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Say it not in muffled voices, Palestine Matters:- My take when visa free travel status for Palestinians is worth supporting

During December 2020 I joined with other activists to campaign for visa free travel for Palestinians. The key component of this new thrust is collecting signatures on the Avaaz platform as a means of convincing our government to do the right thing. This we believe is simple: by granting Palestinians the rights to travel visa free as South Africa does with the occupying state of Israel. We have learnt what Frederick Douglas so aptly called the philosophy of reform: that power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and never will.

But I believe the campaign is asking for much more that a travel document. As South Africans (with international solidarity), we have defeated apartheid. We know the ills of the fragmentation of the people and communities on bases of race, ethnicity and tribes. Bantustan enclaves and group areas divided people from socially meeting and building harmonious communities across racial and ethnic barriers. A myriad of laws limited our freedom of association and our rights to move, work, play and pray where and how we wanted.

The defeat of institutional and lawful racism was formalised in our democratic breakthrough in 1994. But racism pre-dated the South African apartheid regime. It is a centuries’ old ideology. Racism is structural and systemic and does not respect borders, as the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted. Greed and the need to control people has been codified in law and reinforced by reactionary politics, leaders and the armed forces, which are some of the reasons why Global apartheid remains alive. When I worked in the unions, one of our COSATU leaders reflected on his experience after visiting Israel-Palestine during 2006. He informed us that what South Africans experienced under apartheid was a picnic. He further reasoned that what the Palestinians endure daily was not apartheid – it was worse!

Some 15 years later, Israeli NGO B’tselem has come to similar conclusions in a report entitled “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid”

They reveal amongst other aspects how Israel undermines Palestinians, preventing them from living lives of dignity and freedom to advance “Jewish supremacy”. They explain key policies, laws and enforcements around the following headings:

– Immigration – for Jews only;
– Taking over land for Jews while crowding Palestinians in enclaves;
– Restriction of Palestinians’ freedom of movement; and
– Denial of Palestinians’ right to political participation.

B’Tselem argues that two of these actions are implemented “similarly throughout the entire area: restricting migration by non-Jews and taking over Palestinian land to build Jewish-only communities, while relegating Palestinians to small enclaves. The other two are implemented primarily in the Occupied Territories: draconian restrictions on the movement of non-citizen Palestinians and denial of their political rights. Control over these aspects of life lies entirely in Israel’s hands: in the entire area, Israel has sole power over the population registry, land allocation, voter rolls and the right (or denial thereof) to travel within, enter or exit any part of the area.”

I will not deal with these in any detail, and strongly recommend that the report be read for people to come to their own conclusions. I would however highlight a selected few points starting with the issue of immigration. Just think of it: any Jewish person born anywhere in the world has the right to emigrate to Israel at any time and will receive Israeli citizenship. In contrast, “Palestinians living in other countries cannot immigrate to the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, even if they, their parents or their grandparents were born and lived there”.

This was poignantly captured by the Palestinian writer Mourid Barghouti’s I saw Palestine (2009). In the foreword of the book, Edward Said provides context to Palestinian situation in our world, thus: “Palestine after all is no ordinary place. It is steeped in all the known histories and traditions of monotheism, and has seen conquerors and civilizations of every stripe come and go. In the twentieth century, it has been the site of an unremitting contest between the indigenous Arab inhabitants, who were tragically dispossessed and mostly dispersed in 1948, and an incoming political movement of Zionist Jews, of largely European provenance, who set up a Jewish state there and, in 1967, conquered the West Bank and Gaza, which they in effect still hold. Every Palestinian today is therefore in the unusual position of knowing that there was once a Palestine and yet seeing that place with a new name, people, and identity that deny Palestine altogether. A ‘return’ to Palestine is therefore an unusual, not to say urgently fraught, occurrence.”

Both Said and Barghouti tell the human tale of dispossession and limitations of their freedom to travel, which B’tselem records. The Israeli NGO notes the restrictions of Palestinians freedom that while “Israeli citizens can also leave and re-enter the country at any time. In contrast, residents of East Jerusalem do not hold Israeli passports and lengthy absence can result in revocation of status.” They add that “Israel routinely restricts the movement of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and generally forbids them from moving between the units. Palestinians from the West Bank who wish to enter Israel, East Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip must apply to the Israeli authorities. In the Gaza Strip, which has been blockaded since 2007, the entire population is imprisoned as Israel forbids almost any movement in or out – except in rare cases it defines humanitarian. Palestinians who wish to leave Gaza or Palestinians from other units who wish to enter it must also submit a special application for a permit to the Israeli authorities.”

What the Israeli regime does indeed is a scar on the history of the Jewish people who have resisted racism and prejudice since time immemorial. As their daily business, the state imprisons Palestinians, abolishes homes of activists whilst it – through law, guns and other nefarious means – steal Palestinian lands. The aim of these cannot be easily understood, but what is clear, as I write, is that a viable Palestinian state is not possible with such asymmetries of power favouring Israel, whilst the global powers remain silent and therefore complicit.

Another reason why these restrictions on humans rights to movement eat my gut was nurtured and reinforced when I became a social justice activist groomed in the trade union movement. The ILO has specific conventions and standards that regard the freedom of association, movement and the rights to organise, which guided me as core values of what it means to be human. These conventions came into force early in our new democracy, propelled by activists from the liberation movements and civil society groups – including the unions – when they entered parliament and government. [See, for instance, the Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining Rights, as outlined in the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948, (No. 87) and the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98). These came into force on 19 February 1996.] But truth be told, the ANC is the ruling party in government and, whilst it has one leg in civil society (as party), it is not an NGO.

There are great things we do as civil society, but our power essentially is to keep government honest and engage our elected officials to do the right thing. We are their conscience, but they have the power – which we have given them. Yet I fear they are not applying it in service of South Africans and the oppressed, wherever they may be.

Arguably, when out of power, the African National Congress has done more for the Palestinian struggle than when it was in power. Let me caution myself, the statements by Mandela out of power and in power remain an inspiration. One such statement that remains evergreen, I recall, is when Mandela told his new found Western government partners that no one in the world can choose South Africa’s friends. Typically, Western countries regarded Libya, Palestine and Cuba – amongst a few others – as their enemies and they wanted South Africa to regard them as such. Mandela remained steadfast, and added in other speeches that South African freedom was incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians. This inspiration guided his government and, in 1997, South Africa recognised the ever diminishing state of Palestine.

In a 1997 speech, Madiba underwrites solidarity as the principle of being there for the other when he spoke of the pressures the government was under to ditch their friends. He reasoned that: “the temptation in our situation is to speak in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine to a state of their own. We can easily be enticed to read reconciliation and fairness as meaning parity between justice and injustice. Having achieved our own freedom, we can fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others face”.[]

But the relationship with the Palestinian struggle has long roots, one that goes beyond the leaders. Whilst Mandela languished in Robben Island, bonds of solidarity with Palestine were crafted in the battles against the regime that were waged in the communities, sports fields and through the words of writers, playwrights and poets, in schools and higher education campuses and, importantly, the organised workplaces as well as the places of worship. The inspiration for resistance came from a number of global struggles and it was here, in the trenches, that Palestine served as motivation. The liberation of Palestine was the intellectual cause all the liberation movements agreed upon as they saw it indelibly linked to our own liberation.

In exile, the flame of resistance remained high because of the late indefatigable Oliver Tambo. It was comrade OR who played a critical role in building support for our struggle, and did not shy to speak truth about the Palestinian experience. In 1976, the year Soweto, Langa and other townships were burning in revolt, Tambo did not forget to proclaim South Africans’ “unswerving solidarity with the just cause of the Palestinians.” In later years he would reaffirm “the principled solidarity of the African National Congress and the people of South Africa with the struggle of the Palestinian people.”

Soon after 1994, South Africa recognised the state of Palestine. They joined a host of other countries in doing this like Chile, Ireland and Venezuela. It was a just recognition of a people long denied their humanity but they were not ignorant to the facts that Palestinians do not control their own borders nor the skies above them. They remain aware that Palestinians cannot move freely like other humans and have restrictions of internal travel and outside their walls. Our government knows as we do in civil society that Israel is an occupying force and the perpetrator of violence and terror, as well as the cause of the misery, immense poverty and inequality amongst Palestinians in what is today Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

It is as if the Israeli state, well armed by the powerful nations of the world, has a license to kill, and no one can do anything about it. But by our government recognising Palestine, we gave recognition to the people of Palestine, the victims of violence and those who resist and hope for a free, just and joyous viable democratic Palestine.

Sadly, since 1997 there has been little progress in developing the state’s relationship with Palestinians. As indicated before, the ANC is not NGO or a non-state actor. It cannot simply give rhetorical support, which is often followed by the Amandlas with an empty fist, devoid of courage. It is a government and thus it has powers to act in the interests of the people of South Africa and its commitment to the oppressed peoples of the world.

We must continue to take inspiration from Mandela and the other leaders and the masses who wanted more for our friends and allies in the world. It is for this reason that I joined up in this campaign. I would love to see free travel, not for the elites only, but for Palestinians who want to study and the old and infirm and those who are shot by unaccountable rulers to receive treatment and friendship. I see this as an integral step towards people to people contact.

Signing an online petition, joining a protest and a local activist group will be small step for you but a giant step for humanity. The scourge of racism did not end with South Africa as we have seen in the USA and many countries including Israel. Join us by telling our government to do more, and to work faster. Providing visa free entrance for Palestinians – as they do their occupying power Israel – is the way to go. If it is good for the oppressor, why not the oppressed?

We work for the day when our air hostesses will say to a Palestinian: SAWUBONA, “I see you”. This small and humble gesture is part of the long march that must affirm the full humanity of Palestinians. It is true that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.


Hassen Lorgat, has worked in the trade unions, civic associations as well as NGOs for the past while. He is currently the manager of Policy and Advocacy for the Bench Marks Foundation, and here he writes in his personal capacity.

Hassen Lorgat