Israel’s Sharpeville moment

It is often imagined that world opinion was always united in its opposition to apartheid in South Africa—it wasn’t. Today, global indifference to Palestine is changing too.

Mourners at a funeral ceremony for those who were killed by the South African police at Langa Township in Uitenhage in 1985, on the anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre. Image via UN Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

The Israeli state is fond of telling anyone who will listen that it is now living through its very own “9/11.” It is, in truth, living through its own Sharpeville.

There are important differences between the killing of anti-apartheid protestors by police in 1960 and today’s ethnic cleansing of Gaza. But the impact on the state responsible for the bloodshed may be much the same. And that is a possibility that should deeply worry those who are now turning Gaza into a wasteland.

The events that began on October 7 were different from Sharpeville in important ways. Sharpeville, and the banning of “liberation” movements that followed it, began armed resistance to apartheid. In Palestine, armed conflict between the occupying power and the occupied is decades old.

Sharpeville, despite the justifiable horror it caused across the globe, was not an attempt to punish an entire people—it was directed only at those who protested. Gazans would, no doubt, give a great deal for a world in which they had to raise a banner or shout a slogan to be killed or driven from their homes.

While the apartheid state predictably tried to justify the Sharpeville killings, it never blamed an entire people. A common justification for apartheid was that most Black people were happy with their lot but were being manipulated by radicals. It was never true, but it ensured that the state did not, in stark contrast to its Israeli counterpart, claim that all black people should pay the price for the actions of political organizations.

Because the apartheid state’s leaders always doubted deep down that what they were doing to the Black majority could last forever, Sharpeville prompted not only repression but support for reform among some in the state—the acting prime minister, Paul Sauer, initially supported scrapping the pass laws against which people were protesting. The Israeli state, convinced that the support of the US makes it invincible, reacted only with violence.

But the effect of Gaza’s agony may, like Sharpeville, signal the end of that invincibility.

It is often imagined that world opinion was always united in its opposition to apartheid in South Africa, and that Palestinians are doomed because the West rejects them and their cause. It is true that India severed all ties with white-ruled South Africa as early as 1946. But it was an exception. In the decade-and-a-half after World War II, most countries justified their reluctance to do anything about apartheid by insisting that it was an “internal issue.”

In the West, opposition was muted because apartheid was simply a harsher version of the colonial rule it had imposed on Africa and Asia. Most of the countries whose citizens found apartheid repugnant were still colonized. The movement to boycott apartheid began only in 1959, the year before Sharpeville, and so it had not yet made headway.

The reaction to Sharpeville changed all that. Reports of police killing unarmed protestors who were fleeing turned apartheid South Africa into a symbol of the racism which, in its fight against Nazism, much of the West was supposedly rejecting. The killings prompted protests and forced people across the globe to focus attention on apartheid.

In some cases, the effect was almost immediate. South Africa was suspended by the world footballing body, FIFA, in 1961—the first success for the movement to expel apartheid from world sport.

But this was not the norm. Western governments and authority figures might have been moved to utter the odd comment disapproving of apartheid, but they saw no reason to place any pressure on it, even after Sharpeville. Months after the killings, Britain found nothing untoward about recognizing South Africa’s right to become a Republic even though only whites were allowed to vote in the referendum that chose this status—and the vast majority of citizens were being denied basic rights.

Sharpeville’s most important effect was on public opinion in the West. It gave the newly formed boycott movement a way of highlighting apartheid’s brutality which was far more powerful than lectures on the system’s evils. A decade later, the movement to stop a white South African cricket tour to Britain published a poster depicting a white police officer brutalizing a black protestor: “If you could see their national sport,” it read, “you might be less keen to see their cricket.” It was one of the movement’s most effective posters and it was clearly inspired by Sharpeville.

Within a few years of Sharpeville, apartheid had moved from obscurity to become a moral focus. People of goodwill no longer bought South African goods. Boycott efforts in sport, the arts, academia—every facet of life—gained momentum. And it became much harder for anyone who wanted to be taken seriously in public debate to insist that apartheid had nothing to do with them.

Much of this was a product of Sharpeville’s effect on Western public opinion. It was enhanced by the end of the official colonization of Africa and Asia: opposition to apartheid became an article of faith among these newly independent governments who, with the support of the non-aligned movement, pressed for tougher anti-apartheid measures.

Over time, the movements that Sharpeville had boosted became strong enough to force their reluctant governments (or most of them) to act against apartheid. Gaza’s agony seems to be making much the same impact on global opinion.

Until now, Israeli state apartheid has, of course, faced far less pressure than the South African variant did at first. In their zeal to support the state, Western establishments—not only governments but media, the academy, and the other voices that shape the public debate—have airbrushed Israeli state abuse of Palestinians out of the picture.

While public opinion surveys show that increasing numbers of people are ignoring the official line and recognizing what is being done to Palestinians, their ordeal has remained on the outer edges of consciousness. It has become common to point out that human lives in Palestine are noticed only when Jewish Israelis are harmed. This truism shows how marginalized the Palestinian condition had become.

No more. The daily feed of media showing the killing of Palestinian children and the bombing of hospitals and schools, the effects of denying people the necessities of life, and the ethnic cleansing of more than a million Palestinians are turning the Israeli state into a pariah. Its own leadership has greatly aided the movement by snarling into cameras as they make their genocidal intentions clear. While pro-Israeli zealots are unmoved by all this, just about everyone else can tell hate and its consequences when they see it.

The effect is already with us. It is seen in the massive marches across the globe demanding a ceasefire. But, more importantly, for the medium term, it is seen also in film-makers who demand their right to condemn the Israeli state, poets who resign from the New York Times in protest at its anti-Palestinian bias, British politicians who quit the shadow cabinet to vote for an end to violence against Palestinians—in short, in a host of actions that show that support for Palestinians has seeped into daily life in the West, despite the ferocity of its power-holders’ support for Israeli apartheid.

Gaza has also rolled back the advances of the Israeli state and its US patron in persuading Middle Eastern and African countries that they should ignore Palestinians and learn to love the state that rules over them.

Before October 7 and the events that followed it, only a handful of states seemed willing to offer even platitudes in support of Palestinians. Now Muslim and Arab states are united in demanding that the Israeli state stop brutalizing Palestinians. In Africa, no state voted against the United Nations General Assembly resolution urging the ceasefire which the US and its allies rejected. Like the South African anti-apartheid movement, the Palestinian equivalent is likely to be strengthened by the rhetorical support of dozens of countries.

It seems likely, now that the face of the Israeli state has been laid bare, that these responses will grow. Not long from now, it may be common to refuse to buy Israeli products and to oppose economic, cultural, and sporting ties with the state that is visiting torment on Gaza, boasting of its power as it does it. And, most important, where people stand on Palestine may become a litmus test of their commitment to democracy and their rejection of racism.

Western establishments will remain unmoved, just as they were after Sharpeville. But the pressure will grow and, like the Middle East states who have been pushed into support for Palestine by their citizens, they too may be forced to recognize that Palestinians are people and act accordingly.

Palestinians are currently suffering the horrifying effects of Israeli state power and contempt for simple morality. But their tormentors might well be destroying more than they think in Gaza. They might be laying waste to decades of impunity made possible by a global indifference that could well be ending.

Further Reading

Tata Mandela

The Mandela Capture Memorial in Howick, Kwazulu Natal speaks eloquently to the essential truth: that in South Africa, some families mattered more than other.