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World Rugby Must Not Succumb at the Altar of Apartheid Israel

By Jaamia Galant & Iqbal Jassat

The decision by South Africa’s premier rugby body South Africa Rugby Union (SARU), to outlaw an Israeli rugby team’s participation in a local tournament has ignited fury and pressure on World Rugby to “discipline” it.

Though a great deal of the argument directed at both SARU and World Rugby is clouded in emotional support for Israel, the pressure nevertheless relies on “legalspeak” clearly intended to force a reversal of the decision.

World Rugby in its capacity as the international regulator of the sport of rugby football is an important member of the international community responsible for shaping and determining the ethos of this sport.

As such it has a responsibility to ensure it does not deviate from its commitment to fundamental human rights, particularly international conventions on discrimination and racism.

Both the South African government and the African National Congress (ANC) have applauded and welcomed SARU’s landmark decision to withdraw its invitation to the Israeli rugby team Tel Aviv Heat.

Their support underlines the  essence of the call by Palestinian solidarity movements to SARU being a principled one, namely that South Africans have political, ethical and moral obligations to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid, given our own history of atrocities and our struggle against colonialism and apartheid.

In South Africa, the right to freedom of expression is protected under section 16 of our Constitution (Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996).

The right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate and picket is protected by section 17 of the Constitution, and this includes the right to boycott, in this instance, by cutting diplomatic, trade, academic, cultural and sporting ties with Israel.

This is a fundamental and peaceful expression of political power, which is a protected freedom under our law.

SARU’s decision is therefore  described as a major development and a positive step in the right direction not only for rugby but indeed all other sports in South Africa and internationally, it has the powerful potential to influence and persuade other sporting jurisdictions to take similar positions.

More importantly, it is a step towards justice for Palestinians, who have been enduring the longest settler colonial occupation (to displace the Palestinian people, remove them from the land and acquire the land for themselves) by Israel in modern history and widely condemned as illegal under international law by the United Nations.

According to Palestine’s grassroots campaign, the Right to Movement, Palestinian athletes are compelled to live in exile or under the brutality of the Israeli state.  They are denied the right to train, play and compete together due to the fragmentation imposed by the Israeli state.

Sporting matches are raided by armed Israeli soldiers and facilities are bombed by fighter jets.

Palestinian football players have been deliberately and cruelly been shot at and killed or maimed by members of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

Surely such actions are not aligned with World Rugby’s vision of rugby as a “global sport for all”.

Unsurprisingly, there are no Palestinian players in Tel Aviv Heat. Sport cannot and should not be used to draw attention away from these realities, as SARU’s detractors would have World Rugby believe.

SARU cannot be expected to operate in its own silo disconnected from South Africa’s moral, political and legal obligations under, amongst other things, the Implementation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Act, 2002 (Act 27 of 2002), which incorporates into our domestic law, the core crimes under international criminal law, namely the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.

It is well-documented by Palestinians, human rights organisations, scholars, activists, the media and anyone with a conscience that the ongoing experience of Palestinians, namely, the daily killings by the Israeli state, the displacement of Palestinians from their land, evictions, the incarceration of activists and any Palestinian who dares defend themselves against abuse by settlers and the military, the existence of hundreds of checkpoints for Palestinians to make the presence of the Israeli military felt, surveillance by the state, the attempts to erase the culture of Palestinians, racism, the theft of land belonging to Palestinians and natural resources utilised by them and the rejection by Israel of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Palestine, the wars against the Palestinians, are part of a systematic brutalisation of the Palestinian people by Israel and that these acts contravene the human rights of the Palestinians and the core international crimes incorporated into South African law.

South Africa, and indeed the international community, including World Rugby, may not ignore Israel’s systematic human rights atrocities perpetrated in the context of its regime of apartheid settler colonialism.

Equally important for World Rugby

to take account of the study by the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in 2016 regarding the genocide of the Palestinian people. It notes that genocide is defined, not by a particular form of violence, but by a general and pervasive violence.

Settler colonial regimes such as Israel are structurally prone to genocide.

It is worth noting that sports boycotts and isolation against Apartheid South Africa played an important role in bringing about democracy here. Apartheid Israel’s continued acceptance and participation in world sport is largely due to the support and protection that it receives from its Western Allies in Europe and North America.

This is similar to South Africa’s history and only changed globally in the mid-1980’s due to mass popular pressure from ordinary citizens in those countries and uprisings in South Africa.

World Rugby and indeed all international sports bodies have no choice but to heed the popular call from civil society to boycott and isolate Israel and be on the right side of history.

World Rugby is also urged to consider the rich history of eminent New Zealanders, such as John Minto who founded the organisation Halt All Racist Tours (HART), which successfully campaigned to stop rugby contact between New Zealand and apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.

As is the case in Apartheid Israel today, the history of rugby in South Africa has been a history of racial exclusion. Only in 1995 following the defeat of apartheid and the advent of democracy in South Africa, did the late then President Nelson Mandela give his support to the South African rugby team by attending the final game, which South Africa won.

That event was lauded by many as a symbol of racial reconciliation and signalled a new racially inclusive ethos in South African rugby.

The pattern of racial exclusivity in South African rugby has by and large diminished and this cannot be undermined by allowing a team from Israel, a settler colonial apartheid state, to play sport here.

SARU, accordingly, did the right thing and they are to be commended for their decision to withdraw the invitation to Tel Aviv Heat.

Jaamia Galant (Ms) for: Palestine Solidarity Campaign (Cape Town)


Iqbal Jassat

Media Review Network


South Africa






Iqbal Jassat