Poppy Seeds for Gaza – A South African Witness

 
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Sandile Ngidi

Art by Lebohang Kganye

 

When I was a young student activist in mid-1980s South Africa, a speaker at a Sharpeville Day commemorative event called on all of us to go out and mobilise “under the banner of white slaughter.” The speaker, a man of the cloth who embraced the radical politics of Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko, was urging us to never forget the reality of white settler-colonial violence on our lives. At Sharpeville in 1960 the apartheid state had killed close to seventy unarmed people protesting the racist pass laws. For us the only language of resistance was one of spilling the enemy’s blood. The speaker was not calling for an arbitrary murder of white people, but a justified use of violence against the systematic forces of oppression.

 

“Gaza is no longer just a place on a map. Igazi, the Zulu word for blood, keeps flashing in my mind, gory images of people facing imminent death while those who rule and ruin the world are sponsoring the bloodbath.”

 

Rightly or wrongly, Palestinians who currently are being bombarded and murdered in cold blood by the savage state of Israel in Gaza and parts of the West Bank are justified under international law to resort to violence to defend themselves from annihilation. Gaza is no longer just a place on a map. Igazi, the Zulu word for blood, keeps flashing in my mind, gory images of people facing imminent death while those who rule and ruin the world are sponsoring the bloodbath. The people of Palestine desperately need leaders of wisdom, not Joe Biden and Barack Obama’s platitudes. Shocking to see the US act as if she is not obliged to ensure adherence to Article 1 of the 1948 Genocide Convention. Just like before, Israel’s biggest sugar daddy turns a blind eye to Israel’s continual use of excessive force against children, women, doctors, journalists, everyone, in a wild act of collective punishment. This is what friends are for, they say, as thousands of Palestinians gasp for breath. Worse than apartheid crimes in scale, the current atrocities have evoked immense anger in South Africa, especially among black people and courageous whites of conscience, equality, and justice.

Is it an accident of history that the year 1948 saw both the Nakba in Palestine and the establishment of apartheid in South Africa? During the harsh days of The Struggle, South Africa’s fight for black liberation, South Africans learnt to embrace a healthy Pan-Africanist and international spirit of solidarity with the oppressed and dispossessed across the world. In one poem by eminent South African poet Mazisi Kunene, he writes: “Was I wrong when I thought all shall be avenged? Was I wrong when I thought the rope of iron holding the neck of young bulls shall be avenged?” Kunene could have been warning us about the kind of white supremacist hatred that breeds heinous violence. Israel must learn fast that planting the bloody wind may make reaping whirlwind an intergenerational curse.

Former commander of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto Wesizwe, Ronnie Kasrils remains a lodestar. Back in 1963 he said that “a colonial racist mentality which rationalised the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australasia, in Africa from Namibia to the Congo and elsewhere, most clearly has its parallels in Palestine.” Kasrils was right on the money. After the Yom Kippur war, apartheid Israel and apartheid South Africa began what would become a lasting romance. The two pariah states secretly agreed to build a nuclear weapon in violation of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Rogues will be rogues. To this day, the bold and bald Ronnie Kasrils, now eighty-five, often leads Palestine solidarity marches in South Africa, and unequivocally condemns barbaric Israel. We are really fortunate to have people of integrity and courage like him in a world where the plight of the embattled people of Palestine is heavily shrouded in deadly Cold War and Zionist propaganda. Israel is worse than apartheid—this is an illegible monster state. Solidarity with Palestinians was central in my political awakening.

Notable South Africans such as the late Nobel laureates Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and novelist Nadine Gordimer never shied away from strongly condemning Israel for human rights crimes. At UNESCO’s World Conference Against Racism in South Africa in 2001, Israel walked out in a huff protesting the fact that they had been named out as a racist apartheid state. Ian Williams, writing for the Washington Post, was critical of how the American press had mainly ignored “the source of much of the anti-Israel sentiment, which was South African NGOs. The South Africans had never forgotten what most Americans never learned, that Israel was the apartheid regime’s main accomplice, in sanctions busting, in arms supplies, in joint training, and even in the production of the ‘white’ atomic bomb.”

 

Despite hosting an Israel embassy in Pretoria, the ANC-led South African government continues to stand with Palestinians. At the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting in New York in late October, International Relations and Cooperation Minister, Dr. Naledi Pandor was firm. “We must work hard through the UN to create two States, Palestine and Israel, living side by side in peace and security, and this must be in accord with the established UN resolutions on the two-State solution. The Palestinian State should be created along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.” Also, during a march to the Israeli embassy in Pretoria, Julius Malema , leader of the ten-year-old populist Economic Freedom Fighters, said they were not against Jews, but here to support Palestine and fight “apartheid Israel.” In South Africa, many progressive civil society groups are also condemning Israel and calling for peace.

As expected, there are also some dissenting voices in parts of the country. Professor Karen Milner, National Chairperson of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, has told President Cyril Ramaphosa that the country’s failure to support South African Jews caught in the war makes them feel “like second class citizens.” In her latest editorial, Peta Krost, the editor of the influential Jewish Report, accused the South African media of an anti-Israel bias. “For the most part, the focus is on how savage Israel is being against innocent Palestinians.”

South African Arms Deal–buster Andrew Feinstein, author and former ANC MP, describes himself as a “proud, leftie Jew.” In an online video posted early this year on his Twitter profile, Feinstein describes 2022 as “the deadliest year in 16 years” for Palestinians, for, according to him, over 200 Palestinians, including 34 children, were killed. He writes, “2023 has started off worse. Every single morning we wake to more stories of Palestinians who have been murdered by Israel. The wanton and often unprovoked killing of Palestinians by Israel is met only with silence by the rest of the world.”

Cape Town playwright and novelist Megan Choritz (@meganshead) is staging her lonesome protest on Twitter. “I am a Jew. I am reeling from the massacres that occur under the guise that somehow Jews are under threat…As a Jew, I have less in common with the brutal Israeli gvt than the Palestinians experiencing genocide.” Another reads: “I am a Jew. I am anti-Zionist. Imagine telling me that I am militant. Imagine.” Dr. Pedro Mzileni (@pedromzileni), a decolonial scholar and lecturer at the University of the Free State, is another Twitter soldier. “The Zionist white settler colonial project and all oppressive regimes around the world will fall in our lifetime,” he wrote in support of a Free Palestine Solidarity Protest at his institution. In reality, Megan Choritz and Pedro Mzileni are exceptions. I wish more South African artists and intellectuals could come out in solidarity with Palestine. This is certainly expected of this country joined to the hip with Palestinians by their respective 1948 moments—the violence of white settler colonialism.

 

Whatever detractors of the Palestinian cause thought of Yasser Arafat, revered South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela stood firm in his support of the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. During an ABC television interview on his first trip to the US in 1990, soon after his twenty-seven-year prison term on Robben Island, Mandela defended Arafat. “We identify with the PLO because just like ourselves they are fighting for the right of self-determination…Arafat is a comrade in arms, and we treat him as such.”

At the time the US was welcoming Mandela, Arafat was still being denied a visa to the US. Ironic, because at some stage in history, the US considered both men terrorists. Mandela supported armed struggle against the apartheid regime in the cause for freedom. In 1974, Arafat told the UN General Assembly that he was holding an olive branch for peace in one hand and a freedom fighter’s pistol in the other. Even such gestures failed to earn Arafat the peace label in the West. To his credit, Mandela insisted that Arafat attend his presidential inauguration in 1994. Making peace with the white racist violent apartheid state was no easy task. But Mandela believed that it was time for “dialogue and persuasion to bring South Africa out of that era of darkness, bitterness, pessimism, to a moment where the entire world has joined us to come and celebrate.”

But this twisted world no longer has a Nelson Mandela and Nina Simone’s prince of peace, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet we need peace in Palestine now. Increasingly a difficult prospect as the UN faces possibly its most public humiliation as an effective instrument for safeguarding peace among nations and sanctioning member states that abuse human rights, break international law, and threaten world peace. No matter the unbearable gloom and the incomprehensible brutality in Palestine, for many of us in South Africa, we remain hopeful this too shall pass. We stand with Palestine. We call for peace. And when that elusive but inevitable peace returns, we shall sprinkle poppy seeds across the famished lands of Palestine. We shall play our part and make Palestine fruitful again. Long live Palestine!

 

Fall / Winter 2023



Sandile Ngidi

Sandile Ngidi grew up at Amahlongwa on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast of Durban where his family still lives. He is currently writing his MA thesis on eminent Zulu poet, freedom fighter and Pan Africanist thinker, Mazisi Kunene. Ngidi is a literary historian, poet, Zulu-English literary translator, critic, journalist, brand communication specialist and dramatist. His work has appeared in publications that include Umafrika, Natal Witness Echo, City Press, Mail & Guardian, Aljazeera, The Guardian, Johannesburg Review of Books and The Punch Magazine.



Lebohang Kganye

Lebohang Kganye (b. 1990, Katlehong, South Africa) lives and works in Johannesburg. She obtained a diploma in fine arts from the University of Johannesburg and is currently completing her MFA at Witwatersrand University. Kganye was one of three artists selected to represent South Africa in the 59th Venice Biennale. Her solo exhibition of newly commissioned works, Shall you Return Everything, but the Burden, was recently presented at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Cologne (2023). Notable awards include the Camera Austria Award (2019) and the Foam Paul Huf Award (2022). Her first survey exhibition in Europe, Haufi nyana? I’ve come to take you home, was held at Foam, Amsterdam.



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