnational capitalism. After the Cold War, in particular, Israel’s increased integration “into the circuits of global capital” further facilitated its settler colonial ambition of eliminating the Palestinian people. In fact, many of Israel’s recent diplomatic victories were rhetorically premised on capitalist cooperation and trade as a means of obscuring their most critical aspect: shared security interests.
Alongside this, the Palestinian Authority’s attempts to follow a neoliberal (il)logic of liberation, akin to the ANC’s post-1994 variant, have resulted in a macabre mirroring of only the worst aspects of the South African result: the emergence of a small and exploitative Palestinian economic elite, but here with the persistence of Israeli apartheid in all of its forms rather than its overthrowal.
Unlike in South Africa in the leadup to 1994, global and regional capitalists do not regard the liberation of Palestinians as a condition for neoliberal accumulation. The arrival of diverse injections of capital into the Occupied Territories has enabled the normalisation of the Palestinian Authority’s authoritarian and unaccountable character and its complicity in Israeli settler colonialism.
While South Africa has played an important and unique role in supporting the Palestinian cause since 1994, the virtue of this role remains tainted by the nature of its relationship with Israel.
At one level, “residential and commercial security in South Africa relies heavily on technology developed and sold by Israeli companies.” At another, the racialised discourses of threat and security in South Africa and Israel so pivotal to the flourishing of their private security sectors rely on a situation of permanent crisis – in Israel upheld mainly (but not exclusively) by the militarisation of its settler population and in South Africa by the unjust economic climate.
While the efficacy of South Africa’s support to the Palestinian cause can be debated, for significant merits do exist, what is undeniable is that it is severely undermined by the persistence of economic injustice. The neoliberal manufacturing of disposability and precarity for large segments of a population only consolidates the state's power domestically and contributes to a global system of injustice through networks of world capitalism.
There is no liberation from the practice and logics of apartheid and settler colonialism anywhere without economic justice everywhere. To be more clear: without achieving economic justice and liberation at home, the South African state allows conditions to persist that enable Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine. In this context, public and diplomatic acts of support for the Palestinian cause, while always helpful and welcome, are insufficient.
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