African solidarity for Palestine has always been strong. South Africa's post-apartheid government has been particularly vocal in support of Palestine: in 2018, South Africa recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv after the Great March of Return, and in 2019, after considerable pressure from activists, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) downgraded the status of the embassy in Israel to a liaison office.
At the time, then-Foreign Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said that the liaison office would have “no political mandate, no trade mandate and no development cooperation mandate. It will not be responsible for trade and commercial activities.”
Since then, South Africa's Minister of International Affairs, Naledi Pandor, has promised “direct action” following Amnesty International's apartheid report, which her government accepted. Considering the South African experience of apartheid, much of South African society has realized the necessity of supporting Palestine, but persuading the government to adopt this policy has required the mobilization of pro-Palestine activists.
In an interview for this article, Bram Hanekom, board member of Africa4Palestine, described the movement to sway the ANC government to downgrade diplomatic status with Israel. His organization - then known as BDS South Africa - lobbied the government in February of 2018 at the ruling party's 54th National Conference in Nasrec, Gauteng province, to adopt an official platform policy committing to the downgrading of the embassy.
“So many of us activists went and participated in the political freedoms we have and influenced a conference of the ruling party,” Hanekom said. “Myself, I was in about seven provincial African National Congress elective conferences and policy conferences. And then the National Conference… saw the adoption of the resolution to immediately and unconditionally downgrade the Embassy of South Africa in Israel to a liaison office.”
Hanekom called the adoption of the resolution by the ANC, “a massive breakthrough, a hard fought for breakthrough,” but admitted that the “resolution has not been fully implemented,” referencing the desire for a complete end to diplomatic relations with Israel. Nevertheless, Hanekom lauded South Africa's government for having “withdrawn [the] Ambassador to Israel and not returned one for over two years, which is a huge insult for a country like ours to take against the apartheid regime of Israel.”
Hanekom asserted that there are historical reasons for why post-apartheid South Africa feels such sympathy for Palestine, stating that the majority of South Africans today “resonate with the oppression [of Palestinians], understand and know the history of being oppressed, being deprived of basic human rights and dignity… being dispossessed of land and being forcefully moved from one space to another.”
Hanekom concluded by saying that South African solidarity for Palestine has grown so strong that “there's not a single leader in our national government that would dare say anything pro-Israeli.”
Recently, these efforts have been made at a continent-wide level, focusing on an initiative to end the African Union's embrace of Israel. Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission, had accepted Israel's accreditation in 2021, making Israel an observer nation, something that Israeli diplomats had been seeking for two decades.
In response, the South African government called the move “shocking,” “unjust and unwarranted,” and condemned it as being taken “unilaterally without consultations with its members.” The move was seen as contradictory, as the AU already accorded observer status to Palestine, and had released numerous pro-Palestine statements.
"This came as a shock, given that the decision was made at a time when the oppressed people of Palestine were hounded by destructive bombardments and continued illegal settlements [on] their land," Minister Pandor said at the time, also noting that “our objection stems from our own constitution and its values and the African Union charter that rejects colonialism, racism, and illegal occupation of the land of others/”
This continent-wide initiative took a huge step on March 10th, 2022, when the first ever Pan African Anti-Apartheid Conference was held in Dakar, Senegal. Delegates from 21 African nations attended, under the banner of the Pan-African Palestine Solidarity Network (PAPSN), and hosted locally by Plateforme Solidarite Senegal-Palestine (Senegal Palestine Solidarity Platform).
PAPSN described the goal of the event as “mobilizing popular support, including youth and women in Africa, to support the Palestinian liberation struggle.” PAPSN also sought to “expose the myth of ‘Israeli development' and the role of apartheid Israel in the militarization, wars and repression in Africa.” Finally, PAPSN announced that “delegates will also discuss Israel's recent accreditation to the African Union and strategies to kick apartheid Israel out of Africa.”
I interviewed Roshan Dadoo, an organizer with the BDS South Africa Coalition and the Pan African Palestine Solidarity Network, about the first Pan-African Anti-Apartheid Conference that took place in Dakar, Senegal between March 10 and 12, 2022. He outlined the necessity of South-South cooperation in the Palestinian Solidarity movement. Dadoo said that “the BDS movement globally realized that they had over-focused on the North, on Europe, and the [U.S.] in terms of developing solidarity and BDS campaigns, and so they launched a Global South initiative which was just as the coalition was starting, so we were a part of it.”
Dadoo referenced the Global South's call for Palestine, a statement issued in 2020 against the proposed annexation of the West Bank, with signatories from across the Tricontinent of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, led by civil society in South Africa. Two former South African Presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, as well as Willy Mutunga, Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court in Kenya, as well as numerous other African ministers, activists, and members of civil society, signed on in support.
According to Dadoo, “the idea was to try to strengthen in Latin America, in Asia, and also in Africa, solidarity.” This served as the basis for the recent conference in Dakar. As Dadoo said, “out of all of that, we started to make connections with people and individual activists and groups across the [African] continent, and this meeting we've just had in Dakar was in fact the first time we've come together in real life”.
On the decision to host in Dakar, Dadoo said, “we decided to host it in Senegal, partly because there's a strong solidarity group there and Amnesty International Senegal [is] quite strong, but more importantly because of the whole AU fiasco and because [President of Senegal] Macky Sall is now the chair of the AU.”
According to Dadoo, the conference “started off with each country giving a very brief answer to a few questions about the solidarity movement and what Israel is up to in their countries.”
Dadoo said the African delegates also discussed Israel's military involvement in Africa, and the sale of Pegasus spyware to African governments. “Those products are tested on Palestinians… the only reason our governments will buy them is to use [them] on us.”
Dadoo explained that conference attendees were primarily “activists and civil society.” In addition, delegates in attendance included “one delegate from Morocco and two from Sudan.” This is particularly important, as Morocco and Sudan's governments have both become diplomatic allies of Israel.
In the case of Sudan, Dadoo reported that the delegates informed the conference that there “were demonstrations still every day and people were getting killed in these demonstrations.” These demonstrations are against the military regime in Sudan - the regime's support for Israel has become a major factor in anti-government protests.
Mandla Mandela, the grandson of Nelson Mandela, a prominent pro-Palestine activist and featured speaker at the event, said that “our gathering here today under the banner of the Pan African Palestine Solidarity Network is…a significant milestone in forging a united front in support of the just Palestinian struggle. This bold initiative bodes well and sends a strong message to the people of occupied Palestine that you are not alone and that the people of Africa stand with you in your struggle, just as you stood by us during our struggles for liberation across the continent.”
In the concluding remarks at the conference, the organizers summarized their demands as follows:
- Revoke Israel's accreditation to the AU
- Recognize Israel as an apartheid state and ensure that there is international justice for the crime against humanity of apartheid lobby
- Lobby for the reactivation of the UN’s anti-apartheid mechanisms
- Immediately end the purchases of all Israeli military and surveillance technology
- End agri-business and water projects with Israeli companies
- End diplomatic relations with Israel
This will, according to the organizers, “thereby lead the way to isolating Israel globally, just as apartheid South Africa was isolated.”
The future of the African solidarity with Palestine thus promises many more Pan-African Anti-Apartheid conferences, and further struggle against the AU's recognition of Israel. Whatever direct action is taken by South Africa - the country that has emerged as a leader in the diplomatic campaign for Palestine - will certainly be key to these future gatherings.
By Joseph Mullen