Writing in 1969, veteran South African unionist Ray Alexander called on the African National Congress (ANC) to direct attention to people’s material needs by engaging in class mobilization beyond political slogans and armed struggle. “I am not saying that the trade unions can live by bread alone,” she wrote, but “what I do say is that they cannot live without bread.”
In that same year, the newly emergent South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), the organization associated with Steve Biko, challenged the strategy of anti-apartheid movements from another angle. Its manifesto focused on the need to fight psychological oppression by raising black consciousness as the first task in the struggle for liberation from white domination. This was at a time when the ANC was moving in the opposite direction: accepting people of all backgrounds as members, thereby breaching the racial boundaries of apartheid.
The two principles—class organization and emancipatory consciousness—existed in a state of tension, but they had a similar effect: reviving the resistance movement inside the country after the defeat it had suffered in the 1960s, when leaders and activists were either imprisoned, driven into exile, or forced underground. In the following two decades, workers, students, and township residents joined the struggle in their masses and formed unions, waged protests, and organized in workplaces, universities, high schools, and communities. They created an environment in which the efforts of the exiled liberation movements could combine with those of popular constituencies on the ground to demand equal rights, undermine the regime from within, force it to the negotiation table, and embark on the transition of the 1990s.
What were Palestinian activists doing at the same time?
A comparison between the two liberation movements—that of South Africa and Palestine —is at the heart of my new book, Anti-Colonial Resistance in South Africa and Israel/Palestine: Identity, Nationalism, and Race (Routledge, 2022). The 1960s saw a revival of the Palestinian national movement, two decades after the Nakba of 1948 which resulted in a new state for Israeli Jews and social dislocation, forcible physical dispersal, and political fragmentation for Palestinians. The creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) by the Arab League, the operation of the Fatah movement, and the rise of armed resistance organizations after the 1967 war—all these were manifestations of a new stage of militancy. Radical action followed, fueling renewed hopes for liberation. But in contrast to South Africa, liberation was seen in traditional nationalist terms—a restoration of the Palestine that had existed before 1948, situated within a broader Arab unity.
Of course, it was natural for people to seek freedom from colonial subjugation under the banner of nationalism, but the formulation of the goal was contested. A new slogan to enable a move beyond nationalism was coined in 1969, calling for a “secular democratic Palestine” in which Muslims, Christians and Jews would live as equals. Practices and rhetoric, however, continued to be framed in terms of a Palestinian-Arab national identity (the Fatah perspective) that was embedded within a Pan-Arabist framework (the Popular Front perspective). Israeli Jews were defined in religious terms rather than as members of the national group through which they defined themselves. As a result, very few of them felt genuinely included. One movement, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, did speak about Arabs and Jews sharing rights in the same country, but it explicitly rejected a binational perspective and envisaged a unitary state in which Jews would enjoy cultural and religious rights without being recognized as a distinct national group.
Why was that a problem? The Zionist settlement project led to the formation of a national community rooted in territory, culture, language, economic, and political institutions. The new community was linked to but distinct from Jews elsewhere and from the Palestinian-Arab People indigenous to the country. This exclusionary thrust led to the UN partition resolution of 1947 and the subsequent Nakba, with which the rise of a new Israeli-Jewish nation became entangled. From a Palestinian perspective, redress for the Nakba is a necessary step. Such redress is seen as unacceptable by Israeli Jews, who fear that it would lead to the demise of their national existence. The obvious solution—an inclusive, civic national identity to overcome the mutually exclusive ethnic nationalisms—never emerged, not even in a potential form. The most likely alternative solution would need to take the shape of sharing the country as equal communities (bi-nationalism) or physically dividing it between them.
South African resistance was based on different historical foundations: indigenous people were dispossessed of their land and their labor was exploited, but they remained inside the country in their original communities as well as in new urban centers. As the majority of the population and of the labor force, they could and did use their strategic economic position to undermine the apartheid regime from within. In that process, they gave rise to an overall national consciousness—moving beyond tribal and ethnic identities—that potentially included all people in the country regardless of background.
Although both countries have experienced a special type of colonialism, it was historically expressed in different ways: through the forcible incorporation of indigenous people in a subordinate position in South Africa, and their forcible exclusion in Palestine. As a result, the locus of resistance was predominantly internal in South Africa, with a focus on class struggle and local community organization, and it was largely external in Palestine, with a focus on nationalist campaigns. Local mobilization also played a role, especially among Palestinian citizens of Israel and during the intifada in the 1967-occupied territories. But for long periods of time, it took a back seat to armed struggle, diplomacy, and inter-Arab maneuvers.
This difference is at the heart of the divergent paths followed in the two cases: the internal mass mobilization in South Africa resulted in undermining the regime from the inside. The difficulty of waging a similar campaign in Israel/Palestine, due to the historical exclusion of a majority of Palestinians from crucial sectors of the economy and polity, has led to a focus on external solidarity, which is a necessary but insufficient condition for victory. Only by combining the internal and external dimensions of the struggle can success be achieved.
How can that be done? The South African experience may offer a useful outline of a strategy, centered on embedding specific appeals to constituencies organized on the basis of race, ethnicity, and religion within a set of universal principles of justice, redress, human rights, equality, and democracy. This helped make the local struggle in South Africa more inclusive, allowed for alliances between forces located in different spaces, and facilitated global solidarity efforts. In the context of Israel/Palestine, this would translate into consolidating alliances between Palestinians across the Green Line, between those in Palestine and those in the diaspora, between Palestinians and progressive Israelis, and between Israelis of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The precise shape of such a strategy, and the specific demands raised by each such alliance, would be determined ultimately by activists fighting on the frontlines of struggle, with Palestinians in the lead, working together with progressive Israeli allies.