Palestine, South Africa and the road to self-ruin

Mike Berger says that once certain modes of political cognition take hold they foreclose possibility of peaceful change

The 14th Annual Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) has come and gone probably without the majority of South Africans even being aware of its passage. But that does not mean it is unimportant. IAW, for those readers who don't already know, is the highpoint of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) project to destroy Israel and this campaign is important for South Africans for a number of reasons.

One obvious reason is that Moslems and Jews are both important contributors to the ethnic tapestry of South Africa which the BDS campaign threatens, intentionally or otherwise, to undermine. Many within the Jewish and Moslem communities are well aware of this and it says a great deal for the commonsense and decency of both that, by and large, BDS incitement has not been allowed to seriously disturb inter-communal or personal relations.

But that does not mean that such incitement is without effect and it is only through conscious effort and basic goodwill that decent human relations have been maintained by the majority of both communities.

But there is a more important reason why the BDS campaign deserves attention. To gain clarity on this let's start with the recent post to Politicsweb by Tshepo Motsepe ('Zionism an inherently racist political project', 13 March). It is entirely representative of the genre which has flooded the media over the past couple of weeks.

Motsepe is the General Secretary of the activist and well-funded Equal Education organisation. I have no idea whether his views mirror those of his parent organisation but, surmising from the expression of solidarity with the 'Palestinian people' on their webpage, it seems reasonable to suppose they do.

But confining my comments specifically to Motsepe's diatribe he, apparently, subscribes to a worldview which divides peoples and nations into two groups: colonial, racist oppressors on the one hand and their victims on the other. I do not think that I would be doing that mindset an injustice by saying that from this perspective these two categories divide broadly along skin colour into white and black - and that into the former (white) category falls the 'racist Zionists'.

Such an absolutist mindset has a number of advantages - which are ultimately outweighed by the disadvantages, as we will see. But first to the former. It simplifies thought and dispenses with the need for accuracy and honesty. Once having assigned Zionists to the oppressor category it is easy and morally justifiable to allocate to them a broad set of generic evils without having to expend effort on assessing the validity of each individual claim.

Thus Israelis indulge in 'incremental genocide' and 'ethnic cleansing' even though the populations of the West Bank and Gaza strip are increasing significantly faster than the growth in the Israeli population, which is already much higher than most developed countries. One can talk about Israeli bombing and military assaults without mentioning indiscriminate terror and rockets against Israeli civilians and soldiers alike, since these fall under 'legitimate resistance'. That also justifies the exaltation of 'martyrdom', namely, acts of terror, by the Palestinian leadership and the systematic inculcation of this mindset into Palestinian children. It allows one to inflame public opinion against Israel using sweeping and false statements about Israeli injustice towards Palestinian children or whatever is thrown up in the course of the conflict.

The absolutist mindset absolves one of the need for moral scruples when confronting the enemy. It allows no room for self- reflection or the expression of dissent or for more balanced and accurate historical accounts. Thus Motsepe 'knows' that justice is on his side and that he need not concern himself as to the literal accuracy of his message. The BDS campaign along with IAW are both symptom and cause of the stalemate in the Middle East and will ensure Palestinian misery for the foreseeable future. The remainder of this post explores this theme especially in relation to South Africa .

Everywhere such modes of political cognition take hold they foreclose the possibility of incremental or peaceful change from within the system. That has happened in the Middle East broadly and especially within the Israel-Palestinian space. Under these conditions any resolution of the conflict becomes contingent on the total victory of one of the antagonists or an overwhelming intervention by an outside power or perhaps some catastrophic phenomenon of nature.

But misery is rarely equally distributed in such stalemated systems in modern times. A brief reference to the World Happiness Index (WHI) for the last few years makes this clear. To simplify, the country ratings are based on polls sampling the levels of life satisfaction (the Cantril ladder) conducted within each country. These subjective self-evaluations are then correlated with six relatively objective parameters of social function:

- GDP per capita

social support

- healthy life expectancy

- social freedom

- generosity (expressed as donations to charity)

- absence of corruption.

These six variables account for close to 75% of the poll results though that can vary from country to country. The WHI, like all human productions, is imperfect but is the best tool we have at the moment. It ranks Israel 11th, just out of the top 10 while the Palestinian Territories comes in at 104, just ahead of South Africa at 105. Bedfellows so to speak.

Let's be clear what these results mean. Israelis (Muslims and Jews) are happier than the Germans, French, Brits and Americans. On the other hand, South Africans and those Arabs of Palestinian ancestry not living in Israel itself, are marginally more miserable than Venezuelans, Gabonese and Somalians.

I have no doubt that this will be explained away as the result of the Israeli occupation in the case of the Palestinian Territories and the apartheid-colonial legacy and WMC in the case of South Africa. To the extent these excuses are internalised by the two suffering communities so does the hope of remedy fade and the likelihood of a stalemated, zero-sum future increase.

Let us look at this more carefully. Jews have a long historical experience of exclusion, oppression and brutalisation which fully matches the suffering and indignities suffered by the Black and Arab populations of our world. But it is taken as a matter of course that Jews have somehow risen above this history.

That narrative, however, is simply not true. Jewish success should not be taken for granted: the scars of their history run deep in the collective Jewish psyche and society. The reasons for Jewish success has a long and contested history. In the eyes of the Nazis and modern anti-Semites, it can only be the result of intrinsic Jewish evil and cunning which justifies genocide - real genocide, not the fake genocide of BDS propaganda.

In more informed, less racist analyses Jewish success comes mainly from a blend of community, internationalism, hard-headed self-interest and disinterested altruism. Within this somewhat contradictory mix, extremists of both the left and the right have been marginalised to allow democratic institutions to flourish and for pragmatic and adaptive solutions to apparently intractable problems to emerge. It is likely that such cultural adaptations are key to the successes of all the top countries on the WHI.

I also argue that it is precisely the dominance of simplistic, absolutist and nihilistic doctrines which account for the failure of both the Palestinians and South Africans to achieve their potential.

It is not 'the occupation' but Palestinian and Arab absolutism which landed them up at 104 in the WHI. It was their failure to take what land they were offered and to use this as a foundation for a Palestinian state. It is the grip that terror groups, operating through a mix of intimidation, the weaponisation of grievance and anti-Jewish incitement have over the Palestinian population. And it is the baleful influence of their leaders together with BDS and its fellow-travellers which prevents ordinary Palestinians from escaping their obsession with their neighbour to get on with fulfilling their own destiny. Remember that Israel is a miniscule spot in the oil-rich, vast expanses of the Middle East and North Africa (the MENA region).

In short, the Palestinians, as a group, lacked a positive, pragmatic vision to set against the negative fantasies which ultimately captured them. In the last analysis they made themselves hostage to their hatred and envy of their successful neighbours whom they wish to annihilate.

But just as Israel is the most obvious exception to the rule in the ME, both prosperous and democratic, South Africa has potentially the same opportunity in sub-Saharan Africa. Liberation came with great natural resources, a skilled Western-orientated, largely White core and a broader population committed, at least nominally, to democracy. But the initial euphoria over South Africa's transition from a racially stratified, stalemated nation to a newly democratic state committed to inclusive progress on a multitude of fronts proved to be a rainbow - beautiful but ephemeral.

Again the reasons will be contested but from my experience it came, inter alia, from a mix of incompetence and inexperience, obsolete socialist fantasies and a retreat from the non-racial democratic ideals of liberation rhetoric into a heavily mythologised and weaponised African nationalism. This ultimately ended in the large-scale looting of the common wealth by the ANC and ANC-aligned political elite.

This personal assessment fully acknowledges that South Africa inherited a bitter legacy of gross inequality arising from colonial and apartheid policies. But, unless one wishes to argue that history is destiny, using the past to explain away present failure is the passport to precisely the zero-sum outcomes which will condemn South Africa to future disaster. Contrary to the claims of Malema and fellow Black supremacists, most Whites (certainly not all) recognise and empathise with the burden of history carried by the wider population of South Africa. But such goodwill cannot withstand the existential threat to White legitimacy posed by recent rhetoric and actions by factions within the ANC and EFF.

The new black intelligentsia adapted the identity power politics swirling around the West, especially the USA, for use in its own anti-white/anti-colonial ideology which threatens to outflank the ANC amongst its core voters. International recognition of these negative economic-political-social trends came in the form of downgrades to junk status by international rating agencies and free fall into the company of Somalia and the like in the WHI.

These outsider assessments corresponds to much of our daily lived experience. Just in the past few weeks we read of a young Durban triathlete (black) being captured by a gang armed with a chain-saw intent on amputating his legs. A 68 year-old cyclist (white) is stabbed to death on a mountain trail adjoining the suburb of Fish Hoek and criminals vandalise and rob aquifers in Cape Town used to provide water to the wider population. These episodes are merely the ugly tip of an immense iceberg of outright criminality and brutal lawlessness which occupies much of South Africa.

We need to take a moment to look this iceberg since it is central to the future of South Africa. Such basic information is readily available to those who wish to look and I summarise the statistics from Africa Check for the year 2016/2017, which in turn are based on published police records.



PER 100 000



19 016




39 828



Attempted Murder

18 204



Grievous Assault

170 616



Bear in mind that these figures are almost certainly underestimates (except for murder perhaps) but especially for rape and sexual assaults in general. Furthermore, these averages do scant justice to the hugely skewed incidence of such crimes across race, socio-economic status and province. Some communities suffer many-fold higher incidences of these already horrific figures but the psychological impact of these acts affect every community in the country.

And equally consider the fact that figures do little justice to the terrifying brutality of many of these crimes and the effect this has on families, friends and survivors, especially the youth. I also do not want to get into the issue specifically of farm murders even though this is a subject of key importance considering the frankly genocidal rhetoric of political leaders like Malema and the threat of EWC. But let me just quote briefly from the MA thesis of a young University of Limpopo student, Cristopher Gumbi:

"Harrowing accounts made him question...the need for inflicting physical trauma upon victims during the orchestration of attacks... The violent nature of attacks is amply demonstrated by such actions as beatings, tying victims down with cable ties, threats of burning victims with hot water or poisoning them and shooting at first sight..."

"Without exception all respondents stated that attacks which occurred on their farms were well-planned...“There is a clear indication that attackers conduct thorough surveillance of their target and surroundings before they pounce. This shows the high amount of intelligence and patience they put in, in making sure their plan succeeds.” He (Gumbi) quotes a victim who stated that the assailants were picked-up by a vehicle after the attack. “This confirms the idea of a hit squad and a getaway car as a form of organised attack.”

But just as in the MENA region where misery is unequally distributed with Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia for example escaping the general meltdown, so is it the case in South Africa. Examination of the happiness distribution curve for SSA states shows a skewed profile with a bulge in the lower rungs but a small significant peak at the extreme happiness end of the scale.

In short, it is reasonable to surmise that a sector of our population - maybe 20% or so - feel that life in South Africa is pretty good. That too corresponds to our own observation of the South African scene where clean, well-kept urban spaces and smaller villages stand out against the brutal realities of life for many South Africans.

We have reached a bifurcation point where political decisions over the next few years will have profound and long-lasting consequences. Half-hearted leadership has the real danger of allowing revolutionary factions to capture the political initiative and trapping the country in a zero-sum struggle. South Africa has the economic, social and political pre-conditions for serious outcomes which should help concentrate the mind of our politicians and electorate alike.

Mike Berger