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*Some possible lessons from South Africa to Palestinians*

By Hassen Lorgat

Primrose and Makause, unequal neighbourhoods in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photograph by Johnny Miller, 2016; to view Miller’s work and discover more images from the Unequal Scenes project, follow him on Instagram @johnny_miller_photography

Often the subjugation of Palestinians has been characterised as a form of apartheid, although many South Africans who have travelled across the occupied territories report that the ongoing Nakba is worse than what we have lived through. This conversation is an attempt to extend the dialogue with Palestinians, who are resisting ethnic cleansing and genocide, and is given in the spirit of camaraderie and solidarity. I hope that this sharing of my view of our experience may be of a little benefit when they have time to reflect.

We live in a world and are interconnected in many ways and the sharing of knowledge of struggle is a universal heritage we must treasure.

Apartheid South Africa was structured on divisions and the monopolisation of power, wealth, and knowledge in the hands of a white elite. The classic strategy and tactics of divide and rule perfected by imperialists like the United Kingdom and, in later years, the USA was also in play here, building in from the colonial period.

The Apartheid government soon after obtaining power in 1948 introduced laws that were to enhance racist rule. These laws touched on various aspects of societal life including education, work and so on. The Group Areas Act, and in particular the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970, was also known as the Black Homeland Citizenship Act. Essentially Black people were divided into a separate nation-state for a different ethnic group. In total, ten homelands or bantustans were created, namely Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Venda, Gazankulu, KaNgwane, KwaNdebele, KwaZulu, Lebowa, and QwaQwa. Xhosas had two homelands: Ciskei and Transkei, the Tswanas had Bophuthatswana, and the Zulu people got KwaZulu. In addition, Lebowa was for the Pedi and Northern Ndebele, Venda only for Vendas, Gazankulu was for Shangaan and Tsonga people, and QwaQwa was reserved for Basothos or those who spoke the language and lived the culture.

But the open truth was that these countries were not independent at all. Their economic markets, military, and social control was all in the hands of the white government.

In addition, there were other laws such as the Bantu Authority Act, Act 68 of 1951, which continued the myth of self government and so called independence such as Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act, Act 46 of 1959, which separated Black people into different ethnic groups.

The then Minister of Information and Interior Connie Mulder famously stated that “No Black person will eventually qualify [for South African nationality and the right to work or live in South Africa] because they will all be aliens, and as such, will only be able to occupy the houses bequeathed to them by their fathers, in the urban areas, by special permission of the Minister.” The urban areas or townships were established to have cheap labour available. We called townships like Soweto, Langa, Lamontville, Lenz, Eldos as labour dormitories to serve the white privilege.

We must remember the land Acts which gave the shittiest pieces of land – some 15% of the arable land – for these homelands of many different ethnic groups. Its role and function was clear despite the words or because of their words: BLACKS were called ALIENS when they came to urban areas which were supposedly white. Indigenous black people had to obtain permission to work in these white areas by getting permits in their PASS BOOKS.

The indignity of these documents that black Africans were obliged to carry resulted in millions being arrested for not carrying them. The jails were full and Joseph Lelyveld (Move your Shadow, 1986:7/8) captures the scene when he writes about his visit to a pass-law court, where black men were prosecuted form the crime of being in a “white area” without a stamp in their reference books – the domestic passports they all had to carry -, to show that they were “authorised to seek work.” Then as now, the “white areas” as opposed to the former tribal reserves known as homelands “accounted for slightly more than 86 percent of the land.” The author adds that these trials have been taking place since 1708 when the first passes were issued to Malay slaves and were “fundamental to this way of life, the balance wheel of the political mechanism.” Needless to say, there was resistance, diverse and widespread. Soon after this experience written by Lelyveld, the dompass laws were abolished but by then it is believed that over 17 million arrests of Black people were made under these laws.

A number of these bantustans took independence, but the regime’s goal was to create all of these bantustans as independent homelands.

  • Transkei (Xhosa) gained “independence” in October 1976.
  • Ciskei (Xhosa) gained “independence” in December 1981.
  • Bophuthatswana (Tswana) gained “independence” in December 1977.
  • Venda (Venda) gained “independence” in September 1979

Years of resistance by internal mass political and social movements, including the armed resistance by people inside these bantustans and outside, resulted in their collapse. The interim constitution of 1993 was a step towards reintegrating these bantustans into one united South Africa. The legacies of racism, ethnic thinking, poverty and inequality that emanate from bantustans have not been fully resolved after 30 years. Apartheid spatial patterns live and must be addressed. These communities were once called surplus people and the bantustans were dumping grounds of persons.

The images here reveal some of our challenges of overcoming the legacies of apartheid in architecture, planning and wider. The photographer Johnny Miller here captures the images of our need for radical reform. They tell the viewer that where we live to a great extent determines our destinies. The photo is about Cape Town, where wealth and power speaks volumes. The lesson is clear: legislative changes made to unite the country are but a first step, the values, systems and structures that underlie planning must be premised on justice and redress in all aspects of life, in particular the economy and social cultural life and planning. It follows that planning and policing will not be of the poor but would be to ensure the wealthy do not continue with their greed, land grabbing and other means of exploitation.

Courtesy alJazeera:  Graham Beukes at his home in Woodstock. Beukes faces eviction in August after living here for 35 years [Shaun Swingler/Al Jazeera]

On Palestine 

  1. The roots of the two state resolution starts with the forerunner to the UN, the League of Nations in the early 1920s and meanders into the OSLO debacle in the 1990s. The “one-state solution” is seen as a solution to the endless violence on the oppressed and occupied through the creation of a unitary, federal or confederate state of all the peoples which includes all the present territory of Israel, the West Bank including East Jerusalem, captured from Jordan, and the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and Golan Heights, which was captured from Syria in 1967.
  2. The recent genocidal attacks on Gaza – and, in the background, the West Bank – have resulted in an unprecedented upheaval of the world’s publics.  Popular slogans such as From the River to the Sea, capture the desire for a united, bi-national democratic state. World leaders out there and here must listen to these calls.
  3. We are aware that it is not our role to determine what Palestinians want but to share our experiences of how to overcome – or begin to overcome – exclusion, anti democracy, and build societies based on solidarity, justice and equality.
  4. The land, air, and sea blockade was total over all the occupied lands.
  5. We have seen in Gaza the destruction of all economic, political, and social life.
  6. Water and energy resources can be closed by a stroke by the Zionist regime. Employment and livelihoods are confined and defined by over 140 more or less permanent checkpoints and dozens of ad-hoc roadblocks where dompass documents or papers determine who is permitted to enter and who is not. Surveillance of persons is extreme and intrusive. Normal life as we know it here, does not exist.   Truly, what exists in Palestine is worse than apartheid.
  7. Thirty years after Oslo much more land in the West Bank has been stolen as settlers pour into particularly the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Today may number close to 600 000 people. The settlers occupying those lands are the most vicious and racist.
  8. The Palestinians, in forced exile from the Nakba, are waiting for their right to return to be realised sooner or later. They are not to be forgotten.
  9. In all these trials and turbulences, the spirit of resistance in Palestine remains and we in South Africa and the wider solidarity movement must be guided by their aspirations.
  10. Whilst paying lip service to adherence to the two state solution, The EU and the US governments have harassed and persecuted activists in their countries for merely flying the flag of Palestine. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Hassen Lorgat


Hassen Lorgat