Last days of Apartheid South Africa – Lessons for Israel

by Maskil on 4 Nov 2009

The Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa.

Image via Wikipedia

What does this have to do with a blog on Israel and Jewish affairs? Having lived through the fall of Apartheid and the all-too brief honeymoon period that followed, I find a number of eerie parallels between attitudes and beliefs held by White South Africans at the time, and Israel’s growing isolation and withdrawal today. (What I am not doing, though, is to compare the Apartheid system of Separate Development with the situation in Israel. Such a comparison is inaccurate and unjust and gives ammunition to those who simply wish to demonise Israel.)

In January 1978 – along with tens of thousands of other school-leavers, graduates of our Christian National Education system – I began my National Service with the SA Defence Force. I was not politically mature (or even aware), and believed that we were doing our part to save Southern Africa from what had befallen the rest of Africa: domination by the militant Black nationalism and Communism that had led to the ruination of the continent; the Total Onslaught.

We believed that the struggle would continue for decades, perhaps even centuries to come. Our children and grandchildren would be called on do their duty to save “Volk en Vaderland” (we used those words) from the savagery of raw Africa. Little more than a decade later, Mandela had been released from prison, the CODESA talks had begun and democratic elections were on the horizon.

That bears repeating: little more than a decade later.

How was this possible? We firmly believed that with South Africa’s mineral and other natural resources, her control over the Cape sea route (the Suez Canal had been closed since 1967), her military might, etc., The West could simply not allow this prize, this bastion of civilisation, to fall to Communism. Voortrekker terminology about drawing the wagons into a defensive circle or Lager (the “Lager mentality”) was common on both sides of the argument. Vesting Suid Afrika (Fortress South Africa) would hold out until such time as The World (not us) was brought to its senses.

Behind the scenes, however, senior SADF figures were warning their political masters that the most they could do was give the politicians breathing room to make a deal. Boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions had begun to cut deep into the SA economy, as had black labour unrest and events such as the Soweto Riots of 1976 (fomented mainly by school-goers). The National Party eventually cut a deal with its chosen successor – the African National Congress (ANC) – and then retired to seaside homes, cattle farms and inflation-linked pensions. The New South Africa experienced its brief Rainbow Nation phase before the slow slide into the current phase of reverse discrimination, corruption, rampant crime and ineffectiveness. The heroism, the mental and physical scarring, and the loss of many of our finest sons had become somehow irrelevant.

Today, Israel (like White South Africa in the 80s) appears to be living under the illusion that she has all the time in the world. The illusion that with her economy, the IDF, support from the US and Diaspora communities, she has no need to set her borders, find- rather than just seek – peace, and come to an accommodation with the other inhabitants of Palestine. There are far too many dangerous illusions at work here. The illusion of brave little Israel, alone against the world. The illusion that we don’t need peace; that we can survive in a state of low-intensity conflict forever. The illusion that we only need one ally, and that we are free to thumb our noses at her views when they don’t suit us. The illusion that the only outpost of democracy in the region would never be abandoned. The illusion that we can’t be replaced as America’s most dependable ally in the region. The illusion that we contribute too much to the world to be cast aside. The illusion that we are right and the rest of the world is wrong. The illusion that we are protected by the lessons and guilt of the Holocaust. And, perhaps most dangerous of all, the illusion that the God of Israel would not allow her be destroyed again.

Israel has perhaps another decade to restore its status as a Rechtsstaat (domestically, internationally and in the territories) and integrate itself back into the family of nations. Another decade before the same forces that ended 40 years of National Party rule in South Africa also put an end to the 40-year illusion of Greater Israel, and the hopes and dreams of Little Israel along with it.

In the immortal words of Hollywood enforcers and crime-fighters, “we can do this the hard way or the easy way”. For now, the choice is still ours.

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