The New Age: When South Africa moves, the world takes notice

When South Africa moves, the world takes notice
By Maia Brown
The New Age- Johannesburg -[06_04_11]

It was a great privilege to have witnessed the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) decision to sever institutional ties with Israel’s Ben Gurion University (BGU).

As a recent arrival from the US, I have been inspired by the courageous faculty, students and supporters who have worked tirelessly to answer the call of Palestinians (and, importantly, many Israelis as well) for an international boycott of Israel and Israeli institutions that contribute to the (illegal, according to international law) occupation of Palestinian lands.

Part of what has inspired me is the important historical resonance of this decision.

The UJ decision stands within an honourable history of boycott in this country as a fundamental tool of non-violent resistance to oppression. It is a tool of the peacemaker.

Prof Ran Greenstein is a leading South African scholar on the issue, based at Wits University. He recently spoke at a UJ seminar on the topic: the boycott movement against apartheid South Africa set out to disrupt the comfortable lives of white South Africans, in order to force them to understand that change was necessary.

Other campaigns against oppressive regimes have used similar tactics, selecting targets in order to maximise strategic advantage.

The closer the target is to the core identity of oppressive groups, Greenstein argues, the more likely it is effective. It made sense, for example, to boycott South African cricket and rugby teams to disrupt the sense of normality of white South African sports enthusiasts.

When we consider the campaign against the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians, Greenstein explains, similar care must be taken to guide action. While Israeli Jews are not the only ones who violate human rights, as the stronger side they are the chief offender today.

Arguably, a society’s greatest source of vulnerability is their need for legitimacy and, in Israel’s case, to feel an integral part of the West and the global community. This is the challenge then: how to use the quest for normality and legitimacy in order to force ordinary people to move against extraordinary circumstances?

Greenstein suggests the academic boycott may become a successful strategy of political mobilisation against Israeli oppressive practices – to the extent that it manages to highlight what is wrong with the current situation and put pressure on elite sectors in Israeli society to oppose their government’s policies.

In this vein, the UJ decision and the petition signed by over 400 South African academics specifically called for UJ to suspend relations with BGU until it took a stand against the occupation, in the same way that South African universities were expected to – and many did – issue statements against apartheid.

BGU, like other Israeli universities, has yet to condemn the Israeli occupation or military practices. To the contrary, they actively contribute.

One concern raised about the UJ decision has been with regards to consistency and feasibility. I have heard it said that if we make a decision about one university, setting conditions on the ethics of institutional agreements, then we will have to assess the social responsibility of our other relationships.

This argument reminds me of a campaign of my youth: the simple request to my secondary school that major exams not be planned for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the holiest days in the Jewish calendar – because it would be impossible for Jewish students to make up the work. Holidays like Christmas and Easter were automatic study breaks, I argued, and my request sought to create an institution that respected all of its students. One of the first responses I received went something like this: If we tolerate you, we will have to tolerate everyone – what about Ramadan? Hindu holy days? My answer was simple, and it remains the same today: Yes, you will.

And why wouldn’t we want to use this as the beginning of a shift toward consistency with the ideals we claim to hold?

Whenever a “victory” like this occurs, the mere realisation that it can be done has a bolstering effect. For example, when Durban dockworkers, belonging to the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, in February 2009 refused to offload a ship that was carrying Israeli goods this action reverberated throughout the world. Subsequently, similar actions have taken place at several harbours across the globe, including ports in Sweden, India and even the US.

The UJ decision will no doubt have an enormous impact on US students committed to the pursuit of a non-violent route to peace in the Middle East. Few could overlook the special significance of a South African university taking this stand. Given the harsh histories of apartheid, and proud histories of the liberation struggle, when South Africa moves, the world takes notice. I will gratefully be taking home many lessons from my time at UJ.

Maia Brown is a US student intern at the University of Johannesburg