Jew-baiting comes back

RW Johnson on the resurgence of anti-Semitism in ANC governed South Africa

Jew Baiting Comes Back

The President of the Student Representative Council at Wits University (Johannesburg), Mcebo Dlamini, declares that he “loves Adolf Hitler”. After all, he says, there are some white people who still admire Cecil Rhodes today so why should he not admire Hitler? Hitler was a great leader even if he had faults. I love him for his charisma, his strong leadership, his organizing ability. Whites are making out that the Jewish Holocaust was worse than the black holocaust in South Africa, which shows that every white has an element of Hitler in him. They enslaved us, he says, and Hitler was no worse than other great villains of history such as Napoleon, Tony Blair and George W. Bush.

Mr Dlamini's comments made it clear that he was so poorly educated that he probably shouldn't be at university at all (there was no black holocaust, South African Africans were not enslaved etc. etc.) - but he was doubtless aware, and no doubt pleased at the fact, that he was giving particular offence to Jews.

At the same time the SRC President at the Durban University of Technology, Mqondisi Duma, has declared that his Council demands the expulsion from the university of all Jews who do not publicly declare their loyalty to the Palestinian cause, the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, a ban on any visits by public servants between the two countries, the expropriation of any Israeli investments in South African agriculture. And so on. Mr Duma doubtless knows that although many Jews are willing to criticise the Netanyahu government, only a rather freakish fringe are willing to side publicly against their confreres in Israel and that he is therefore calling for the expulsion of at least nine out of every ten Jews on his campus.

Yet not many years ago Mandela happily accepted an honorary doctorate from Ben Gurion University at Bersheva and dwelt admiringly on the fact that BGU is a world leader in combating desertification, water purification and assisting agriculture in harsh conditions – and that it was making all this expertise available to African countries including South Africa. At the same time Mandela never tired of praising the South African Jewish community for having sided against apartheid and provided so many members of the Progressive, Liberal and Communist parties.

Yet Israel now lists South Africa as a country where the Jewish community is under major threat and strongly recommends that the entire community here leave for Israel ASAP. So how has it come to this?

The short answer is that 40% unemployment and the evident failure of the ANC government has engendered a bitter, indeed toxic mood among militant black youth. They are looking round for targets. First there was the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Then the streets erupted into murderous xenophobia against immigrant workers. But the RMF campaign is over (he has fallen) and now that it's clear how disastrous the xenophobic riots have been to the country's image, there is universal condemnation of them. So a new target is needed. Historically, it has never been long before people in such a mood alight upon the Jews.

But there is a longer answer too. Thabo Mbeki, who became President in 1999, had spent his entire life as an anti-apartheid militant – and he also suffered badly from paranoia and a grandiosity complex. He wanted to be president not just of South Africa but of Africa and even of the whole Third World. To this end he was willing to pump life and money into the long-defunct Non-Aligned Movement so that he could preside over it. But how to make such a campaign work?

The answer came easily: if the liberation of South Africa had completed Africa's liberation, where else should the struggle move? Obviously, to Israel – another mainly white implant in the Third World. And by foregrounding that and grand-standing about it Mbeki could hope to win not only the support of Arab nations but of Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. So, endless meetings and weekend conferences of the Mbeki cabinet were devoted to the Arab-Israeli problem.

This was all done under the public pretence that South Africa, “the miracle nation” would take its peace-making and negotiating skills to Israel and help bring about a full settlement there at last. This was regarded both by local Jews and Israelis with complete bemusement. After all, Mbeki's meetings included extensive representation of Palestinian groups but the only Jews invited were from far-left splinter groups.

Officially Israel said nothing but it was not difficult to hear off-the-record comment that since the ANC wanted to see a “liberated” Israel under Palestinian rule, the Israeli government would no more accept their mediation than it would fly to Mars. Mbeki knew that, of course, and his real objective was not mediation at all but to carry out the groundwork for an international anti-Israel campaign closely modelled on the old anti-apartheid model, with mounting pressure for boycotts, sanctions and disinvestment.

The ANC was still well connected to the old international anti-apartheid network and was able to use this huge array of generally left-wing organizations to popularize the new cause. The result has been the mushrooming international growth of the BDS movement.

The first fruit of this campaign was seen at UNESCO's World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001. The ANC had always had particularly strong networks within UN agencies – during the struggle period it had been able to get the UN General Assembly to set up a Special Committee on Apartheid and to vote through a resolution denouncing apartheid as a “crime against humanity”.

This latter was pushed through by the Soviet and Afro-Asian blocs despite the strong opposition of Western nations which argued that the “crime against humanity” category referred to atrocities such as the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide and that, appalling as apartheid might be, it was certainly not genocidal: South Africa's black population soared under apartheid and millions of other Africans poured into the country looking for work.

The Durban conference quickly turned itself into a festival of anti-Israeli feeling. At the parallel NGO conference Israeli delegates said they were happy enough to allow all manner of anti-Israel motions through provided that a motion was also passed condemning anti-Semitism. This was refused and Israel, the US and Canada walked out. Washington was furious that a major UN conference had been so one-sided and decided that the fault lay with Mary Robinson, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, who had chaired the conference.

Moreover, in its preparatory stages Ms Robinson had kow-towed to Muslim opinion by adopting Muslim dress and agreeing to the exclusion of such distinguished human rights organizations as the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Washington decided to bring Ms Robinson's UN career to a summary halt. The next year she was forced out of her Human Rights job. She has never again held a UN post.

Within South Africa the SACP, in line with its vanguard role over popular causes, has controlled BDS from the first. The Party is well aware that this issue can give it an entree into the large Muslim Indian and Coloured minorities which are otherwise in danger of leaving the ANC-SACP fold. In pursuit of this almost tribal agenda BDS has clearly targeted not so much Israel as the local Jewish community, trying to enforce sanctions against any local Jews who do not declare for the Palestinian cause.

Its favoured target has been the Woolworths chain of supermarkets, allegedly because it sells Israeli goods. The store retorts that such goods account for less than 1% of its sales, that all goods are clearly marked by country of origin, allowing customers to choose, and that the company complies with all government trade laws. But the real point for BDS is that the Susman family which controls Woolworths is related both by marriage and commercially to Marks and Spencer in the UK – a company which has always been a strong sympathiser with the Zionist cause. The BDS has aggressively picketed Woolworths stores, hassling customers until prevented by court order.

This brought the campaign against Jewish shops to an apparent full stop but, as the last week has shown, it has merely switched the action to university campuses – where the SACP, via its Young Communist League, is equally influential. It may seem odd that the SACP is stimulating anti-Semitic action – and one must always allow for something lost in translation – but that would seem to be the reason for this week's anti-Semitic outbursts. The alternative narrative is that the mood amongst angry young blacks has drifted from Rhodes Must Fall to defacing other statues to murderous xenophobia and then back to anti-Semitism.

This is not implausible. As the failure of the ANC government becomes more palpable in one area after another, the rage of the younger generation – deprived of jobs and of hope – only grows. This is altogether different than anything they were promised by Madiba. In fact opinion polls in the past have often shown a distinct layer of black anti-Semitism, though the origins of such sentiments are mysterious and it is doubtful if South Africa's 70,000 Jews are a sufficiently large group to attract prolonged hostility – unless it is very deliberately stirred and stoked.

There is another factor to add, which is that the leader of the SACP, Blade Nzimande, was denied a visa to visit Palestine last week by the Israeli government. Israel justified the denial by saying that Mr Nzimande had repeatedly called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from South Africa and that he had actively supported the severance of relations between the University of Johannesburg and BGU. Mr Nzimande has a considerable sense of self-importance as a Minister and it is not difficult to imagine his fury at this public indignity. He returned to South Africa with a burning determination to hit back.

The immediate result was a meeting of the ANC, Cosatu, SACP and BDS (with the SACP in a majority in at least three of these groupings) which called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, a ban on travel to Israel by any public employee at any level of the government, an end to automatic visas for Israeli visitors and all such visitors to be interrogated as to their links with the Israeli Defence Force, the prosecution of any South African Jews who serve in the IDF, and the expropriation of any Israeli investments in South African agriculture.

As may be seen, this would be tantamount not only to a cut-off in official relations with Israel but to a ban on Israeli tourists, for almost all of them will have had some connection with the IDF. Given that there has always been an easy flow of people to and from South Africa and Israel, this would also amount to punishing South African Jews who would like to invite their Israeli cousins to visit them and the events at Wits and the Durban University of Technology are clearly a reflection of that.

This represents a new low, even for the SACP. Under its Nzimande-Cronin leadership the party has become almost completely rudderless and opportunistic. Having always previously advocated the nationalization of industry, it reversed itself once Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters took up the call. It has taken a hyper-militant position in defence of every Jacob Zuma blunder or indiscretion, even staging demonstrations in favour of the Nkandla boondoggle which it attempted to depict as “rural development”.

The party has always prided itself as a champion of workers' democracy - its May Day statement again calls for “the defence of workers' democracy” – yet it sided against Zwelinzima Vavi's denunciation of the “predatory elite” and stood behind S'dumo Dlamini, the Cosatu President, in his firmly undemocratic refusal to allow a special Cosatu congress on the leadership issue. But in pushing its BDS front organization to target quite openly the local Jewish community rather than Israel, it has plumbed new depths.

There is little doubt that what the Nzimande-Cronin party has descended to would be utter anathema to the previous generation of Jack Simons, Ruth First, Lionel Bernstein and Michael Harmel, just as today's ANC would be an object of shame for the likes of Luthuli or Mandela. But why is the Nzimande-Cronin party behaving in this disgraceful way? The short answer would appear to be political desperation. The party has depended utterly on Cosatu for its funding and even to provide it with premises. Now, not only has the party failed to pay its rent but Cosatu has split, is much weaker – and can less afford the luxury of propping up the SACP.

Worse still, Malema, Numsa and Amcu have walked off with most of the party's natural constituency. The result is curious. Instead of rotting like a fish from the head down, the party has crumbled from the bottom and is now left only with its top layer of leaders and cadres (including many MPs and government ministers). Many of these men – they are virtually all male – have become fully fledged members of the predatory elite and, whatever they may say, their behaviour suggests that their relationship to socialist values is tenuous at best. It is a strange way of dying. But death comes to us all. Disgrace need not.