OPINION: It’s time for black people to reclaim the term 'apartheid'


This piece has a response from Duduzile Mahlangu-Masango titled A response to using 'apartheid' in Israel - the shoe fits

For nearly a century, apartheid defined South Africa by instituting racial segregation as the foundation of our political system.

As a young black South African, I am reminded that for our parents and grandparents, the apartheid years were a source of deep personal trauma. Their generations were compelled to live under that viciously discriminatory system and those of us who have grown up in post-apartheid South Africa can clearly sense its lingering legacy even today.

Precisely because we South Africans know intimately what apartheid involved, we have a duty to question whether it is an appropriate term to be used outside of its continental context, such as recently by the civil society organisation, B'Tselem, in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Can apartheid South African laws be compared with the country of Israel?

Apartheid was about race, not religion or nationality. In South Africa, the primary issue was the domination by one race over another. By contrast, Arab citizens of Israel enjoy the same rights and freedoms as Jewish Israelis.

Comparisons between the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the bantustans in apartheid South Africa are absurd. By the 1970s, around four million black people were living in the bantustans and the intention of the apartheid regime was to eventually deport the entire black population to these locations. Nothing remotely similar has ever been proposed by Israel. Rather, it has frequently attempted to enter into peace negotiations with regards to the Palestinian territories.

Additionally, living conditions were much worse in the bantustans, as foreign governments refused to recognise them, which meant that economic aid was withheld. Conversely, the Palestinian Authority is intended to become a sovereign state and has accordingly received billions of dollars in aid from international governments. It already looks after a range of functions in Palestinian society, including policing functions and healthcare, such as the administration of vaccines.

In Israel, the truth is not suppressed. The apartheid regime banned free media and the right of expression. In Israel, the rights of journalists and media houses are protected by the law and courts.

In Israel, suffrage is universal. Unlike black people in apartheid South Africa, Arabs in Israel are entitled to vote in national elections, elect their own representatives and have their interests represented in political deliberations and in fact, they currently represent the third-largest party in the Israeli Knesset. Israeli policy and law allow dissent without instilling fear of banishment or imprisonment. South African law under apartheid did not afford non-white South Africans the right to vote or have political representation.

In apartheid South Africa, there was no equality. Apartheid introduced laws and practices to ensure that non-white South Africans could not use the same amenities; such as buses, parks, bathrooms, and public benches. The apartheid government would not have allowed a person of colour to hold any position of influence, while in Israel, Arabs are found in the highest ranks of political, civil and even military life.

Israel protects both freedom and diversity. Arabs in Israel enjoy more freedom than those living in the rest of the Middle East, particularly in Gaza, where the Islamist Hamas movement rules by promoting fear. The rights of women in Palestine are not respected, as was the case under apartheid where a black woman could not own or administrate her own property without the patronage of a man. Under the apartheid regime, homosexuality was punishable by a jail sentence or a fine. Israel is widely known for its recognition of the rights of the LGBT community.

It’s time for black people globally to stop the cultural appropriation of apartheid.

For black South Africans, apartheid was more than systematic discrimination against our people. It was a project that aimed to rob a specific race of its history, culture, dignity and humanity. Those who apply the term "apartheid" to the Israel-Palestine impasse or a variety of other causes where it is now regularly being invoked are guilty of a form of cultural appropriation by denying the uniqueness of the racism and hatred that we faced and overcame with much blood and tears.

While the challenges that face Israel and its neighbour, Palestine, may result in one group feeling discriminated against by the other, that is very different from the legally-based racism and white supremacy that once reigned in our country.

It's time the international community recognised this fact and helped build the bridges of trust between people in the region necessary to find a lasting solution to the conflict. This would be the true way to use the legacy of apartheid without stealing it from the real victims.

Klaas Mokgomole is the coordinator of Africans for Peace, a collective of independent students, scholars and activists who bring an African lens to the global debate on peace and stability on the African continent and around the world.

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