Blog post

South Africa's freedom is still incomplete

In April, South Africa celebrated 30 years since the formal end of apartheid. While the country faces many challenges today, South Africa's unwavering solidarity with Palestine demonstrates an enduring commitment to internationalism – a proud legacy of the anti-apartheid liberation movement.

Suren Pillay29 May 2024

South Africa's freedom is still incomplete

In February 1990, shortly after his release from nearly 30 years in prison, Nelson Mandela visited the United States to campaign for an extension of sanctions against South Africa as the political negotiations to end apartheid were underway. As a representative of the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela  was classified at the time as a terrorist – a designation the United States only revised in 2008. During his trip, Mandela took part in a “town hall” assembled by a major television network and moderated by the celebrated television journalist, Ted Koppel. Among the questions posed by the pre-selected audience members, a striking number focused on Israel and what shape a future, postapartheid South Africa’s relationship to the country would take. Ken Adelman, then-Director of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, worried about the political figures with whom Mandela had been developing relations. Adelman’s list included Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, but he was particularly concerned about Mandela’s relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization and its leader, Yasser Arafat. Stone-faced, Mandela replied: “one of the mistakes some political analysts make is to think that their enemies should be our enemies.” Mandela was clear that the ANC’s relationship with Cuba, Libya and the Palestinians was grounded in those countries’ unwavering political and material support for South Africa’s liberation movements.

In the exchanges that followed, Mandela navigated the criticisms and fears expressed by those worried about a future South Africa’s relationship to Israel in two ways. On the one hand, he was uncompromising about the necessity of South Africa’s solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and its leadership. And on the other hand, he refused to be drawn into the West’s ideas about who South Africa’s friends and enemies should be after apartheid. “As far as Yasser Arafat is concerned,” he explained, “we identify with the PLO because, just like ourselves, they are fighting for the right of self-determination.” While Mandela insisted that “the support for Yasser Arafat in his struggle does not mean that the ANC has ever doubted the right of Israel to exist as a State, legally,” he was equally clear that the ANC refused the idea that “Israel has the right to retain the territories they conquered from the Arab world, like the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. We don’t agree with that. Those territories should be returned to the Arab people.” This was followed by ten seconds of rapturous applause.

Mandela’s town hall recalls a history of South African internationalism often forgotten today, but which constitutes a critical component of the country’s identity. An assessment of post-apartheid South Africa written before 29 December 2023 would have drawn attention mainly to a negative story about the country’s ongoing challenges with the economic, social and political legacies of apartheid – not least, widening economic inequality and racism. Along with new challenges such as the gutting of public enterprises by a rentier class of new black economic elites competing with each other in the name of deracializing ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, and expanding youth unemployment, reasons to celebrate can appear sparse. So stark are these challenges that when student movements erupted across South African universities in 2015, calling for the decolonization of knowledge in universities and the scrapping of university fees, one of their most cutting slogans was 'Our parents were sold dreams in 1994 – we are here for a refund!!!'[1] In the eyes of those who make up the generation known colloquially as “the Born Frees” – the now young adults born after 1994 – the political settlement that inaugurated postapartheid South Africa seems less like an achievement to celebrate than a compromise to question, and perhaps even undo. The compromises that the liberation movements made with the representatives of the white beneficiaries of apartheid, in their view, have continued white racial privilege at the expense of the impoverished Black majority by limiting the possibilities of a substantive redistribution of wealth.

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Mandela expressed his principled solidarity with Palestine prior to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, and before the ANC became the ruling party it is today. With the ANC facing a difficult election on 29 May this year, the disjuncture between its euphoric promises of justice and equality during the fight to end apartheid and the current grind of postapartheid life is an important part of a candid story to tell about postapartheid South Africa. But the country marked 30 years of universal, non-racial citizenship and democracy on 27 April of this year amidst global events that will write another dimension into any assessment of postapartheid South Africa: the country’s enduring commitment to an anti-colonial politics that elides political expediency, an anomaly in an international system dominated by class, national and global self-interests. The country argued its formal case with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) under the Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip (South Africa v. Israel) at the tail end of 2023. Applauded by most of the world, the postapartheid South African government’s case at the ICJ mobilized international legal obligations in an attempt to halt the illegal collective punishment Israel is currently carrying out against Palestinians on a scale so egregious that it falls within international genocide conventions. As South Africa marks the three decades since the formal end of apartheid, with economic challenges clouding the optimistic luminance of its once bright future, an exhortation from Mandela, is circulating widely: “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” Mandela’s proclamation links South Africa’s audacious recent effort to test whether international law really applies equally to all – and to demand that it do so – to the promise of its postapartheid foundations in the early 1990s.


The ICJ pronounced a series of provisional measures on 26 January 2024, accepting the argument that the state of Israel is plausibly engaged in acts that could be constitutive of a genocide. The authority of international legal obligations remains dubious since Israel seems not to have complied substantively with the requirements of the provisional measures, especially with regards to the movement of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and an end to the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians. On the contrary, Israel appears to have become even more belligerent in its defiance of the international legal consensus. If the highest courts of last resort cannot hold governments who see themselves as exceptions to international obligations to account, it raises the question of whether there is any real hope in law for Palestinians living under occupation and now genocidal violence. Israel’s actions are driven in part by the assumption, as expressed by some of its most senior political and military figures, that there is no distinction between a Palestinian combatant and civilian in Gaza. As the country has made painfully clear, in practice this means that Israel considers every person and institution, including universities and hospitals, to be legitimate military targets for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

While the ICJ ruling has, of course, brought little material relief for Palestinians in Gaza as Israel continues its brutal bombardment of the strip and denies desperately needed aid, there are significant political consequences to the judgement beyond the limits of legal impunity. On the initiative of the South African government, the formal legal proceedings of the ICJ case will unfold in the months, possibly even years, ahead. In the meantime, Israel will have to account for itself in the court of public opinion as a potential perpetrator of genocide, fracturing  its long-held narrative that Israel is the perpetual and only victim in this conflict. The International Criminal Court’s issuing of arrest warrants for Benjamin Netanyahu and other top Israeli military leaders further adds to mounting skepticism that self-defense justifies the scale of the violence Israel is currently inflicting on Palestinians. Ultimately, whether Israel, with its allies’ backing, ignores the outcomes of international court decisions or not, the political terrain of popular opinion is rapidly shifting, encouraging bolder mobilization against Israeli aggression, as we have seen on US and European university campuses since April.

The South African government’s case against Israel is additionally significant because the government took the decision to pursue it despite withering opposition from the most powerful Northern countries – the United States and most of Western Europe – who actively worked to discourage and ridicule the South African government’s actions. Prior to the ICJ ruling, the most senior US foreign policy diplomat, Anthony Blinken, called it “meritless,” expressing the Biden administration’s unqualified support for Israel’s actions. This active support for the Israeli military, it must be noted, also extends to some governments in the Global South, like that of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been supplying drones to the IDF.

But images of starving children, IDF drones targeting and shooting at aid trucks, and unarmed men, women and children buried in the grey dusts of bombed concrete rubble day in and day out saturate the internet, exceeding management by the spin doctors of Washington or Brussels. While Western government officials are declaring their unconditional support for Israel’s campaign in Gaza, ordinary people in these countries, empowered by South Africa’s ICJ case, are rising up in their thousands to condemn the war and demand an end to Israel’s occupation and apartheid. As South Africa’s fight to end apartheid demonstrated, popular international pressure campaigns are crucial to breaking diplomatic complicity with oppressive regimes.  Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has argued forcefully that Israelis’ support for the ongoing destruction and death in Gaza – the overwhelming majority of Israelis support the country’s occupation, its settlement expansion, and its “potentially” genocidal war – means that Israel’s belligerence will not be resolved by the short term solution of removing its current political or military leadership. For Levy, the only path to ending Israeli apartheid and the occupation is through the consequences of global isolation.

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South Africa, too, experienced the pressure of external isolation, combined with mass civil opposition inside the country, that eventually made it untenable for white South Africans to live their racial privilege as normal. When South Africa adopted apartheid as an official policy in 1948, it marked but one historical phase of a hitherto 300 year-long process of settler colonialism on the southernmost tip of Africa,. Like other settler colonists engaged in the making of the new world, South Africa’s European settlers were faced with the question of what to do with the native majority who were already living on the land. In neighboring South West Africa (known today as Namibia), the German empire embraced race science and opted for decimation, enacting the first genocide of the twentieth century between 1904-1908 against the Nama and Herero peoples. But the discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa in the eighteenth century meant that the native majority could provide indispensable labor, effectively ruling out ethnic cleansing as a desirable option for South Africa’s white settler society. The political alternative they found was to turn the indigenous majority into multiple discrete, tribally-governed minority communities, each assigned their own homelands. As ethnic subjects entering white South Africa as  labor migrants, Black South Africans could, at least in an apartheid urban planner’s racist fantasy, be highly regulated and controlled. Israel, of course, has adopted a similar approach in its ambition to turn the places where Palestinians live into discrete, disarticulated Bantustans, where movement is highly controlled through rigid, temporary work permits and militarily enforced through checkpoints.

South Africa’s apartheid plan was administered through violence; but repression went hand in glove with political-administrative strategies designed to produce native docility and a stable labor force. Faced with the systemic violence of this plan, a strong native opposition emerged in the form of Black professional associations, Black trade unions, community, political, youth, civic, artistic and religious movements. Among a significant section of the anti-apartheid movement, a consensus had developed by the 1940s that the enemy was not individual white settlers, but rather the system of racialized minority rule which deprived the majority of political representation. The Freedom Charter, a vision of a postapartheid future adopted at a mass gathering of anti-apartheid activists and advocates in 1955, stated that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” It signalled that white settlers could be a part of a future political community after apartheid if they accepted living with a Black majority, on equal terms.

The anti-apartheid opposition was primarily driven by internal mobilization up until 1950 when a wave of repressive legislation banned the major anti-apartheid organizations and sent many anti-apartheid leaders, including Mandela and Robert Sobukwe into prison or exile in neighboring African countries, or to exile in Europe. In the late 1950s South Africans who found themselves in exile began to mobilize their hosts in Lusaka and Dar es Salaam, or through community mobilization in European metropoles like London and Amsterdam, for a boycott of South African manufactured goods and agricultural products. One of the first large meetings to call for this boycott of South African goods was addressed in Trafalgar Square in 1959 by the future Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere. Workers and women’s federations in Trinidad and Jamaica, then self-governing British territories, pledged significant solidarity action, refusing to unload South African produce in Caribbean ports.

While the boycott of South African goods gained some traction in the UK, a turning point in the growth of the global anti-apartheid movement was the 1960 Sharpeville police massacre of 69 non-violent protestors – carried out in full view of journalists. The massacre was a tipping point in the growth of the anti-apartheid movement internationally. Along with pan-African initiatives tabled at the UN demanding that apartheid be declared a crime against humanity, the visible brutality used to defend the system of apartheid, as displayed in Sharpeville and later repeated in Soweto against Black school students on 16 June 1976, inspired the formation of global alliances calling for full scale political, economic and cultural sanctions against South Africa. At the same time, a crucial range of alliances inside South Africa between workers, students, civic movements and others, had been mobilizing against government attempts to reform apartheid in a way that would maintain white minority political and economic dominance. Through nonviolent mass mobilization against the system of racialized minority rule, the major Black opposition groupings offered individual whites who were opposed to apartheid a way into the anti-apartheid movement. By mid-1985, the exiled military wing of the ANC opened itself to all, including white South Africans. Proportionally, white opposition to apartheid was small but symbolically significant. By the 1980s, a growing number of white South African men joined what was called the End Conscription Campaign, refusing compulsory military conscription on conscientious grounds, consequently facing imprisonment. While the armed struggle carried a certain political cachet, it was local mass movements built across sectoral, ethnic and racial divides that served as the fulcrum of making apartheid South Africa “ungovernable,” as a contemporary political slogan called for.


Motivated above all by Cold War alignments, the United States, Britain, France, and Israel continued to provide the apartheid government with official military support long after Sharpeville on the ideological grounds that white South Africa was a friend of the “free world,” fighting communism on the southernmost tip of Africa. The governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the US and Britain, respectively, attempted to label any opposition to apartheid as communist agitation – hence Mandela’s terrorist classification in the US. But by the mid-1980s, the apartheid government was exasperated by its failed attempts to contain the demands of the Black majority for universal franchise and equal political representation. Its last round of attempts at reform in the late-1980s was the creation of a three-chamber parliament configured to co-opt Coloured and Indian leaders, while keeping the majority Black South Africans out of the democratic system. These reforms were met with mass domestic opposition, instigating the launch in 1983 of a broad non-racial oppositional federation of organizations called the United Democratic Front. A reminder, perhaps, of Hannah Arendt’s contention that violence is not an extension of the political, but signals the end of politics, the floundering apartheid state increasingly turned its political failures into extreme repression; the use of states of emergencies, detentions without trial, the deployment of the military inside the country, covertly administered political assassinations against anti-apartheid intellectuals and political leaders in the country and in exile were all violent measures designed to assure its increasingly anxious white electorate that “terrorism” would be annihilated. But images of the apartheid government using force against peaceful protestors continued to loop in the newly created twenty-four hour news networks globally. As these images circulated constantly across the world, it became harder to discredit opposition to apartheid as the work of communist infiltrators. The greater the repression used to defend the existence of a settler colony in South Africa, the faster the growth and the louder the voices of the international solidarity movement calling for sanctions and divestment from apartheid South Africa.

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While the West’s Cold War fight against communism was used to justify political friendships with military dictatorships and countries, like South Africa, practicing racial discrimination, from the late-1970s through to the mid-1980s, ordinary citizens in Western countries began to break with their governments’ policies. Increasingly mobilized across college and university campuses, and other sectors of society, the campaign for divestment and sanctions spread. Students in New York occupied Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall in 1985, renaming it Mandela Hall, as part of their campaign for university divestment from apartheid South Africa – a global spotlight shone on that same Hamilton Hall earlier this month as students protesting for Palestinian liberation occupied and renamed it Hind’s Hall in honor of a six year old Palestinian girl who was killed by the IDF. The symbolism of this continuity, the attention it received globally, and its catalysing effect on students at other American university campuses and across the world will not be lost on those opposing divestment from Israel at all costs. The growing encampments at US universities demanding university divestments from Israel have powerful resonances with the success of the anti-apartheid divestment campaigns of the 1980s. Israel’s response to the events of 7 October could be its tipping point in losing carte blanche international support in the way that Sharpeville 1960 was apartheid South Africa’s tipping point internationally. Since 7 October, mainstream public perception of Israel’s actions has shifted significantly enough to dispel the notion that the victims of genocide cannot also become perpetrators. The ICJ case brought by South Africa has contributed to this evolution in public opinion, with polls also now showing that a majority of American citizens disagree with the views expressed by the White House when it comes to supporting the current actions of the Israeli state “‘to the hilt”’ in an “‘iron clad”’ relationship. The protests at US campuses also signal this shift, generationally.

A challenge for the growing international Palestine solidarity movement has been the accompanying moral-political weight of a history of victimhood. Across the West, criticism of Israel is quickly cast as antisemitic and met with cries that Israel has a right to defend itself. Since 7 October, however, Israel has gone so far beyond the pale of legitimate national self-defense that its claim to singular victimhood has become implausible even in the eyes of many of its centrist supporters, transforming international perceptions of the Israel-Palestine conflict more broadly. Just as it became harder to use anti-communism to justify defending a settler colonial state’s horrendous actions in South Africa when the scale and brutality of its violence crossed a tipping point, it is becoming more difficult for defenders of Israeli settler colonialism to silence all criticism of Israel globally as antisemitic. In 2020, a gathering of leading scholars who met in Jerusalem issued the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which recognizes the legitimacy of criticizing the actions of the state of Israel as distinct from expressions of antisemitic political speech. The conflation of antisemitism and critiques of Israel has been made even more tenuous as increasing numbers of Jews, particularly in the US, have joined together in protests to declare, Not in Our Name. As early as 18 October, the Jewish organizations Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow organized an occupation of the US Capitol building’s Rotunda to demand a ceasefire, followed by a massive occupation of New York City’s Grand Central Station ten days later. An important debate has even opened up between Jewish holocaust scholars on this question.

The larger question that resonates with both South Africa and Israel is whether the emerging global protests instigated by the horror of this violence can develop into an international criticism of the ideology it defends – Zionism – upon which the exclusionary state of Israel is constructed. Will the current moment encourage more Israeli citizens, or the powerful states that subsidize the Israeli occupation militarily and financially, to consider whether the security and future of Jewish cultural life is best fulfilled through this ghettoized conception of political life? While a global movement to isolate Israel is growing in response to the country’s horrific bombardment of Gaza since 7 October, those events are the latest manifestation of the long arc of a settler colonial ambition to ethnically cleanse Palestinians starting with the Naqba of 1948 – the same year that the policy of apartheid was adopted in South Africa. International solidarity and legal, political, cultural and economic isolation, combined with internal resistance, helped steer white South Africans towards supporting a formal end to apartheid. In addition to legal pressures, international public opinion that includes a growing number of Jewish voices in the diaspora and in Israel will be necessary to direct the citizens of Israel to the wisdom of constructing an inclusive political community where Jewish life can flourish not at the horrendous expense of Palestinian life but in political equality with others. It is this latter solution that particularly draws lessons from the end of apartheid, lessons that the postapartheid government seeks to remind the world of through its actions at the ICJ.


Israel, today, mirrors late-apartheid South Africa in many ways. As was the case in South Africa, there is a dialectic of fear and invincibility that simultaneously drives and politically paralyzes those living inside Israel’s settler colonial state. Fear animates a siege mentality while at the same time the elevated racialized sense of invincibility drives hyper-militarization. In both apartheid South Africa and Israel, today, this relationship between fear and hyper-militarization leads the dominant group to perceive every member of its racialized, subjugated population a potential terrorist. The flipside of this fear renders every settler a citizen-soldier. Apartheid South Africa reassured its white citizens that they had the most powerful army in Africa protecting the only democracy in southern Africa and securing Western civilization in Africa. Yet, in 1987, South Africa’s military was stalemated in Angola by combined Angolan and Cuban resistance during its incursion there. And domestically its army was unable to quell the mass resistance inside the country despite its State of Emergencies and deployment of the army inside the country. These defeats gave pause to a hubristic sense of invincibility. As the military apparatus in South Africa began to fail in the late 1980s, the South African government drifted increasingly towards suspending civil liberties for its white citizens in order to wage war without constitutional constraints. Between 1985 and 1989, South Africa was under a permanent State of Emergency as the government required more authoritarian centralization to wage an existential war where the choice in their minds was between continued white privilege or a genocide against whites. Like apartheid South Africa before it, Israel sees itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, defended by the region’s most powerful army – the lone bulwark of Western civilization in the Middle East. Yet, for all its investments and faith in military technology, and its support from the most powerful Western countries, Israelis’ belief in the invincibility of their military and security apparatus was shattered on 7 October. Even before the 7 October attacks, the Israeli government was attempting to curtail juridical checks, a shift that had provoked widespread protests inside Israel against this drift toward authoritarianism. With military hubris smashed, fear alone is driving the extraordinarily disproportionate bombing of simply everything that exists and breathes in Gaza, from children to hospitals and universities.

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Mandela’s responses to the questions he received at the 1990 US “town hall” about the ANC’s relationship to the PLO and about its future relationship to Israel reflected an important political commitment that intimately shaped the political settlement of 1994 in South Africa and the making of a post-settler colonial society. This commitment derived from an understanding of political sovereignty, on the international stage, as an anticolonial rupture with the dominant and hegemonic powers that seek to turn coerce former colonies into neocolonial relations. South Africa’s triumph over colonial minority rule came at the bitter end of the Cold War, but shared the Bandung movement’s vision of charting a more independent path in a highly fractured world – one that, by the 1990s, was shifting from the bipolar dynamic of the Cold War to a unipolar ascendancy of American dominance. Mandela was signalling that the United States and the West could not dictate who post-apartheid South Africa’s allies should be. But also that it would be up to South Africans to decide how they transcend racial divides to live together, just as Palestinians and Israelis will ultimately have to decide how to live together in equality. International solidarity and pressure will be crucial to nudging the conflicting parties towards that discussion about a common future as the only lasting solution.

South Africa’s determination today to play a role in Gaza and work toward an inclusive solution that helps Palestinians and Israelis end settler-colonial violence in Israel-Palestine, is an expression of the country’s abiding commitment to its own political principles – a fact worth acclaiming on the occasion of thirty years of since the end of white settler colonial rule. South Africa changed its political identity and political constitution in 1994 in an aspirational sense, to offer a more elevated answer to what a post-settler colonial society could become. Despite many current flaws in domestic governance, its leaders continue to understand that to transcend violence and chart a different alternative, those who contentiously share land will have to see more hope in imagining a common future together than imprisoning themselves in divided pasts.

Yes, the freedom of South Africa remains incomplete, as Mandela observed. But today, on the 29 May 2024, South Africans stand in line to vote in the sixth round of elections since 1994 in which neither race nor ethnic identity restricts voter participation.  South Africa’s citizens will stand cheek by jowl to express their different opinions about who should lead them in a boisterous expression of democratic freedom. Not too many decades ago many Black South Africans might have felt despondent about whether a non-racial democracy would ever happen in their lifetime. The future of freedom in the bleak 1950s, or the bloody 1980s, was at times  an impossible horizon to glimpse on the other side of the black smoke of burning barricades. Especially when white South Africans who held military, political and economic power seemed either securely smug in their right to minority privilege and emboldened by their powerful allies in Washington and London, or too scared to consider a future where Black South Africans would be their political equals. But despite this despondency, the persistence of popular mass mobilization inside South Africa found more and more support amongst ordinary citizens globally, including in those states who were white South Africa’s closest global allies, forcing the political elites in those states to eventually change tack. Crucially, a small number of whites in South Africa who opposed apartheid later grew in numbers, whether for moral-political reasons or for self-preservation, realizing the impossibility of continuing to rule through brute force in the face of growing international pariah status. Negotiations rather than war was a reality to be confronted.

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The tipping points of Sharpeville in 1960, and Soweto 1976 were significant in activating global outrage directed towards the violence being used to defend a political system that so clearly violated not only our modern conception of the right to life, but also our modern understandings of rights to political equality and citizenship. The violence Israel is using to defend the idea of Zionism today marks such a tipping point; a new generation of students and young people are increasingly making clear that they differ with the carte blanche support Israel has historically been granted by the United States and some in Europe after 1945. As the South African experience shows, the problem of Palestine-Israel is primarily a political one concerning the foundations of a political community: who can belong equally? A political solution cannot be imposed by international courts; but international solidarity, popular mobilization, political isolation and juridical pressures are required to heed the sage but minority voices of Gideon Levy and other Israelis calling for international pressure to be exerted not just on the government, but on the society. Popular pressure, cultural and economic isolation, and juridical injunctions, such as those South Africa has sought at the ICJ, are intended to sternly nudge Israeli society toward the reality that the violent fantasies of political Zionism have reached a nihilistic point. Those critical minority voices in Israel, just like the minority of white South Africans who opposed apartheid, will hopefully proliferate and find more common cause with Palestinians ready to receive them in a political community that is home for all regardless of historical origins.


[1] Hlatswayo, M (2021), The ruptures in our rainbow: Reflections on teaching and learning during #RhodesMustFall, Volume 9, Issue 2 DOI: 10.14426/cristal.v9i2.492

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