To the cheers of assembled delegates, the Third International Solidarity Conference of South Africa's ruling African National Congress, which met in Pretoria earlier this week, endorsed the call for a campaign of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) targeting the Israel. A lone German representative who stood up and challenged the prevailing wisdom that Israel is the reincarnation of South Africa's apartheid regime was roundly dismissed by the chairman of the ANC, Baleka Mbete, who said that she herself had visited "Palestine," where she'd discovered that the situation is "far worse than apartheid South Africa."
This is not the first time that a senior member of South Africa's leftist political establishment has made that exact point. In a particularly noxious speech delivered last May, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu asserted that the Palestinians were "being oppressed more than the apartheid ideologues could ever dream about in South Africa." Tutu's co-thinker, the Reverend Allan Boesak – best known for his conviction for defrauding charitable donations from the singer Paul Simon and others — has also declared that Israel "is worse, not in the sense that apartheid was not an absolutely terrifying system in South Africa, but in the ways in which the Israelis have taken the apartheid system and perfected it." And in an interview earlier this year, John Dugard, a South African law professor and former UN Rapporteur, approvingly referred to "black South Africans like Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu and others who have repeatedly stated that, in their opinion, the situation in the Palestinian territory is in many respects worse than it was under apartheid."
At times, these thunderous denunciations from ANC figures have descended into open anti-Semitism. In 2009, Bongani Masuku, a mid-level ANC operative, was found guilty by South Africa's Human Rights Commission of deploying "hate speech" after he announced that any South African Jew who did not support the Palestinian cause "must not just be encouraged but forced to leave." In his defense, Masuku might have pointed out that he was merely echoing similar sentiments to those expressed by Fatima Hajaig, the former deputy minister of foreign affairs, who claimed that "the control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money, and if Jewish money controls their country then you cannot expect anything else."
In common with other countries where anti-Zionists angrily deny that their views are founded upon classical anti-Semitism, South Africa's powerful anti-Israel lobby has a number of tame Jews at its disposal to serve as alibis. Foremost among them is Ronnie Kasrils, a former ANC minister who now devotes his time to the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, elegantly described by my fellow Commentary contributor Sohrab Ahmari as "a self-appointed people's court that has met periodically since 2009 to sit in judgment of Israel." In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Kasrils laid out the South African anti-Zionist's credo:
"…what is taking place in Palestine reminds us, South African freedom fighters, of what we suffered from. We are the beneficiaries of international solidarity and need to make a similar payback to others still struggling for liberation. Palestine is an example of a people who were dispossessed of land and birthright just like the indigenous people of South Africa.
As a Jew, I abhor the fact that the Zionist rulers of Israel/Palestine claim they are acting in the name of Jews everywhere. I am one of many Jews internationally, and in Israel itself, who declare 'Not in my name.'"
Note the veneer of altruism in these comments, along with the insinuation that, as the first victims of an apartheid form of government, South Africans enjoy special privileges when it comes to franchising the term. But what Kasrils pointedly does not mention is that the ANC's receptiveness to the apartheid analogy was established long before Nelson Mandela presided over the country's transition to majority rule.
It was, in fact, the Soviet Union that established the analogy, by linking the Palestinian and black South African struggles in its propaganda. Those readers who can bear to revisit UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism with racism, should note the awkwardly-worded observation that,
"…the racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regime in Zimbabwe and South Africa have a common imperialist origin, forming a whole and having the same racist structure and being organically linked in their policy aimed at repression of the dignity and integrity of the human being."
The ANC, which always oriented itself to the Soviet bloc and still maintains a close relationship with the unapologetically Stalinist South African Communist Party, has not discarded this Soviet ideological baggage. That commitment, far more than any distinctive insights generated by the experience of living with apartheid in its South African homeland, explains why the country's leaders are so willing to downplay the historic sufferings of their own people in order to batter Israel with the language of racism.
And it perhaps also explains why the BDS movement has failed in its bid to become a mass campaign with real impact. Instead, it has resigned itself to being a forum for assorted extreme leftists to pile moral opprobrium on Zionism and Israel. That is, when they are not paying tribute to Fidel Castro as a "revolutionary icon in the fight for freedom and equality."