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Human Rights Day/Sharpeville Resistance Day and Gaza

It was the 21 March 1960, when the people of Sharpeville resisted the racist pass laws of the settler Apartheid Government. They took to the streets in an act of peaceful civil disobedience. They were brutally cut down by the security forces. 69 black people were massacred and approximately 200 protesters were injured. It was an epic moment in African resistance and human rights history and struck a deathly blow to the Apartheid regime.

The racist pass laws made it obligatory for native black Africans to carry the pass at all times. Failure to produce the pass at the request of a police officer made it a criminal offence.  The purpose of this racist legislation was to demean and dehumanize the African. The Sharpeville resistance demonstrated to the world that Africans will not accept a slave and subjugated status. It laid bare the idiotic violence of the Apartheid regime and exposed the degenerate Apartheid officials for who they were.

Today the words human rights and democracy are used interchangeably. This means that there is a presumption that every electoral democracy has a universal commitment to human rights. Is this the case though? How is it then that the most venerated symbol of human rights in the last century, Nelson Mandela was placed on the terrorist list by the world’s most powerful and popular democracy, the United States of America? Even after he became the first democratically elected president in South Africa, the United States had him on their terrorist list. With the current conflict between Israel and Palestine, how is it that the U.S stands squarely with Israel and South Africa stands in solidarity with the Palestinians?

While both the United States and South Africa are electoral democracies, the ideological roots of these democracies are miles apart. In the United States, electoral democracy emerged as a triumph of white settler colonialism and the defeat of the Native Sioux resistance to colonialism and racial capitalism. In South Africa the native resistance triumphed with electoral democracy and institutionalised racism (Apartheid) was defeated.

The native resistance in South Africa and the native Sioux “red Indian” resistance in America was both characterised by an egalitarian universalism. Inherent in this struggle was a human rights activism that was radical in its pursuit against both racism and capitalism. The colonised natives were prepared to share the land and wealth with their colonizers. They refused however to be slaves living in subjugation to white settlers. The revolutionary words of Sioux leader and martyr Crazy Horse “you cannot sell the earth upon which people walk”, captures this brave and beautiful resistance to capitalism. The preamble of the social ownership of wealth is expressed in the preamble of our constitution “We the people of South Africa believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it”. These words speak to a human rights universalism compared to the racial exclusivism of Apartheid. It also speaks to the social ownership of wealth because the wealth of the country, be it mineral, land or agricultural, and in all forms belongs to all the people of the country. This human rights universalism is radically different from the human rights exclusivism that emerged and exists in contemporary liberal democracies in North America and Europe where even today when black people are minorities, they are oppressed.  The black lives matter movement bears testimony to this.

Israel has committed every war crime you can think of since October the 7th. Both its political and military establishment has openly and unashamedly expressed their racial hatred towards the Palestinians which has inspired their racial violence and genocidal conduct. The governments of the white Wild West led by America, the U.K, the E.U and virtually every government in Europe have supported Israel militarily, diplomatically and financially. History will bear witness to their genocidal complicity.  These governments talk human rights but walk racism and genocide. Israeli Zionist’s think themselves superior to Palestinian Arabs. This they have aptly demonstrated by their words and conduct. Palestinians are deemed to be people of a lesser God. According to the Western Governments and their market valuation of life, one Israeli life is the equivalent of 40 Palestinian lives as only when this ratio of killing was reached did they begin to murmur “Too many Palestinians have died”. Approximately 1139 Israelis lost their lives on October 7th. Since October 7th Israel has slaughtered approximately 40 000 Palestinians with 31 988 confirmed dead and more than 8000 missing and presumed dead under the rubble. A further 74 188 are injured. Israel has slaughtered at least 8400 Palestinian women and butchered more than 13 000 Palestinian children.

South Africa believes that all human lives are equal, Jews and Muslims, believers and atheists, black and white, men and women and this has inspired its brave decision to take Israel to the International Court of Justice at a time when international institutions of human rights appeared naked in its hypocrisy and inability to prevent a genocide. A small black country in the Global South taking issue with the American Empire and the White West has also provoked a kind of racial rage that these powers cannot openly express but is implicitly apparent.  How dare you dirty darkies, in your jungle among baboons and lions, dare challenge the White West and White House on what democracy and human rights mean, how dare you accuse Israel of genocide, don’t you know your place, you better change course or watch out, you guys were walking about in lion skins yesterday, today you want to tell us about human rights and genocide, you must be kidding”.

Ronald Reagan the celebrated president of the United States demonstrated this deep-seated racism and contempt that many white leaders have towards brown and black people.  Because African delegates voted against the United States resolution that sought to have Taiwan as a state to receive U.N recognized status, an enraged Reagan in a telephone call to Richard Nixon said, “To see those monkeys from those African countries-damn them, they still uncomfortable wearing shoes”.  These are the words from a man who was the leader of America, the self-proclaimed custodian of democracy and human rights.

The human rights hypocrisy that we see in Gaza is racial. South Africans are all too familiar with it. Jan Smuts was a preacher of human rights and is reported to have contributed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but at the same time was a Prime Minister of Apartheid South Africa. A racist and human rights ideologue at the same time just like Reagan and other leaders from the West?

The Palestinian resistance against Israeli barbarism provides many lessons for everyone engaged in the struggle for decolonisation. The refusal to be subordinate and slaves and the insistence that Palestinian lives matter and that Palestinians are deserving of human rights and dignity as every other people are. South Africa has taken issue with the crass international racism against Palestinians and demonstrated to the world that Palestinians are People.

Iqbal Suleman

Suleman is a social justice lawyer and former head of the law clinic for Lawyers for Human Rights in Pretoria.