South African BDS Coalition’s Salim Vally: The global fight against apartheid Israel has reached a ‘tipping point’

Mandela Palestine

[Editor’s note: Salim Vally, from the South African BDS Coalition, will be speaking at Ecosocialism 2024, June 28–30, Boorloo/Perth, Australia. For more information on the conference visit]

Socialist and human rights activist Salim Vally began his activism back in 1976 as a South African Students’ Movement leader in the fight against the country’s apartheid regime. Today, he heads up the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and is a coordinating committee member of the South African BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) coalition, which helped organise the recent Global Anti-Apartheid Conference on Palestine. Federico Fuentes, from LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal, spoke to Vally on the eve of his participation in Ecosocialism 2024 about the current genocide in Gaza, how Israel’s regime is worse than apartheid, the strategic importance of the global campaign in solidarity with Palestine and why South Africa could — and should — be doing more.

What has Israel’s current war on Gaza demonstrated in terms of the realities of Israeli apartheid today under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

In March last year, I was invited to give the annual Palestine lecture at the University of London’s School of Oriental African Studies. In that address I said that if we allowed Israel to continue to act with impunity, I had no doubt that the coming atrocities and massacres would eclipse the wholesale slaughters meted out in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere during the previous decades of Israeli inhumanity and savagery. This has now come to pass. 

This assessment was based on the makeup of Netanyahu’s government, which includes ministers who are clearly fascist: [Minister of National Security] Itamar Ben-Gvir, [Deputy Minister of National Jewish Identity] Avi Maoz, [Minister of Finance] Bezalel Smotrich. These are extreme right-wing racists who now have responsibilities for key areas, such as building settlements and security. 

The current Israeli government has jettisoned the old tropes that liberal Zionists and their supporters employed to defend Israel, such as Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East; that Israel genuinely wants a peace settlement with Palestinians; that extremism and racism have no place in Israeli society. Of course, those tropes were always more fiction than reality. The Nakba, or incremental genocide that Ilan Pappé talks about, did not stop after 1947-48 when 80-90% of Palestinians were exiled — it has continued ever since. So in that sense, what we are seeing today is a continuation of the Nakba. But the old tropes have been replaced with outright racism and diatribes that paint Palestinians as contaminants and an existential threat to Israel. And this has been accompanied by a vicious internal campaign to silence Jewish “traitors”, especially those who are liberal or left-wing and secular. 

That is why, back in March last year, I said that while Israel has always been a settler colonial apartheid state, we needed to be very concerned that under this government the situation would not just go from bad to worse but that, at a certain point, the quantitative change would become qualitative. In that sense, what has happened in the past eight, going on to nine months, did not come as a surprise. Sure, no one was prepared for the level of cruelty and deplorable depravity, even if Israel has been doing this from time to time over the past eight decades, for example when it orchestrated the massacre of thousands of unarmed civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila or its regular bombing sprees against the civilian population of Gaza over the past two decades. The present destruction of infrastructure, hospitals, universities and schools, and the killing of more than 40,000 men, women and children from a population of just 2.3 million is really staggering. The number of people murdered (over 70% of whom are children and women), those buried under the rubble and those maimed are the equivalent of over 1.5 million Australians excluding those who have died from starvation, illness and lack of medical treatment. It was clear for some time that this government had a genocidal strategy, unencumbered by what some people call “international opinion”, and that the horrors it was willing to unleash would create very distinct challenges for Palestinian resistance and movements of international solidarity — but also opportunities. 

In the face of all this, we have seen a tremendous outpouring of solidarity with the Palestinian people, and even traditionally strong allies such as the United States have started to, at least rhetorically, shift towards making noise about some kind of ceasefire. How do you assess where we are at in terms of building international pressure to isolate apartheid Israel?

Despite many attempts to repress the mass protests around the world they continue after eight months. We continue to see student and staff encampments on campuses in the United States, Europe, South Africa, Australia and many other places around the world. Something that has been particularly heartening to see is anti-Zionist Jewish organisations, primarily led by young people, coming out to say “Not in our name” and raising the slogan “Never again means never again for everyone”. They have been taking to the streets, occupying buildings and train stations, risking arrest — all that gives us hope. So too the workers around the world blocking boats destined for Israel and refusing to handle Israeli goods. The response in some key US states during the primaries, where people have refused to endorse Biden, is another good sign. Of course, there have been attempts to suppress news coming out of Gaza. But despite the killing of over a hundred journalists, despite the banning of news agencies such as Al Jazeera, despite the cowardice of the mainstream media — including the liberal media — news is getting out. This is galvanising more and more people. 

In terms of what we are seeing around the world, many of us feel that a tipping or inflection point has been reached. For a long time, Israel was allowed to act with impunity and without restraint. But we are starting to see changes we would not have thought possible a few years ago. Primarily in the US, but also in Germany and some other European countries, there are cracks and fissures starting to show. For example, sanctions are now on the cards for many countries and even United Nation agencies. Malaysia has refused to allow Israeli-flagged cargo ships to dock in their ports. Namibia has sanctioned the sale of diamonds to Israel. So, things are changing. 

Something similar happened with South Africa. The first call for a boycott campaign against apartheid was made as early as 1959. But it was only when dockworkers in Trinidad, Norway and Liverpool started refusing to load and unload South African goods in 1960 and waterside workers in Sydney refused to handle cargo on a ship that was believed to be carrying arms to South Africa in 1964; when shop workers in supermarkets in places such as Ireland started refusing to handle South African products; when people such as in New Zealand started to protest against touring South African sporting teams, that governments around the world started to change their positions. 

Today, the hard work of activists throughout the world has enabled us to make very rapid gains. Of course, this has come at a huge price for Palestinians. And we still have much work to do. The reality today looks very grim — as it did in the ’80s in my country. But there is a well-known phrase that “the night is darkest just before dawn breaks”. Many Palestinians feel this current moment may be a moment of change. That is why we need to build on the momentum that exists and, among other things, push for more sanctions and push to stop Israel from participating in cultural events, in the Olympics and elsewhere. 

In terms of building on this momentum, you recently helped organise the Global Anti-Apartheid Conference in South Africa. What can you tell us about the conference and its outcomes?

The idea for the conference came after members of the South African Council of Churches went to Bethlehem and, together with members of the Palestinian clergy, felt the need to have such a conference. So they came to us, the South African BDS coalition, which became the primary group for linking up the churches with unions and others to organise this conference. We organised this conference on a shoestring budget and with very little time. But in the end we had 400 delegates from about two dozen countries meeting in Johannesburg between May 10-12. Among other things, the conference adopted the “Johannesburg Declaration on Israel’s Settler-Colonialism, Apartheid and Genocide: Towards a Global Anti-Apartheid Movement for Palestine”, which calls on people and organisations globally to expand and escalate actions in solidarity with the Palestinian people’s courageous liberation struggle.

Part of the conference’s aim was to link up with Palestinians. For us, Palestinians must be at the forefront of the struggle. Witnessing the horror and daily carnage, we take courage from Palestinian people who, despite facing appalling barbarity, continue resisting on all fronts. So, an important aim was to amplify Palestinian voices and narratives that highlight the history of colonisation Palestinians have faced, and the legitimacy of their right to resist genocide, ethnic cleansing, occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid.

Given that the genocidal war against Palestinians is being carried out with weapons supplied by Western powers — especially the US but also Germany, Canada, Italy and England, among others — conference participants raise the need to pressure governments and parliaments to immediately impose a military embargo on Israel, as called for by the UN Human Rights Council and dozens of UN human rights experts. This embargo needs to include the sale and transfer of weapons, military equipment and dual-use technology, an end to military funding and a ban on importing Israeli arms and spyware, and on joint military and security projects. Another issue was attempting to identify Israel’s economic vulnerabilities. Israel’s economy is increasingly tottering on the edge. Given this, there was a strong belief that we need to identify its strategic weak points. The Palestinian BDS National Committee and the BDS movement globally have identified many such weak points. In this context, participants at the Conference vowed to support, strengthen and expand BDS actions. 

We also identified and discussed issues such as Israel’s deliberate effort to comprehensively destroy the Palestinian education system — an action known as “scholasticide”. Because of this, we need to step up our support for a comprehensive and consistent boycott of all academic institutions in Israel, as advocated by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Another issue discussed was the Israeli regime’s reproductive genocide in Gaza, through systematic violence and the deliberate targeting of women and children, which has increased exponentially since October 2023. Imposing restrictions on access to vital resources such as food, water, electricity, and medical treatment results in women, particularly pregnant women, and children suffering the most. That is why, as a movement, we see the need to advance the fundamental rights of Palestinians to bodily autonomy, safety, and justice. It was also noted that Israel’s military onslaught has had enormous effects on Gaza’s ecosystems and biodiversity. Participants agreed that the scale and potential long-term impact of this damage amounts to ecocide and must be investigated as a war crime. When you look at all this, you start to see why Palestine is such a key issue: it is capable of bringing together environmentalists, anti-racist activists, indigenous people, anti-militarists, anti-capitalists, feminists and many others from all around the world in an intersectional way. 

Another important aspect we see is Israel’s particular role in global capitalism. Australian-Palestinian Adam Haniah was very clear on this many years ago when he said: “It is not merely the depth of suffering or length of exile that makes the Palestinian struggle an imperative of international solidarity in the current period. It is also the central location of the struggle within the broader context of global resistance to imperialism and neoliberalism.” Israel’s role is to make the region safe for oil companies in concert with despotic Arab regimes, but its role extends beyond that to supporting military dictatorships elsewhere and suppressing workers’ struggles around the world in very concrete ways. For example, Israel has carved out a niche market producing high-tech security essential for the day-to-day functioning of global capitalism, with the weaponry and technology it exports being field tested on the bodies of Palestinian men, women and children. 

This is important in terms of the whataboutism we often encounter: “What about the Congo?” “What about Sudan?” “Why aren’t you boycotting other countries?” During apartheid in South Africa, the international boycott campaign faced the same issue. The period of apartheid overlapped with the period of Pol Pot’s rule in Cambodia, during which many more people were killed than under apartheid. But the reality was that the West did not support Pol Pot in the way that it supported the South African regime, and the boycott campaign was, for us, a tactical weapon. The same is true with Israel today. Moreover, we see a direct connection between our struggle against Israeli apartheid and struggles such as those in the Congo and Sudan, because Israel is very much involved in funding and fuelling those conflicts, extracting minerals and supporting warlords. This has been well documented. So, for us, the campaign to boycott Israel does not undermine or reduce the importance of the other struggles; rather, we see a victory for Palestine as aiding those struggles.

Many have drawn comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa? How valid is this comparison? 

The first thing to note is that the extent and brutality of the Israeli regime is much more staggering than that of apartheid South Africa — which is saying a lot. The difference with South Africa is that the apartheid regime wanted to continue exploiting Black labour; they could not just get rid of Black people. There were genocides of indigenous people and massacres, but it pales in comparison to what is happening in Palestine. So, I would say one main difference is that Israel feels it can dispose of the Palestinian people whereas the South African apartheid regime could not do that with South African workers, because they needed to super exploit their labour in order to accumulate capital. 

At the same time, there are many points of commonality. For example, apartheid South Africa was a settler colonial formation formed by Europeans and initially overseen by British imperialism, just like Israel. It is no surprise then that Israel was among the most loyal allies of the apartheid state, clinging onto this friendship when almost all other countries had turned its back on South Africa. When the global anti-apartheid movement forced states to impose sanctions on South Africa, Israel imported South African goods and re-exported them to the world as a form of inter-racist solidarity. And Israel was an important arms supplier to apartheid South Africa despite the international arms embargo. 

There are also clear similarities between the 65-odd pieces of discriminatory legislation in Israel that govern all aspects of everyday life, the fragmentation and theft of the land and the matrix of security laws, with what existed under apartheid in South Africa. Though, again, it is worth noting that while the laws are similar, they are not the same — apartheid Israel is much more severe because of what I mentioned before.

All of this has led a number of organisations to conclude that systemic and widespread discriminatory Israeli policies and practices against Palestinians amount to a violation of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. In her September 2022 report to the UN General Assembly on human rights in the occupied territories, UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese makes the point that “the concept that Israeli occupation meets the legal threshold of apartheid is gaining traction”. At the same time, her report significantly speaks to some limits of the apartheid framework. 

For example, she notes that recent reports on Israeli apartheid exclude the experience of Palestinian refugees. She says recognition of Israeli apartheid must address the experience of the Palestinian people in its entirety and in their unity as a people, including those who were displaced, denationalised and dispossessed in 1947-48. She also notes that a focus on Israeli apartheid alone misses the inherent illegality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem. The Israeli occupation is illegal because it has proven not to be temporary and is deliberately administered against the best interests of the occupied population. Its illegality also stems from its systematic violation of at least three peremptory norms of international law: the prohibition on acquiring territory through force; the prohibition on imposing regimes of alien subjugation, domination and exploitation, including racial discrimination and apartheid; and the obligation of states to respect the right of peoples to self-determination. Finally, Albanese notes that the apartheid framework does not address the “root causes” of what she calls settler colonialism — a war crime under the Rome Statute. All this is worth considering when discussing the issue of Israeli apartheid.

In terms of governments supporting Palestine, few if any have been as vocal and active as South Africa’s, as evidenced by the genocide case it has brought against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). But, in your opinion, could South Africa be doing more?

Absolutely we could be doing more. For example, sanctions have not even started. People are often quite surprised to hear that we still trade with Israel. Trade has been reduced but when it comes to certain key sectors, South Africa continues to trade with Israel. Take coal, for example: Israel relies on coal imports from Colombia, Russia and South Africa to fuel its economy. Colombia has just announced that it is banning coal sales to Israel, but South Africa continues to sell coal to Israel. The South African government should be following Colombia’s lead. 

There are other things the government could be doing. For example, there are a sizable number of people with dual citizenship who have fought in the Israeli Occupation Force, either in this genocide or previously. We have put together a dossier of their names and details and sent it to the national prosecuting agency, because they have run afoul of South African law. But no action has been taken against these mercenaries. [Outgoing] foreign minister Naledi Pandor and the Department of International Regulations and Cooperation have issued statements that they plan to go ahead with prosecutions, but nothing has happened to date. If they did move on this, it would be significant. 

In the sporting arena, there are athletes who still compete against Israelis and even train in Israel. There are also business owners in South Africa who fund groups that are directly implicated in land theft, such as the Jewish National Agency. The government should intervene to stop this. And at the level of universities, while we have a number of university senates that have embraced the academic boycott, there are still universities who are yet to sign on. We have made progress, but we want this to continue. 

As for the ICJ case, we are determined to ensure that it proceeds, irrespective of the composition of the new government. That said, I do not see the national unity government that the ANC [African National Congress] hopes to form with the DA [Democratic Alliance] pulling out of the case. The reality is that this ICJ case is viewed by many South Africans as a pivotal moment for our country in terms of global prestige, much like the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. For a period of about a month after the case was presented, even government detractors and supporters of Israel were forced to remain silent due to the overwhelming outpouring of support from South Africans. Obviously, one never knows with politicians, but given the prestige of our legal team and the tremendous support they enjoy in South Africa, I think it will be very hard for any government to pull out of the case now.