In preparation for May Day (otherwise referred to as International Workers Day), one of South Africa’s largest trade unions, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) held a successful #BoycottApartheidIsrael protest with the ANC, BDS SA, SACP and others in Ermelo (a small town situated in the larger Gert Sibande District of the Mpumalanga province).
Following the defeat of Apartheid, the district was named after Richard “Gert” Sibande – a local anti-Apartheid activist who hails from the area. Sibande championed workers struggles through creative tactics including having led the successful “Potato Boycott” of 1959.
The “Potato Boycott” formed part of a campaign against slave-like conditions imposed by White farmers against Black workers on potato farms. It was launched in Durban (hundreds of kilometers away) at a South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) rally – attended by over 60, 000 people.
People across the country, White and Black, having never met the potato farm workers, found that their own humanity was tied to that of others – they sacrificed eating potatoes in protest against an injustice faced by another people.
The “Potato Boycott” was a success in at least three ways: a) within an few months, the campaign forced the farmers to end their slave-like exploitation of the workers, whose working conditions vastly increased thereafter; b) gave confidence for the local anti-Apartheid movement to launch further boycotts and defiance campaigns against Apartheid and c) inspired those in the international community to start considering the tactic of boycotts to hold the Apartheid government accountable for its human rights violations.
The “Potato Boycott” gained international support from people in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who started planning similar campaigns. These international activists appealed to one of South Africa’s liberation organizations, the ANC, for direction and endorsement. Chief Albert Luthuli, as President of the ANC, responded emphatically to those in the international community calling, on behalf of the ANC and the people of South Africa, for international boycotts, divestments and sanctions to be imposed against Apartheid South Africa.
Luthuli wrote: “Economic boycott is one way in which the world at large can bring home to the South African authorities that they must mend their ways or suffer for them… .” Luthuli’s letter became the founding statement of the international anti-Apartheid movement which then rolled out international boycotts and sanctions campaigns for the next 30 years.
The rest, as they say, is history; but it’s not!
It was a fierce commitment and dedicated work spanning three decades by ordinary people across the globe who built an extraordinary movement. As South Africa’s governing party, the ANC, has put it: “[We] recognize that the international anti-Apartheid movement and sanctions campaign was shouldered, taken on and defended by thousands of ordinary citizens from numerous countries around the world. These ordinary citizens, made our struggle, their struggle; our lives, their lives. We are forever indebted to them.”
These international contributions to our freedom are sometimes airbrushed out of our history, sometimes due to our inward-looking approach to our varied domestic challenges that we are working through but sometimes by those who would like to distort our history to suit their own narrow narratives. Both reasons are problematic, but the latter is particularly dishonorable.
One example of the latter, is futile attempt by Israel and its lobby, led in South Africa by the Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), to usurp and distort our history in the service of the oppression and brutal occupation of Palestinians. Indeed, our struggle was made up of Jewish members and leaders, like Ronnie Kasrils, Denis Goldberg and others, however, the establishment, represented by the likes of the SAJBD, supported the Apartheid regime and worked vociferously to shield it from international sanction. These organizations today are desperate to reduce our centuries of struggle against colonialism and Apartheid to a single moment of reconciliation in 1994. That moment of reconciliation in South Africa was only arrived at because of the sweat, blood and death of, both, our people and those from the international community who stood in solidarity with us in our struggle against Apartheid.
The fierce and militant unions and workers form the backbone of our country’s story. So too, undoubtedly, does the spirit and principle of internationalism. The anti-Apartheid movement best exemplified the common phrase heard in the labour sector: “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Thus we must welcome South Africa’s recent hosting of a symposium on Western Sahara, our country’s protest of U.S. interference in Venezuela and our government’s downgrade of the South African Embassy in Israel to a liaison office. All of these are, in some ways, our way of “giving back” the blood and lost opportunities suffered by the known and unknown men and women who dared to feel our pain. It is our humble contribution to human solidarity and the spirit of internationalism, it is our way of paying homage to our interconnectedness and the unseen bonds of our common humanity that sustained during our darkest days.
In this month that we celebrate the gigantic contribution made by organized labour to a better country and world, we in particular commend our largest trade union federation, COSATU, for being one of the first organizations in the world to have backed the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. COSATU is living up to the phrase of an injury to one, is an injury to all!
South African workers, across all sectors, are becoming flag-bearers of the BDS and Palestine solidarity movement with unionists insisting that workplaces must become Apartheid Israel Free Zones. Another call is for jobs and services given to Israeli companies, by our private sector, to immediately come to an end. Those jobs, South African unions argue, can go to local black South Africans; services contracted from Israeli companies can be contracted from locally owned companies.
The Palestinian BDS campaign against Israel, inspired by our own successful isolation of Apartheid South Africa, is moving at a far faster pace than the boycott of Apartheid South Africa did. This is partially because the Israeli regime of Apartheid and oppression against the Palestinians, as our former President Kgalema Mothlante, has put it, “is far worse that what we Black South Africans experienced.”
The Palestine solidarity movement and BDS campaign against Israel is finding support at a more accelerated pace, perhaps, also because humanity as a whole is progressing. As Martin Luther King put it: “The arc of the moral universe may be long, but it bends towards justice.” In standing with the Palestinians and all other oppressed peoples we are indeed actively contributing towards the bending of the arc, we are contributing towards a more peaceful, loving and just world.
Tisetso Magama is a board member of BDS South Africa.