Thinking about apartheid and the struggle for freedom

Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi, leader of the Nama resistance to modern Germany’s first genocide

JVL Introduction

Making the connections is the theme of Tony Karon’s latest blogpost.

Connections between the liberation of South Africa, Germany’s apology for its first genocide, the centenary of the Tulsa massacre in the States, Israel’s move to oust Netanyahu and more.

What connects them is apartheid and its settler-colonial underpinnings.

What connects them is their origin myths: the US founded on a promise of liberty and equality for all, South Africa the outcome of a “war of independence” from Britain, Israel – well you know that story…

In each case, says Karon “struggles for democratic equality challenge not simply the government of the day, but the constitutional state, itself — because all three are/were ruled by constitutional systems from which the colonized were, by design, consciously excluded.”

Interesting times to come.

This article was originally published by Tony Karon's blog on Wed 2 Jun 2021. Read the original here.

Israel and the United States: Thinking about apartheid and the struggle for freedom

Like the South African system that coined the term ‘apartheid’, Israel and the USA originated as settler-democracies. We should discuss what that means for how to pursue democratic equality

Talk about a week of reminders that we don’t choose the circumstances under which we make history — and that traditions of dead generations weighing like a nightmare on our brains…

  • May 31 marked 60 years since South Africa’s now dead-and-buried apartheid regime finally declared formal independence from Britain — an event worth forgetting, perhaps, were it not surprisingly analogous to the origin story of both the Israeli and US political systems
  • Germany finally issued a formal (if wholly inadequate) apology for the genocide it committed in Namibia more than three decades before the Holocaust. That genocide, if we follow the work of Sven Lindqvist, helped establish the supremacist moral universe in which racialized mass murder became thinkable for Germans. Oh, and the Nama genocide apology came around the same time as Germany reaffirmed its support and for Israel’s settler-colonial regime as it massacred Palestinians, Merkel saying Germany felt a special responsibility for Israel (well, yes, but not in the sense she meant it…)
  • America marked the centenary of the Tulsa massacre, which happened to coincide with the white-supremacist Republican Party becoming increasingly desperate to ram through legislation in Texas placing new obstacles to Black and Latino voters exercising their democratic rights — oh, and also reminding us that it is the parliamentary wing of the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 by blocking congressional investigation of that event
  • Joe Biden, on Memorial Day, reiterated the wishful thinking that the United States of America had been founded not on race or ethnicity, but on an egalitarian and inclusive idea
  • Israel moved to oust Benjamin Netanyahu and replace him with another apartheid coalition, highlighting a truth inconvenient to US liberal supporters of Israel: that apartheid is not a problem of “the Israeli government”; apartheid is a feature of the Israeli state that won’t be ended by the Israeli electorate reshuffling the deck.

So, what, if any connections are to be drawn between these disparate developments? Indulge me while I connect them via the apartheid thread.

Of course, South Africa’s apartheid regime landed in history’s rubbish dump 1994, so why am I even bothering to write about it? Well, one enduring bequest of that state was the word — and the concept — apartheid, which has certainly outlived those who coined it. The dramatic events of the past month in Palestine have underscored just why Israel has been declared an apartheid system by Palestinians, and also by Israeli and international human rights organizations. More challenging, perhaps, but no less important is the application of the apartheid concept and its settler-colonial underpinnings to the United States, where the persistence of white-supremacist power in the very structures of American democracy have come dramatically into view during the Trump presidency — and in the Republican Party’s effort to hold onto power by thwarting the ability of those (Black and Indigenous) Americans deliberately excluded from the democracy designed by the Founders.

Let’s just say there’s a connection between the white supremacist spirit that animated the officially empowered white mob massacre 300 Black people in Tulsa a century ago and the one that drove the January 6 insurrection designed to overturn the verdict of an election whose outcome was decided in no small part by large Black voter turnout; and also drives the current state-level Republican frenzy to prevent Black folks from casting a vote lest they help oust white nationalists from control of a political system designed to keep them in power. Feckless Democrats seem paralyzed by their own illusions in the face of this onslaught: As Rep. Cori Bush — a Black working-class movement activist who ousted an establishment Democrat to be elected to the House — constantly warns, the filibuster is a Jim Crow mechanism. It was literally designed to create a white minority veto in a chamber (the Senate) whose very design (two seats per state regardless of population size) is also intended to ensure white minority rule. Still, many establishment liberal Democrats prefer to sustain their illusions about just what the US political system is, and who the Republicans are.

To mark Memorial Day, President Biden reiterated the fable that while “every other nation is built on ethnicity, geography, religion, etcetera, we were built on an idea, the idea of liberty, and opportunity for all.” Granted, Biden did concede the obvious problem in this fantasy origin story: “We’ve never fully realized that aspiration of our founding, but every generation has opened the door a little wider and every generation has opened it wider and wider to be more inclusive.”

Let’s just say that vision simply erases the American version of Germany’s genocide against the Nama — the genocidal elimination of the indigenous nations on whose land the USA was to be built, the literal establishment of “property” through violent robbery. Also absent from this vision are the Africans held in chains as “property” by the founders and their community.

And precisely because of its faulty premise that America was founded on a promise of liberty and equality for all, Biden’s vision doesn’t account for why it is that “the door” was so firmly shut; the often bloody struggles required to open it a little; the identity and nature of the forces ranged against such opening, and how and why they’ve succeeded in slamming shut some of those openings… No U.S. president has yet acknowledged how the forces of white supremacy are historically enabled precisely by the numerous structural racist elements embedded in the constitutional system bequeathed by the Founding Fathers. Indeed, the rising fascist threat over the past 5 years has posed to all progressives the challenge of defending such democracy as currently exists in the United States, even while maintaining a sharp awareness of the deep flaws that would have to be fixed to make the USA a genuine democracy.

Hence the significance of this past week’s reminder of the origin story of South Africa’s apartheid regime: Like the United States, it was the product of an outcome of a “war of independence” from Britain. Here, the settler community sought freedom and democratic self-government as their exclusive preserve, while waging genocide against the indigenous nations whose stolen land was to be the basis for the U.S. economy, and against African people whose whose forced labor was to be the engine of that economy. Germany may finally have apologized to the Namibian victims of its genocide, but the United States still prints the face of the genocidal Andrew Jackson on its $20 bill.

It was the Anglo-Boer War from 1899-1902, in which the Boer settler guerilla forces fought to break free from British rule, that set the stage for the creation of the modern state of South Africa in 1910 — a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire, forged by merging the vanquished but not disarmed Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State with the British colonies of the Cape and Natal. The Union of South Africa, as it was known, was a democratic state ruled by laws formulated by a parliament elected on the Westminster model at four-year intervals, and interpreted by an independent judiciary. It might well have boasted that it was “the only democracy in Africa”, except, of course, that for South Africa’s Black majority, the very same democracy was also a racist, authoritarian tyranny that not only denied them the rights of citizenship, but unleashed upon them a regime of epic violence to dispossess them of the lands they farmed, and brutally subordinate the them to the needs of the settler economy’s need for their barely-paid labor.

South Africa’s settler democracy was a system of legally codified violence against Black and Brown people denied citizenship in the state that ruled them — the essence of apartheid. And once Black people had begun to rebel and demand a democracy, South Africa’s regime was always going to have a hard time convincing fair-minded observer of its “democratic” credentials.

Today, Israel is running into the same problem: Its system has been seen for what it is. Its democracy may produce changes of government at a dizzying pace, but all of the permutations of parties and personalities that compete to govern are aligned on the basic apartheid system — the question of Palestinian rights is literally not on the ballot. Israel is a democracy for the Jews who settled in the territory between the River and the Sea, mostly in the 20th century, but for the majority of indigenous Palestinian Muslims and Christians who live there, it is a state of racist tyranny, exclusion, dispossession and oppression. Those who managed to survive the ethnic cleansing inside the 1948 boundaries are at best second-class citizens; the rest are subject to a regime of occupation and ongoing ethnic cleansing. And the world is waking up to that reality.

In South Africa, there was no question that the struggle for democracy required not a reformist expansion of the existing form of state, but it’s replacement by one based on the sovereignty of all the people who lived in it. Similarly, in the case of Israel, the demand for a Jewish ethno-state on territory from which the Palestinian Arab majority were and continue to be violently displaced and subordinated is simply not reconcilable with principles of democratic justice and equality. When Israel’s advocates demand that Palestinians accept the principle of Israel as a Jewish state, what is being demanded is that Palestinians reconcile themselves with the theft of their land and property, and with a subordinate status in the state that rules them, simply because they’re not Jewish.

Ending Israeli apartheid will require a new form of state that guarantees democratic equality, liberty and security to all who live between the river and the sea. Yes, of course, that may not sound plausible right now — but nor did the demand for democratic majority rule seem achievable in South Africa 50 years ago. Recent events have made clear that Israeli hopes of Palestinian acquiescence to Israeli apartheid are a chimera; the revival of Palestinian struggle on all fronts over the past month comes at a moment when global civil society is newly focused on systemic racism and the legacy of colonialism, which is not good news for the Israeli camp. Indeed, Abe Foxman’s unhinged denunciation as ‘blood libel’ of the New York Times simply displaying the pictures of 66 children killed during Israel’s recent air campaign in Gaza highlights the moral chasm that has opened up between Israel’s propagandists — who expect Americans to embrace their racist contempt for Palestinian life — and U.S. polity increasingly sensitized to racist dehumanization of “the other”.

Israel may be as influential as ever among the Democratic Party establishment, but that establishment is far less influential of the Democratic Party than it was a few years ago, thanks to the movement for social justice and equality in America that drew 25 million people onto the streets last summer in protests against racist police killings. But even if those protests have profoundly changed the conversation — and the possibilities for transformation — the battle is far from won. Right now, we’re seeing a ferocious counter-offensive from the forces of white supremacy, led by the Republican Party, who are determined to prevent and reverse the democratization of America. Their top priority is preventing BIPOC citizens from voting, knowing that even within the deliberately anti-democratic strictures of the US system, the share of the electorate that votes for whiteness is a diminishing minority.

The deeply divided state of US politics are not a flaw or a danger; they’re absolutely vital, just as flu symptoms are a vital sign of a body fighting to excise a toxic virus. Preserving such democratic openings as currently exist is clearly a vital priority. But can a state that still bears so much of the baggage of its horrific settler-colonial origins — and so steadfastly resists any effort to reckon with that legacy (see the guilty-conscience furor over “critical race theory”, the 1619 project etc.) — ever be transformed into an inclusive society of democratic equality? Everything from the state-based system of governance to the Electoral College, the Senate etc. would need to be transformed to strip them of their white-supremacist DNA and its effects. Regardless of what democratic transformations are to be pursued and effected, the electoral system is likely to remain a primary site of struggle for democratic equality, even though it won’t be effective if it’s the only one: It was mass organizing on the streets that has forced the political system to respond in some way to the epidemic of racist police violence; it would never have happened if politics was only being waged in the electoral sphere, nor will it ever succeed if it’s confined to corridors of power.

The most challenging part of acknowledging the origin stories and nature of the apartheid democracies of South Africa, Israel and the United States is recognizing how, in each case, struggles for democratic equality challenge not simply the government of the day, but the constitutional state, itself — because all three are/were ruled by constitutional systems from which the colonized were, by design, consciously excluded. So what does an anti-apartheid struggle look like in Israel — and in the United States?

Interesting times and conversations ahead. More from me TK.

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Comments (1)

  • John Spencer says:

    Shimon Peres, Israel’s defence minister in 1975, signed a contract with his South African counterpart PW Botha to supply nuclear weapons to the apartheid state. If this wasn’t a criminal attempt to perpetuate apartheid, what was it?

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