From South Africa to Israel, the Three Pillars of Apartheid

How does a South African and former anti-apartheid activist feel about visiting Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories? Classification of the population, freedom of choice of residence and movement, importance of security: based on the three central drivers of separation, Na’eem Jeenah considers Israeli apartheid to be worse than South Africa’s.

Palestinian youths attempt to cross over the separation barrier using a ladder next to Qalandia checkpoint in the occupied West Bank on June 9, 2017, in order to attend the second Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem
Abbas Momani/AFP

For a South African, a visit to Palestine (including its Israeli part) can be a traumatic experience; the reminder of a past characterised by discrimination, ‘separate development’, land theft, and extreme state violence and control. Yet, even knowing that there are similarities between the South African past and the Palestinian present is insufficient preparation for the experience that assaults one from arrival until departure. Because while Israel is a lot of apartheid South Africa, it is also much, much worse.

To be fair, though, our beaches never boasted soldiers routinely walking around with rifles slung over their shoulders as one would find on a walk on a ‘peaceful’ Tel Aviv beach.

It is not difficult to understand the angst and anger of Denis Goldberg, tried with Nelson Mandela and others in the Rivonia Treason Trial, who was released by South Africa’s apartheid government into exile to Israel in 1985. After arriving there, he said Israel was the Middle East’s equivalent of apartheid South Africa. Then left Israel to live in Britain because he could not tolerate Israel’s oppressive policies. Until his death in 2020, he also supported the BDS campaign against Israel.

What Goldberg immediately understood when he arrived in Israel has been repeated by numerous Black South Africans over the decades, such as South Africa’s former president, Kgalema Motlanthe, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘I have been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.’ (29 April 2002, The Guardian).

Israel’s practices – both in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and within Israel itself – constitute apartheid according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, and numerous Palestinian organisations. But for South Africans Israel apartheid is much more personal, more emotional, more relatable than international law might suggest. We, after all, created the word ‘apartheid’ and saw it become one of our most famous exports.

For us, apartheid was (and is) a systematic, institutionalised way in which people are discriminated against on the basis of their ‘race’ or ethnicity, and where rights and privileges accrue to people on the basis of their ‘race’ or ethnicity. In South Africa, that meant that whites were privileged over blacks; in the Palestinian and Israeli context, it means that Jews are privileged over non-Jews. Israel’s policies constitute apartheid both in the OPT and within Israel itself.

Jews privileged over non-Jews

In South Africa, apartheid was constructed on three pillars. The first of these pillars was the formal demarcation of the population into racial groups through the Population Registration Act (1950). Because of my ancestry, I, for example, was classified ‘Indian,’ second in racial hierarchy of ‘Whites’ (or, sometimes, ‘Europeans’), ‘Indians,’ ‘Coloureds’ and ‘Africans.’

My 12 years of school were spent in an ‘Indian’ school; ‘Indian’ education was not as good as White education, but was superior to African education. I am not sure what I was supposed to be educated for; it was clear what African students were being trained for. In a speech in June 1954, Hendrik Verwoerd, widely regarded as the architect of apartheid, said there was ‘no space’ for an African person ‘above certain forms of labour… What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?’

Freedom of residence and movement

The second pillar forced the different designated groups to reside in different geographic areas within each city, town or rural area, and then restricted the movement of people between these areas. This separation was the basis for ‘grand apartheid’ by its South African architects, which sought to establish ‘homelands’ (what later came, unofficially, to be known as ‘bantustans’) for ‘African’ South Africans, each ‘homeland’ identified with a particular African linguistic group. The scheme was for the African population to then be deprived of citizenship and nationality in the ‘Republic of South Africa,’ and for their nationality to be transferred to the bantustans – even if they did not, or never did, reside there.

One obstacle for this plan was the ‘Indian’ and ‘Coloured’ populations, who could not be assigned to a bantustan. The apartheid government then decided to co-opt us into the ‘White South Africa,’ as junior partners, even holding parliamentary elections for these groups to represent these constituencies in a tricameral parliament. Most of us classified ‘Coloured’ and ‘Indian’ boycotted these elections in protest, often resulting in voter turnouts of around two percent.

The central issue of security

All of this were buttressed by a third pillar: a repressive ‘security’ matrix. The repressive instruments included administrative detention, torture, censorship, banning, and extrajudicial assassinations – both inside and outside South Africa. But the repressive machinery did not target only activists or those opposed to apartheid. It was illegal for me to marry an African woman, or for me to be in the Orange Free State province for more than 24 hours; or for me to live in the Transvaal Province. My family lived for three years in Johannesburg, until I turned six. We then had to move back to Durban because no school in Johannesburg would enrol me, because my parents were ‘Indians’ from Natal.

Israeli Apartheid – both within the state of Israel itself and in the OPT – the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – is, more or less, also based on the same three pillars.

The first pillar demarcates people into different groups – Jews and non-Jews. This is done through the Law of Return of 1950 (the same year that South Africa passed the Population Registration Act, for the same purpose). It defines who is a Jew and grants Jews all over the world the right to immigrate to Israel (or the OPT). In the occupied territories, unlike apartheid South Africa which transferred the citizenship of ’Africans’ to new fictitious political entities, Palestinians are deprived of any status.

The ‘Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People’ declares Israel to be a ‘Jewish state’ – despite more than 20 percent of its population not being Jewish. It also entrenches the idea, contrary to the understanding of all democracies, that there is a difference between citizenship and nationality. We cannot imagine a situation in which South Africa would have declared that White people from around the world had nationality in South Africa, while Black people (including those classified ‘Coloured’ and “Indian”) could be citizens but not nationals.

Discrimination in everyday life

In Israel, the discrimination includes a denial of full-welfare benefits, restrictions on what might be taught and learnt in schools, restriction on certain types of jobs being held by Palestinians. The 2003 Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law banning Palestinian family unification is another example of discriminatory legislation. In the OPT, Palestinians are denied the right to leave and return to their country, freedom of movement and residence, and access to land. This also applies to Palestinians of East Jerusalem, who have a separate status. The disparity in the treatment of the two groups is highlighted through the application of harsher laws and different courts for OPT Palestinians than for Jewish settlers, and through restrictions imposed by the permit and ID systems. The discrimination is also illustrated by the access to water in the OPT for Palestinians and Jewish settlers, with settlers being allocated the bulk of West Bank water, at a fraction of the price that Palestinians are charged.

The second pillar, in Israel, is bolstered by the Absentee Property Law, which ensured land theft on a grand scale. Today, land in Israel is divided into national lands – 93 percent of the land, and private lands – seven percent. National lands are comprised of state lands and JNF (Jewish National Fund) lands, and are for the exclusive use of Jews. Palestinians may only own land in the private land category. So, 20 percent of the population may only use seven percent of the land – and in that too, they compete with Jews for access.

And while Israel does not have a law similar to the South African Group Areas Act which forced different “racial” groups to live in their own areas, a number of Israeli court judgments have had the same effect, by preventing Palestinian families living in Jewish areas. Since there is no civil marriage in Israel (all marriages are religious), it is impossible for a Jew to marry a non-Jew. Israel’s Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law even prevent the spouses of its Palestinian citizens from being naturalised, forcing many Palestinian families to leave.

Fragmentation of the occupied territories

The second pillar in the OPT is reflected by Israel having fragmented the OPT for the purposes of segregation and domination. It includes Israel’s extensive theft of Palestinian land in various ways – including through the Apartheid Wall, thus shrinking the space available to Palestinians and forcing them into specific geographic fragments; the hermetic closure and isolation of Gaza; the severing of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank; and appropriation and construction policies that have created a settlement infrastructure that carved up the West Bank into a network of connected settlements for Jewish-Israelis and besieged, non-contiguous Palestinian enclaves.

Israeli Jews are prohibited from entering those bantustans (as Whites were forbidden from entering African townships in South Africa), but enjoy freedom of movement throughout the rest of the Palestinian territory. South Africans find the idea of separate roads quite shocking; we never had roads for exclusive White use, and where blacks were excluded by force.

The third pillar on which Israel’s apartheid rests is its repressive “security” laws and machinery which bear little resemblance to South Africa. Sure, the extrajudicial killing (including on foreign territory), torture, administrative detention, etc. are similar to what we faced in South Africa. These policies are state-sanctioned, often approved by the Israeli judiciary, and supported by oppressive military laws and military courts. “Security” is effectively used to justify restrictions on Palestinian freedom of opinion, expression, assembly, association, and movement, and to suppress dissent and to control Palestinians. However, the deployment of Israel’s repressive machinery in the OPT is quite unfamiliar to South Africans. We never experienced, even in the worst days of apartheid, helicopter gunships and fighter jets flying over, or tanks patrolling, Black residential areas, bombing our homes and firing shells and missiles into our schools.

The religious issue, another common point

There are some commentators who suggest that another difference is that religion plays a big role in the Palestinian context while it played no role in South African apartheid. This is a fallacy. South African apartheid was justified on the basis of the Bible, much like Israeli apartheid is. My “Indian” education, my friends’ “Bantu education” and Verwoerd’s grandchildren’s “White” education were all part of what was called “Christian National Education.” Religion was as crucial an instrument of oppression in South Africa as it is in Palestine.

South Africans also remember that during the worst days of apartheid, and in the period when sanctions against South Africa had become most effective, Israel was one of the few countries that not only did not implement sanctions, but actively helped to break the isolation of South Africa. Israel had effective military and intelligence relations with South Africa, and partnered with South Africa in the development of nuclear weapons.

While the parallels between apartheid South Africa and Israel remain stark, for many South Africans, especially Black South Africans, the policies, laws and actions of Israel that we witness go way beyond the apartheid that we suffered under in South Africa.