Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 20, 2010

South African and Israeli apartheid: some comparisons

Filed under: middle east,South Africa — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm

Bernard Avishai

Offering left cover for the Obama administration once again, the Nation Magazine provides a platform for Bernard Avishai to attack the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel. Avishai, an adjunct professor of business at Hebrew University and author of “The Hebrew Public”, can best be described as an Israeli dove, an avian species that should probably be replaced by a dodo given its track record.

Despite its rotten politics, Avishai’s article offers some interesting points to consider in its case study comparison of the two campaigns that targeted South Africa and now Israel. He complains that unless the left adopts the strategy used against South Africa, it will fail:

In 1987, when I was an editor of the Harvard Business Review, I interviewed Tony Bloom, CEO of the South African food processing giant Premier Group. Early on, Bloom rejected apartheid’s foundations, and his company hired political detainees after they were released from prison. He had been among the small group of white business leaders who risked all in 1985 to meet with ANC leaders in Zambia—a great turning point. He befriended future South African President Thabo Mbeki and worked to support the transition to democracy. Though he eventually moved to London, he continued to transform his conglomerate into a model postapartheid firm.

Since I have access to the Harvard Business Review, I tracked down this interview and found a key exchange between Avishai and Bloom that anticipated where South Africa was headed after the end of apartheid:

Avishai: Are you worried that “one man, one vote” in South Africa will end free enterprise?

Bloom: The government argues that black independence in the rest of Africa has resulted only in coup and countercoup, chaos, and starvation. This may be true in many cases, but the comparisons get us nowhere. But the results of “one man, one vote”-actually “one person, one vote”- surely depend on when the vote comes and under what conditions. Black rule in South Africa is historically inevitable. The question is, under what conditions is change going to take place? If it comes about at the end of a war of attrition in which racial enmity has escalated to civil violence, then I think the chance of our getting a government of retribution and revenge, a government that might be Marxist-Leninist in its policy, is much greater than if we sit down today to negotiate a joint future with black leaders. Unless whites and blacks find each other, free enterprise will become a victim.

As it turns out, the African National Congress was effectively robbed of its power to wage an armed struggle just around this time. While most of us are familiar (or should be familiar) with the USSR’s determination to throw Nicaragua overboard as part of its “perestroika” adaptation to US imperialist pressure, the ANC was just as much a victim.

As a result of the Tripartite Agreement that ended the war in Angola, the ANC was forced to abandon its bases in Angola and Namibia. Without them, the armed struggle against South Africa was much more difficult to continue. Furthermore, even if the ANC had decided to continue the fight from within South Africa, the USSR would no longer provide arms, a fact that a right-wing newspaper gloated over:

The Washington Times
July 31, 1990, Tuesday, Final Edition

ANC ‘disgusted’ by Pretoria-Moscow amity

The African National Congress is in a fury over the way the Soviet Union, its former ally and arms supplier in the struggle against Pretoria, is now rushing toward reconciliation with the white South African government.

First the Soviet Union ignored its warning against sending the world-famous Moscow Circus to South Africa. Then the Soviets announced last week that they had accepted a $1 billion loan from the South African De Beers group to develop their diamond industry.

De Beers Centenary, the offshore arm of the South African gem giant, will in return get exclusive rights to sell all Soviet rough-diamond exports over the next five years in a contract worth more than $5 billion.

Asked about the diamond deal, the ANC’s official spokesman in Zambia, Tom Sebina, said, “We are disgusted.”

Moscow’s blatant disregard of the international sanctions campaign against South Africa has caught the ANC off guard. It not only demonstrates that the Soviets are totally uninterested in sanctions, but also shows the ANC can no longer count on Soviet assistance in the supply of arms.

Perhaps the South African ruling class and its friends in the West understood that it had little to fear from an end to apartheid since there were signs early on that the ANC leadership’s bark was worse than its bite. One of the most far-sighted imperialist rulers was Britain’s Margaret Thatcher who understood that the ANC could be co-opted with relative ease despite her past intransigence against the BDS campaign of the 1980s.  On July 5th, the Independent reported:

NELSON MANDELA emerged from a three-hour meeting with Margaret Thatcher yesterday praising her stand against apartheid and racism, and thanking her for her help in securing his release from prison.

Mr Mandela said that they did not agree on everything, but there was no hint of criticism of her stand in the past. He said that they concentrated on what they had in common, not what they disagreed about. ”We have never had any quarrel with the British. We have taken different positions on different questions but there was never any enmity or quarrel.”

Mr Mandela added: ”I accept that she is an enemy of apartheid and all kinds of racism. Our differences are in the methods used to dismantle apartheid. From the outset I pointed out that we had a common approach, which we can use in order to seek solutions in regard to our country.”

Clearly Thatcher understood that South Africa would be in safe hands under Nelson Mandela.

So the question is, returning to Bernard Avishai, why could not such an outcome prevail in the Middle East? A kind of one-state resolution based on one person, one vote and even the right of return could bring down the curtain on Zionist conflict with its neighbors. A layer of Palestinian leaders, to use the term loosely, could be co-opted just as the ANC had been. Even the Hamas contingent could probably be assuaged with the proper combination of funding and formal democracy.

To some extent, Avishai’s policy recommendations amount to pure casuistry. He writes, “Is United Technologies bad because one division, Sikorsky, makes Israeli attack helicopters—or is it good because another division, Carrier, makes Palestinian air conditioners?” I would say that if put up to a vote, Palestinians would gladly trade their air conditioners for disabling IDF helicopters, especially after the raid on the Mavi Marmara.

Instead, Avishai recommends a ban on “consumer products like fruit, flowers and Dead Sea mineral creams and shampoos.” Now I have no problem having a rally in front of Ricky’s or Brenner’s chocolate shop in Greenwich Village, but I doubt that this will have much impact on Israeli apartheid.

Indeed, Avishai and other addled liberals at the Nation Magazine (especially Eric Alterman who wrote a letter complaining about the magazine’s failure to take a swipe at Hamas in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara murders) fail to see an essential difference between South Africa and Israel. In Israel, there has been an inexorable transformation of the state into a kind of religious/authoritarian regime that makes it particularly resistant to outside pressure of any sort. The Afrikaners were of course a cauldron of “god gave us this land” zealotry but the big banking and industrial interests were less prone to bible thumping. In the final analysis, they worked behind the scenes with Margaret Thatcher and  Soviet bureaucrats to seal the fate of post-apartheid South Africa, a country now governed by economic rather than racial apartheid.

In a brilliant analysis of the flotilla incident, Norman Finkelstein raised the possibility that Israel had become a lunatic state.

What happened with the Gaza flotilla was not an accident.  You have to remember that the Israeli cabinet met for fully a week.  All the cabinet ministers discussed and deliberated how they would handle the flotilla.  There were numerous reports in the Israeli press, numerous suggestions, numerous recommendations about what to do.  At the end of the day, they decided on a nighttime armed commando raid on a humanitarian convoy.  Israel is now a lunatic state.  It’s a lunatic state with between two and three hundred nuclear devices.  It is threatening war daily against Iran and against Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Hezbollah in Lebanon has already stated on several occasions: if Israel attacks it will retaliate in kind.  Things are getting out of control.  We have to ask ourselves a simple, basic, fundamental question: can a lunatic state like Israel be trusted with two to three hundred nuclear devices when it is now threatening its neighbors Iran and Lebanon with an attack?

Our consciousness tends to lag behind events. With the unemployment rate remaining at 10 percent, with the Gulf of Mexico being turned into a vast dead zone, and with the number one recipient of American foreign aid acting more and more like Nazi Germany after the debacle on the Eastern front, the world cries out for a major challenge to the existing status quo. It is by no means assured that such a challenge will be forthcoming given the reversals of the radical movements for the past 35 years or so. While the Communist Manifesto reads like a breathlessly optimistic vision of the future, we should never forget that includes this warning at the very beginning of chapter one:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

With two to three hundred nuclear bombs, Israel has ever possibility of fulfilling Marx and Engels’s grave warning.


  1. Mandela bought into the corporate post apartheid South africa too:


    Comment by Jenny — June 21, 2010 @ 1:26 am

  2. Though the pro compromisers make a good argument too:


    Comment by Jenny — June 21, 2010 @ 1:59 am

  3. Good keep BDS active

    Comment by Zarina Bhatia — June 21, 2010 @ 10:53 am

  4. I agree with Finklestein: Israel has gone mad, but how do we get the nukes away from them? Starvation of the war beuracracy. BDS needs to go further and deeper.

    Comment by Strelnikov — June 21, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  5. “with the number one recipient of American foreign aid acting more and more like Nazi Germany after the debacle on the Eastern front” yeah, that’s a really useful comparison O_o

    Comment by PfromGermany — June 22, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

  6. The Nation? You mean, there are still people who read it? I thought it was going the way of The New Republic.

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 22, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

  7. I’m curious on your views about the murdered/assassinated SA leader Chris Hani. Hani might have got the job that Mandela got. And then … ?

    Comment by Johnny Canuck — June 22, 2010 @ 7:42 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: