I've recently returned from a short but rewarding visit to South Africa. Even the casual observer might notice that the Israel issue gets a lot of traction in the post-apartheid state. Perhaps somewhat naively, I felt I got a sense over the course of the 10 days I spent in the country of how and why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resonates with South Africans. To relate an anecdote, the weekend I arrived, the headline of the May 26 Sunday paper in Cape Town, the Weekend Argus, blared "Gaddafi 'is funding Zuma.'" As it turns out, a mysterious intelligence report from some nefarious source was circulated, which accused president Thabo Mbeki's ANC rival Jacob Zuma of receiving succour from the Angolan leader Eduardo dos Santos and Muammar Gaddafi in an attempt to oust Mbeki. There were other rumors making the rounds that Zuma, who may very well be the next president of South Africa, is in mortal danger, though I doubt he was fazed, as he's notorious for having slept with an HIV-infected subordinate and declared himself inoculated against the virus since, afterward, he took a shower! One person who should have been fazed by all this was Ronnie Kasrils, the government's Intelligence Minister. Indeed, Kasrils quickly distanced his agencies from the report. The man clearly has his hands full: many are speculating about what role if any the intelligence services will play in the impending ANC succession struggle. Yet I was surprised to find Kasrils -- in the very same day's paper -- blasting Israel. As journalist Chiara Carter put it, the minister had "wagged his finger vigorously" at the Israelis for failing to make "positive moves." Kasrils is the minister responsible for extending the South African government's controversial invitation of a state visit to Ismail Haniyeh. Kasrils was in Israel and the West Bank recently, and when he returned to South Africa, he published an essay in the Mail and Guardian, "Israel 2007: Worse than Apartheid." The point he makes, I guess, is that the system of restriction of movement exercised by the IDF in the West Bank resembles the ugly pass book system imposed on Africans under apartheid. An Israeli airport official born in the Johannesburg area tells Kasrils, "This is a fu*#ed-up place." Apparently, the guy was from Charlize Theron's home suburb, the working class Afrikaner bastion of Benoni -- also, I can tell you, a fu*#ed-up place.
I had the great fortune of meeting actor and writer Eric Miyeni while in "Jozi." Eric is the author of a book called O'Mandingo! The Only Black at the Dinner Party, his own rant, admittedly, but infinitely more interesting -- and entertaining -- than Kasrils'. I hung out at Talk Radio 720 in Sandton the night after Eric had interviewed Kasrils on a national radio show. Eric had needled the minister, asking him how it was that there was time in the face of the intelligence challenges both domestic and regional to spout off about Israel! The night I was in the studio, reprentatives of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies were on the air responding to Kasrils's denunciations. How, they asked, could one compare the tactics Umkhonto We Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, which assiduously avoided inflicting non-combatant, civilian casualties, to suicide bombers and men who launch Qassams indiscriminately at population centers? A Mail and Guardian piece by David Saks of the Board of Deputies gives you an idea of how the debate runs.
Now, it may be true that the governing ANC is still in some sense a liberation movement, and that its old guard, which is entrenched, and of which Kasrils is by definition a member, sees itself as part of a world liberation movement. Notice Mbeki's embrace of, say, the ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, or his cautious approach to the problem of Mugabe's Zimbabwe. But I'm not sure that most South Africans are willing to make the connection between the anti-apartheid struggle and the Palestinian movement for national self-determination quite as quickly as Kasrils. I don't think Eric Miyeni is the only questioning voice in the crowd. On the campus of Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, I saw signs for a talk called "Comparing Zionism with Apartheid: Privileging or Undervaluing our Unique Victimhood?" I think it's a very open question -- in most South African circles. If I learned one thing from Eric and from the many other kind South Africans with whom I spoke, it was that apartheid's legacy, its relation to the endemic problems of South African society, is a matter of great confusion and uncertainty. This fact won't make for quick, glib analogies. But I'm sure that when Palestinian statehood arrives, the society that's born will in a similar way have to reckon with the combination of memories of enormous suffering and disappointment with the way things can in the end turn out.