The Dispossessed: Palestine’s forgotten lesson from post-apartheid South Africa

Those looking to South Africa as a blueprint for the struggle against Israeli apartheid are doing a disservice by ignoring how racial capitalism has sustained inequality and oppression 30 years on.

Part one in a series exploring how post-apartheid South Africa’s stalled transition to equality can inform Israel-Palestine’s future.

CAPE TOWN — Every Monday morning, my son’s nanny, Miriam, travels an hour across Cape Town to our home. The journey takes her through shanty towns, turf wars between rival gangs, and a jumble of horribly inadequate public infrastructure. There are often protests that end with the police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at residents fed up with the sordid state of public services. 

Once Miriam reaches our home in central Cape Town, it’s as if she has been teleported to another world. Thousands of low-income workers make a similar journey every morning to return to essentially lawless townships in the evening. The spatial divide between these areas, dictated by years of conscious urban planning, is neatly organized along racial and class lines.

South Africa’s triumph over apartheid nearly 30 years ago was one of the most dramatic events of the 20th century. Peaceful coexistence, reconciliation, and the creation of viable democratic institutions are among the many achievements of the post-apartheid period. When an Egyptian journalist asked the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whether Egyptians should emulate the American constitution, she insisted they look to South Africa’s instead, calling it “a deliberate attempt to have a fundamental instrument of government that embraced basic human rights.”

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Yet, after 30 years, this praise appears to have been misplaced. Post-apartheid South Africa has been labelled as the world’s most unequal society. Economic prowess remains deeply connected to race, with the more expensive residential areas being almost exclusively white and the shantytowns Black. With rampant drug and gang violence, some townships in Cape Town, such as Khayelitsha, have the highest levels of gun violence globally. In contrast, the picturesque neighborhoods of Camps Bay and Sea Point are home to the most expensive real estate on the African continent. The distance between these areas is little more than 30km — less than a 45 minute drive away.

According to the World Bank, the wealthiest 10 percent of South Africans own more than 90 percent of the country’s total wealth, while 80 percent own almost no wealth. This division is compounded by the fact that the overwhelming majority at the bottom of the class pyramid are Black. While there has been an increase in the number of poorer white South Africans in the last 30 years, the economic picture remains mostly unchanged in terms of race. Whites largely make up the middle and upper classes, while Blacks remain poor.

A view of Khayelitsha township, one of the largest townships in South Africa, with Table Mountain in the background, August 7, 2011. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)
A view of Khayelitsha township, one of the largest townships in South Africa, with Table Mountain in the background, August 7, 2011. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

In other words, apartheid never really ended in South Africa — it merely transformed. Constitutional apartheid gave way to economic apartheid, with the outcomes largely remaining the same for the majority of the population. The white minority in South Africa lost political power in 1994 after centuries of exploitation, yet retained control of the economy. Those who look to the South African anti-apartheid struggle as a blueprint for ending similar oppressions — chief among them, the struggle against Israeli colonialism and apartheid — are doing themselves a disservice by ignoring the shapeshifting endurance of apartheid and its economic manifestations.

Indeed, in the current one-state reality in Israel-Palestine, similar transformations are already taking shape. Given the seismic shifts away from the two-state solution in 2020, it’s time for fresh thinking and debate about how South Africa has failed to address economic apartheid, and what that means for Israel-Palestine.

Shifting the discourse on Israel-Palestine

The signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain this year arguably delivered the final blow to the two-state solution. By abandoning the long-held position of normalization for peace, the two Gulf countries undermined the foundation of the Arab world’s approach to the conflict. With these lucrative relations in hand, Israel has even less reason to remove its footprint from the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The unequal one-state condition that Palestinians and allies have long warned about — in which Israel controls all those who live between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River — is thus here to stay. 

As the Abraham Accords were being cooked up in Abu Dhabi, Tel Aviv, and Washington, influential liberals who had argued passionately in defense of the two-state solution began shifting their positions, ostensibly spurred by Israel’s plans to annex large parts of the West Bank over the summer. In two landmark articles this summer, the American writer Peter Beinart codified this pivotal shift by rejecting the two-state solution in favor of a one-state model with equality for Israelis and Palestinians. While his arguments are not new, they represent the beginning of a significant shift in how the conflict is understood and debated among American Jews, a bedrock of pro-Israel support in the United States.

Borrowing heavily from Palestinian writers, Beinart eloquently articulated the farce of the two-state solution and outlined how unsustainable the current situation is with ample allusions to apartheid South Africa. The present reality, he explained, is a single state in which one group of people has rights while the other doesn’t. The equitable solution, therefore, is one state with a strong constitution that guarantees the same rights for all. It is a remarkable sign that a writer of Beinart’s stature is at last repeating arguments Palestinians have made loudly and passionately for years.

Demonstration in Amsterdam, urging Dutch boycott of South Africa due to the South African Army's continued operations against Angola's government. (Hans Van Dijk/CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)
Demonstration in Amsterdam, urging Dutch boycott of South Africa due to the South African Army’s continued operations against Angola’s government. (Hans Van Dijk/CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Palestinian writers and intellectuals, many of whom have lived under the one-state reality for decades, have already explored the hidden manifestations of Israel’s colonial project. For example, in a 2017 policy brief for the think tank Al-Shabaka, Haidar Eid and Andy Clarno articulated the need to shift our understanding of apartheid away from the narrow and incomplete interpretation provided by international law:

Because the [legal] definition focuses solely on the political regime, it does not provide a strong basis for critiquing the economic aspects of apartheid. To address this concern, we propose an alternative definition of apartheid that grew out of the struggle in South Africa during the 1980s and has gained support among activists due to the limits of decolonization in South Africa after 1994 — a definition that recognizes apartheid as intimately connected to capitalism.

In their quest for a new approach to the conflict, Eid and Clarno consider the dialogue between the Black Consciousness Movement and independent Marxists that began in the 1970s. It was in this moment that the ideas of “racial capitalism” became more prominent in the South African liberation movement. Intellectuals and activists at the time warned that South Africa’s transition to full democracy would be hampered if the underlying economic structures in the country were not radically reformed. And that’s exactly what happened.

“Much as the official apartheid policy was about explicitly codifying racial hierarchy and enforcing it through law and custom, it served as a justification for economic exploitation — and it is this which is the continuity of pre- and post-1994 South Africa,” says William Shoki, a staff writer at the site Africa Is a Country

A Palestinian man sells coffee to Palestinian workers waiting to cross the Israeli Bethlehem checkpoint on their way to work, Bethlehem, West Bank, February 8, 2017. (Activestills.org)
A Palestinian man sells coffee to Palestinian workers waiting to cross the Israeli Bethlehem checkpoint on their way to work, Bethlehem, West Bank, February 8, 2017. (Activestills.org)

Despite the important writings of people like Eid and Clarno, most debates about Israel’s control over Palestinians still miss the critical economic dimension. The nature of that discussion needs to change.

Capitalism and colonialism

One of the central purposes of South Africa’s apartheid system was to consolidate economic power in the hands of the few. While white supremacy was a defining component (and shouldn’t be underplayed), the ideology itself was a vehicle to achieve a specific financial end. In many ways, apartheid South Africa was arguably more concerned with cheap labor for its mining operations than it was in promoting white superiority.

In his diagnosis of racial capitalism — a lens that describes a great deal in both present-day South Africa and Israel-Palestine — the American academic Cedric Robinson writes that capitalism uses systems of oppression like apartheid to evolve and maintain dominance. Since capitalism was created in an environment already infused with racism (that is, Western Europe), it is only logical for the system to grow dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide. In his magnum opus, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Robinson notes that “the historical development of world capitalism was influenced in a most fundamen­tal way by the particularistic forces of racism and nationalism.”

South African women protest against the Pass Laws, which restricted the movement of Blacks in the country, 1956. (Nationaal Archief)
South African women protest against the Pass Laws, which restricted the movement of Blacks in the country, 1956. (Nationaal Archief)

Despite disagreements over the concept (including among Marxists themselves), the theory of racial capitalism gained strength among South African activists and intellectuals who had emerged within the Pan Africanist Congress and within the Black Consciousness movement after the 1976 Soweto Uprising. And with the benefit of historical hindsight, the concept has proven remarkably consistent with the reality on the ground today. Indeed, the current leaderships in both South Africa and Palestine have been co-opted by capital to ensure that the prevailing, neoliberal economic system remains in place.

This process, curiously, began in both contexts around the same time in the early 1990s. When it was clear that apartheid was no longer sustainable, leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) met with the power brokers of the South African economy. Despite their position of strength in negotiating the end of apartheid, the ANC capitulated to virtually every demand of white capital.

The negotiations in the 1990s between ANC experts schooled in Western economics and the white South African business elite highlighted just how much the ANC was out of their league. Longtime ANC member Ronnie Kasrils recounted those early meetings to The Guardian in 2013, noting that the ANC economists “were reporting to Mandela, and were either outwitted or frightened into submission by hints of the dire consequences for South Africa should an ANC government prevail with what were considered ruinous economic policies.”

As a result of these negotiations — ostensibly designed to keep South Africa from descending into a bloody civil war — the new ANC government accepted responsibility for the apartheid-era debt, shelved plans for a wealth tax to fund development projects, and agreed to let domestic and international companies keep profits made during apartheid. With no significant capital to push through an economic reformation strategy, which was needed to upend years of apartheid economics, the ANC was essentially forced to fully embrace the West’s free trade fundamentals.

Aside from white minority capital, the winners of this shift were senior ANC politicians themselves. Many of these politicians were placed on the boards of major South African companies and became personally wealthy beyond imagination. South Africa’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, amassed a personal fortune as a board member and advisor to several major mining companies. When 34 miners were murdered by security forces while protesting poor conditions and low pay at the Marikana mine in 2012, Ramaphosa’s position as the non-executive director of the mine operator came to light. He even demanded that “concomitant action” be taken against the miners during the week-long protest. 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa meets with Indian PM Narendra Modi, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazil's leader Jair Bolosonaro during a BRICS meeting of the five major emerging national economies, Brasilia, Brazil, November 14, 2019. (Alan Santos/CC BY 2.0)
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa meets with Indian PM Narendra Modi, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazil’s leader Jair Bolosonaro during a BRICS meeting of the five major emerging national economies, Brasilia, Brazil, November 14, 2019. (Alan Santos/CC BY 2.0)

The formation of this elite class required the political establishment in South Africa to remain committed to the same economic structure that preceded apartheid — namely, one that distributed wealth to the few instead of addressing the needs of the many. The only significant difference is that a handful of Black South Africans joined the elite. 

The strategy of enriching a group of natives who administer the colonial project of their own accord is an old idea that took a new form once the ANC assumed political power in 1994. And around that time, it became an operating procedure in Palestine, too. The particularities are different, but the effect in both post-apartheid South Africa and Palestine is similar: elites embrace economic policies that vastly expand their private wealth while proving disastrous for the populations they are meant to represent and support. 

“The lesson of South Africa, during and after apartheid,” William Shoki notes, “is that once you start questioning the fundamental thing that organizes the society, i.e., the economy, that’s when power starts to quake in its boots.”

* * *

This series will home in on that power. The next installment will focus on a clear manifestation of economic power in post-apartheid South Africa: land ownership and rights in Cape Town. As a case study, the fight over land in Cape Town demonstrates how apartheid survived in democratic South Africa. Despite a clear push to dismantle this sordid legacy, the basic “right to have rights” is still deprived for many.

Members of the National Union of Metal Workers and their supporters march in central Cape Town during a general strike, March 19, 2014. (Shachaf Polakow/Activestills.org)
Members of the National Union of Metal Workers and their supporters march in central Cape Town during a general strike, March 19, 2014. (Shachaf Polakow/Activestills.org)

The final installment will return focus to Israel-Palestine and consider how the structures of economic apartheid have already been created. With Joe Biden’s election over Donald Trump, these issues are more important than ever. By all accounts, Biden will continue Barack Obama’s legacy of the status quo in Israel-Palestine. That means organizations like the Palestinian Authority, which provide Israel much cover in carrying out the occupation, will remain dominant forces in the conflict. 

South Africa’s complex and checkered history is a valuable roadmap for thinking through the challenges facing Israel-Palestine, and bringing potential ways forward into sharper focus. With the two-state solution behind us, it’s more important than ever to consider how apartheid continues to flourish thanks to the underlying economics of domination.