The limits of international solidarity

The failure of South African universities to call out Israel’s genocide challenges the assumption that South Africans have a deep appreciation of injustice in Palestine given their similar experiences under apartheid.

Photo by Jolame Chirwa on Unsplash

On December 29, 2023, South Africa initiated a case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Israel for atrocities in occupied Palestine, which were argued to rise to the threshold of genocide. This ICJ case has been widely interpreted as a key milestone for South African society, marking a “moment of self-assertion and patriotism” that confirmed South Africa’s “place on the world stage in solidarity with Palestinians.”

South African solidarity with Palestine is undoubtedly important, both locally and internationally, but not everyone is on the same page. Several major universities in South Africa have rejected calls by academics and students to take an institutional position calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in Gaza. Our position is that South Africans should be in solidarity with Palestine, but we also suspect that the case for actually existing solidarity may have been overstated. We have no doubt that a minority of the population has been deeply inspired by and invested in the ICJ case and the longstanding plight of the Palestinians, but there are also a large number of South Africans who remain indifferent or uncommitted. 

In this piece we draw on recent experiences at one university to suggest that public sentiment on Palestine is far from uniform and unified. At a recent high-level university debate, efforts to express solidarity with Palestine were derailed by a strong opposition that—rather than showing explicit support for Israel—resisted the idea of taking any position on the issue.

All lives matter?

For many decades now, universities across the globe have grappled with how to respond to occupied Palestine. Recent events have magnified existing fault lines, with heated debates over the nature of academic freedom, the right to protest, and institutional and political attacks on pro-Palestinian voices, such as Ghassan Hage and Jairo Fúnez-Flores.

That said, given the recent national outpouring of support for the ICJ case, one might have expected that a call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire would be straightforward. Surely South African universities, having challenged apartheid, would support a cause that both the South African state and people were behind?

Earlier this year a resolution at one such university calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in Palestine was rejected following a fierce debate. No one focused on Hamas. There was very little direct support for Israel. Yet the resolution still failed. 

The proposed resolution triggered sustained opposition. Crucially, this opposition was not in support of Israel but against the idea of having a resolution at all. The opposition invoked suffering and violence in other parts of the world—and especially countries closer to home—to argue that there was “no need” to take a position on atrocities in Gaza. The fact that opposition to solidarity with Palestine took this specific form was not something that we and other colleagues at South African universities anticipated. 

The main counterargument that emerged was that Palestine should not be “prioritized” over other conflicts, such as those in Sudan and Congo. There is no question that both Congo and Sudan are facing very serious challenges. It has been estimated that around 6.9 million people have been displaced by the ongoing conflict in Congo, and as many as 25 million people are said to be in need of humanitarian assistance in Sudan. There is undoubtedly a strong argument to be made that solidarity and support should be extended in both cases. However, it is not clear that solidarity with these conflicts would have been raised independently of a debate over Palestine. The Kivu conflicts in eastern Congo have been a regional problem since the mid-2000s, with waves of violence and displacement. These conflicts could have been raised previously on any number of occasions, but it is only in this very specific context, with the tabling of a ceasefire resolution for Palestine, that they finally acquired a degree of visibility and urgency. Significantly, this visibility and urgency lasted only for a moment. Once the resolution on Palestine was defeated, the emphasis on other conflicts dissipated. A resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza can be an opportunity to expand our empathies and energies to other conflicts and crises, but this was not what took place. 

This sequence of events can instead be best understood as an example of whataboutery,” with calls for solidarity with Gaza characterized as a lack of concern for African conflicts. Palestine thereby becomes a distant issue compared to those which appear closer to home. In the past, universities in South Africa have strongly and actively supported popular opposition on local issues, such as xenophobic violence, with direct participation from senior management. When these past expressions of solidarity were raised as precedents during the university debate on Palestine, they were quickly dismissed on the grounds that they concerned domestic matters and so supposedly belonged in a different category. 

This raises very difficult questions about the meaning and practice of international solidarity. Things might have gone quite differently if citizens and organizations—both globally and in Africa—had applied the logic of “only at home” during the decades-long struggle against white supremacy in South Africa. These tensions are further magnified by violent xenophobic attacks against other African migrants, which have become routine in South Africa. This violence similarly relies on a willful forgetting of the solidarity extended to the South African liberation struggle by its African neighbors. The South African government is increasingly at risk of forgetting this solidarity as well. Prior to the ICJ case, the ANC government released its 2023 Immigration White Paper, which wants to further scale back rights and protections for migrants and refugees. In this context, “only at home” means deliberately removing basic rights and protections for other Africans seeking sanctuary.

Geographic distance should not determine the limits of solidarity. South Africa and Palestine are bound together by their shared experiences of dehumanization. At the ICJ, the South African team held Israel responsible for apartheid. Vusimuzi Madonsela, South Africa’s ambassador to the Netherlands, where the ICJ is based, said, “We as South Africans sense, see, hear and feel to our core the inhumane discriminatory policies and practices of the Israeli regime as an even more extreme form of the apartheid that was institutionalized against Black people in my country.” The ties that bind South Africa and Palestine—a history of dehumanization, segregation, and settler colonialism—are thus deep and enduring.

The Congo may be geographically closer, but there is also no clear or immediate course of intervention or action, due to the complexities of the conflict. The military combatants in the Congo conflict have similar kinds of weapons, and it isn’t yet clear who will prevail militarily. The same cannot be said of Palestine, where the advanced Israeli military is overwhelmingly dominant in all theaters. Israel controls occupied Palestine so totally that it determines fundamental questions such as whether starving people can have anything to eat. Calling for an immediate ceasefire is an obvious course of action given this context. 

The intentional destruction of higher education institutions in Gaza also places a specific moral responsibility on academics and universities. Every single university in Gaza has been destroyed, and at least 94 university professors have been killed. This is only one of many reasons why there have been numerous calls for a boycott of Israeli academics and universities. These calls draw inspiration from historical boycotts of South African universities, which were designed to isolate the country and end apartheid. 

Resistance to the resolution calling for a ceasefire was not confined to academics. Somestudents and union representatives also argued against the exceptionality of Palestine, insisting instead that “all lives matter.” The opposition proposed counter-resolutions, calling for “an end to all global conflicts” and an “end to global hunger.” These are undoubtedly laudable goals, but in the context of this debate, they were bound up in a politics of inaction and deflection. By expanding the frame to include nearly every issue, these kinds of vague affirmations run the risk of caring effectively about nothing. As many people have demonstrated, appeals to “all lives matter” can be best understood as a conservative reaction to the more specific claim that “black lives matter.” Their main political contribution has been to obscure how and why some lives are vastly more exposed to suffering, violence, and murder than others.

The limits of solidarity

“I was utterly horrified to see the opposition by black academics. Especially the ones from South Africa. It was really tragic.”

So exclaimed an academic (who happens to be black South African) at the end of this disappointing debate. Calls for a ceasefire have been derailed in similar ways in many universities in South Africa, so this is no isolated incident. We know that symbolic statements do not necessarily lead to concrete effects, but we would also contend that they say a great deal about how institutions understand themselves and their place in the world. 

The current failure of universities in South Africa to call out an ongoing genocide casts doubt on one of the core assumptions of the ICJ case, which is that the South African people have a deep appreciation of injustices and atrocities in Palestine thanks to their similar experiences of segregation and dehumanization under apartheid. We have no doubt that many people in South Africa can see these connections clearly, but recent events on campuses point to other strands within society that need to be addressed. 

We write this not as an indictment of South African universities, or even of solidarity building in South Africa, but as a general set of reflections on the state of international solidarity today. The protests that have been triggered by the ongoing genocide in Gaza have surpassed others in terms of numbers and scale, but they have also been predominantly in the global north. While there have of course been protests on the streets of major southern cities, university campuses have not been rocked to the same degree as their counterparts in the US or UK. Some campus protests have also achieved much more than simply calling for an immediate ceasefire, such as forcing management to disinvest from Israeli or US companies supporting the occupation. True, US students are more implicated in a genocide that their own government is funding, in ways that their protest action reflects. But so is South Africa, and its case to the ICJ is an important reminder of that. We do need to ask, however, whether lives should matter to us only when they reflect who we are, whether near or far. Certainly, in the past, during the height of the international campaign for solidarity with South Africa and a larger wave of third-world solidarity, the reigning principles were justice and equality, rather than geographic distance, neutrality, and whataboutery.

Further Reading

Apartheid of a special type

The Israel/Palestine system meets the definition of apartheid in international law, but presents different challenges for the campaign against it than was the case for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.