“The struggle of Palestine is our struggle:” South African workers resist Zionist colonialism and US imperialism

South Africa issued a formal reprimand to the Israeli ambassador on November 10, days after recalling its diplomats from Tel Aviv. With US lawmakers now threatening to downgrade trade ties with Pretoria, South African workers remain steadfast in their solidarity with the Palestinian people

November 13, 2023 by Tanupriya Singh
Members of GIWUSA on strike at Clover in 2021. Photo: GIWUSA

On November 10, in response to the “End All Complicity, Stop Arming Israel” international call issued by Palestinian unions, activists, trade unions, and civil society groups in South Africa gathered outside the headquarters of the Paramount Group, Africa’s largest privately-owned defense company, in Johannesburg.

In a statement, the organizers noted that the corporation’s chairperson, Ivor Ichikowitz was a “staunch supporter of the Zionist cause,” who had raised funds for Israeli forces through his family foundation. Also named is Paramount Group’s Vice-President Shane Cohen, who, according to the statement, is a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Israeli occupation forces.

The activists noted that Paramount also had connections to Israeli weapons manufacturer, Elbit Systems, providing it with the Mbombe 6×6 armored vehicles. “With their close ties to Elbit and offices in Tel Aviv, Paramount is now profiting off of the settler colony of Israel and the ongoing genocide in Gaza, which this week saw the death toll reach over 10,000 people.”

Watch |Victory at Oldham: How Palestine Action shut down arms manufacturer Elbit

The activists raised a series of demands including the shutting down of Paramount’s arms trade from South Africa, supporting the call by Palestinian unions to halt the sale and funding of arms to Israel, ending the South African government’s contracts with Paramount, and for South Africa to cut off all ties with Israel, including closing its embassy and expelling the ambassador.

“We cannot allow South Africans to trade in arms that fuel oppression and genocide. Overturning apartheid here means we must end apartheid in Palestine,” the statement said.

Later on Friday, South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) announced that it had issued a demarche, or formal reprimand, to the Israeli ambassador, Eliav Belotsercovsky, citing his “recent unfortunate conduct relating to the unfolding, tragic, Israel-Palestine war.”

The move came just a few days after South Africa recalled its diplomats from Tel Aviv. Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said at the time that Pretoria was “extremely concerned at the continued killing of children and innocent civilians in the Palestinian territories and we believe the nature of response by Israel has become one of collective punishment.”

Speaking at a press conference, the Minister in the Presidency of South Africa, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni had stated, “A genocide under the watch of the international community cannot be tolerated. Another holocaust in the history of humankind is not acceptable.”

On November 7, Pandor also denounced the “double standards” and silence of the International Criminal Court (ICC) regarding Israel’s violence in Gaza, pointing out how it had been “quick to act” when it came to issuing an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin during the war in Ukraine.

The ICC, and particularly its chief prosecutor Karim Khan, have come under increasing criticism for the refusal to take any action against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu despite clear evidence of the unfolding war crimes and genocide in Gaza.

DIRCO reiterated South Africa’s call for the ICC to investigate “the leadership of Israel” for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, though also calling for Hamas to be investigated for war crimes.

Meanwhile, South Africa has been witnessing protests for several weeks now against Israel’s genocide in Gaza, and in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

“Just like all decolonial struggles of the past, the decolonial struggle in Palestine is an international one. Our freedom is inextricably interlinked to the freedom of Palestinians,” the Palestine Solidarity Alliance (PSA) had said in a statement on October 7.

“We recognize in Palestinian comrades what we are, what we come from”

“The people of South Africa— and I’m talking now of the freedom fighters, the Indigenous majority Black population were dispossessed of their land…of their rights, lived under colonial oppression and exploitation and the apartheid era— we fought back back and we understand why a people, throughout history facing tyranny, have the right to resort to armed struggle,” Ronnie Kasrils, a former cabinet minister and commander of the ANC’s armed wing, uMkhonto weSizwe, had told Peoples Dispatch during a protest on October 12.

“We recognize in Palestinian comrades, the sisters and brothers, what we are, what we come from.”

While there is a substantial documentation of collusion between Israel and apartheid South Africa, including arms supplies in violation of a UN embargo and an offer of nuclear warheads, there is a rich history of solidarity between the Palestinian and South African liberation struggles.

“We taught about the Palestinian struggle in our training camps; we read Palestinian poems and books; we had their posters on our walls. When we trained in Algeria, Egypt, the Soviet Union, our paths crossed, and we were elated to share similar stories,” Kasrils had explained.

In a statement on October 13, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) said, “When Israel the oppressor, brutalizes the oppressed, forces them from the land, maims and kills them indiscriminately and robs them of their dignity for decades, it is inevitable that there will be counter-violence from the oppressed. Justice is the only road to peace.”

As protests took place in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town, people demanded an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, and the severing of South Africa’s diplomatic ties with Israel, including the expulsion of its ambassador.

“The recall of the diplomats from Tel Aviv is a step in the right direction, it is in line with our demands and struggles, but this is wholly inadequate— this is not a permanent termination of our diplomatic ties with Israel,” Mametlwe Sebei, the president of the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA), which has been part of the protests, told Peoples Dispatch on November 8.

“The Israeli ambassador, who is here to advance the interests of the Zionist Israeli state and imperialist corporations, is still in Pretoria…If we are allowing for the tying together of South Africa’s economy with Israel, what prospects are there for a consistent condemnation of Israel?”

“We want the government to implement the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli regime, all its organs as well as every single corporation that is complicit in its colonial schemes of the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people. We also demand expropriation of Israeli corporations in this country, as well as Zionist corporations of South African origin that are linked to this warfare,” Sebei said.

In 2019, in a move widely condemned by South Africa’s BDS Campaign, GIWUSA, PSA, and others, a consortium of the Israeli Central Bottling Company (CBC) known as Milco acquired South Africa’s largest and oldest dairy company, Clover.

CBC is deeply complicit in the Zionist colonization of Palestine, holding a distribution center in the illegal Atarot settlement in the Occupied West Bank. Another CBC subsidiary, Meshek Zuriel Dairy, holds an 81% stake in a dairy farm in the Shadmot Mehola settlement in the Jordan Valley.

GIWUSA has waged a lengthy struggle against the exploitation of workers since then, including a months-long strike by thousands of workers at the facility in 2021-22. Among the key demands raised has been the disinvestment of MILCO/CBC, and the nationalization of Clover under democratic worker control.

“The underlying basis of our solidarity with Palestine is not charity, even as we are appalled by the sight of the bombardment of the Palestinian people…but the understanding that it is the logical extension of our struggle,” Sebei explained, adding that the very imperialism which was upholding Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine, the imperialism whose ultimate logic is exploitation, was what was also exploiting and oppressing the South African working class.

“The struggle of Palestine is our struggle. We do not see this linkage as a matter of coincidence that the very company that operates in illegal settlements on Palestinian land, has on its arrival here, worsened the conditions of South African workers. Wages have been cut by 62%, the working hours have been increased from nine to 12 hour shifts…they have brought back the working conditions to what they were under apartheid.”

“This kind of savagery speaks to a primitive accumulation of colonial capitalism, which is the logic of Zionism in Palestine.”

The AGOA trade program: another tool of US imperialist control?

On November 7, a debate was opened in the South African parliament on the government’s decision to recall its diplomats from Israel. Of note was the address made by Dr. Cornelius Petrus Mulder of the right-wing Freedom Front Plus (which in its past has advocated for the establishment of a white ethnostate and has since likened the ANC’s affirmative action policies to a “new apartheid”).

Not only did Mulder repeat the racist Zionist lies of “beheaded babies,” he claimed, bizarrely, that Gaza and Israel had a “good relationship” before October 7— “good” for Mulder being the entry of aid trucks into what Israel has turned into a concentration camp, and the exploitation of Palestinian workers by Israel after laying siege to Gaza and collapsing its economy.

Importantly, however, Mulder went on to say that the government had taken the decision to send a message to Israel, “but your message reached further, today, two senators from the US, Chris Coons and Jim Risch, reacted to that statement of yours. The fact that you are with Russia, the fact that you are with Hamas…that you are with Iran…today they have reacted by saying [that for] the AGOA [African Growth and Opportunity Act] process, they will have a course of corrective action in Congress”.

Enacted in 2000, AGOA establishes a trade program that ostensibly provides eligible countries in sub-Saharan Africa with duty-free access to US markets. The criteria for inclusion include “establishing a market-based economy, “rule of law,” and elimination of “barriers to US trade.”

Back in June, Coons and Risch (from the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively) were among a group of lawmakers who demanded that the Biden administration not hold the annual AGOA Forum in South Africa, citing “intelligence” that South Africa had supplied arms to Russia, while also bring up its military cooperation with Russia and China, and importantly, the BRICS Summit.

“These actions by South Africa call into question its eligibility for trade benefits under AGOA due to the statutory requirement that beneficiary countries “not engage in activities that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests” [emphasis added],” the letter read.

South Africa has been the biggest beneficiary of AGOA, exporting almost USD 3 billion in goods to the US in 2022 through the program alone. After affirming Israel’s “right to defend itself” during a visit to Tel Aviv, Coons is now calling for an immediate review of South Africa’s eligibility for AGOA.

The AGOA summit was ultimately held in Johannesburg between November 2 and 4. On its final day, members of GIWUSA were among protesters who held a demonstration held outside the venue, bearing placards that read “US Money is Blood Money.”

Not only is AGOA blatantly manipulated as a tool of US foreign policy, the program’s terms itself do little to advance the developmental concerns of its supposed beneficiaries.

“One of the strategies of US imperialism has been to outsource certain sections of its manufacturing to the colonized world where there is cheap labor, as part of a civil war conducted against its domestic working class. This was especially strong in the auto industry, which had over time shifted to South Africa,” Sebei explained.

“At present, 75% of AGOA benefits go towards the auto industry which is overwhelmingly dominated by US and other Western-based firms including Ford, BMW, and Volkswagen.”

Importantly, Sebei stated that US-based companies are simply assembling, and not manufacturing, vehicles in South Africa while receiving billions of dollars in subsidies through the Automotive Production and Development Program (APDP). On top of this, these vehicles are then exported and given duty-free access to US markets under AGOA.

“This is part of a strategy to cut the cost of production, domestically in relation to US labor, but also internationally in that the money of ordinary South Africans is going towards these subsidies.”

Sebei added, “In addition, while South Africa’s auto industry— which was really the auto industry of US and other western corporations— was given duty free access to US markets, what the US asked for in return was access to our poultry and other markets dominated by our local industry. South Africa subsequently lowered tariffs on chicken imports from the US, the end result of which was that the poultry industry in our country was devastated.”

The US has previously also threatened to take punitive actions against South Africa, including a suspension from AGOA, over perceived “barriers” to trade, potentially costing the African country millions of dollars in losses.

“The US wins either way, the structure of the deal is one-sided. The US and its corporations want to keep us in a state of perpetual neo colonial servitude.  What we are proposing instead is that these industries [particularly] automotives, be nationalized and put under the democratic control of workers so we can repurpose them to serve the interests of the South African working class.”

“We have the capacity in our auto industry but that is not serving our transport needs. Workers in rural areas simply do not have access to buses, we have bought trains that do not even fit our existing infrastructure…We could actually repurpose the industry in a way that provides environmentally sustainable public transport,” he said.

This would not only aid in maintaining current jobs, but create more employment, including in other sectors that were adversely impacted by AGOA and attendant policies. It also has broader implications for sovereign foreign policy.

“When the US threatens disqualification from AGOA citing “foreign policy interests”, what it is actually doing is to make sure that any country that does not support its imperialist expansionism, be it through NATO, or does not support Israel, which acts as the main conduit of its strategy in the Middle East, is unable to break away and take decisive action.” Sebei said.