South Africa: The inhumanity of dividing identities

Date: March 21, 2013
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Gauteng, March 21: On this day 53 years ago, thousands of people went to the Sharpeville police station to hand in their passes in a peaceful protest against Apartheid pass laws. The South African police opened fire on a crowd of protestors killing 69 people. As we commemorate Human Rights Day today, not only should we be reflecting on our own emancipation but we should also be thinking about human rights around the world.

While we look back on the oppressive pass laws, we should be thinking about all the Palestinians who still have to carry permits while going through Israeli Defence Force checkpoints on a daily basis. While we think about our own Bantustans and forced removals, which still define the geography of our country, we should remember the people in Gaza who continue to live in what is referred to as the biggest open – air prison in the world.

When we remember the whites-only train carriages and schools, we should think about Israeli-only roads and buses. Our liberation is incomplete if such segregation persists in the world today. If we dismiss this as too far from home or as a religious war, we lose sight of what is at stake.

Sunday 17 March saw the end of the global and local Israeli-Apartheid Week (IAW) campaign, which ran on 15 university campuses around South Africa last week. IAW is organised by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) South Africa and endorsed by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), African National Congress (ANC), and the Council of Churches South Africa among many others.

Ahmed Kathrada a Rivonia trialist spoke on Palestinian solidarity at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University during IAW. “I am pained to admit, that based on what I have suffered through and more importantly, on what I have learnt, l am deeply convinced that the Palestinians are experiencing life akin to – and in many respects far worse than – what we had under Apartheid in South Africa”.

During The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which ended last week, Ambassador Ron Prosor presented Israel’s statement that said, “Israel is also committed to ending the cycle of violence against women beyond its borders”. UN Women’s Executive Director Michelle Bachelet in her closing statement also said, “Delegates adopted resolutions on the future organization and methods of work of the Commission on the Status of Women, and on the situation of assistance to Palestinian women”.

Many in South Africa shun the parallel drawn between Palestine and Apartheid South Africa. Durban Democratic Alliance (DA) Councilor, Avrille Marcia Coen, who has been accused of trying to censor the Pro-Palestinian campaign and has gone so far as classing the term Israeli Apartheid as “hate speech.” She also reduces the Israeli- Apartheid debate to a difference of opinion rather than a matter of ethnic cleansing and separation; “As the DA we remain neutral on this issue. We are a party that supports peace, equality and freedom for all. We also advocate for everybody’s human rights and believe all are entitled to their preferred political views”, Cii News quoted her saying.

The DA’s neutrality came as no surprise, nor did the expected outbursts from Zionists and Israeli-sympathisers. What was upsetting however was that during IAW some sects of ‘mainstream’ LGBTI (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Intersex) and feminist groups ran counter campaigns explicitly painting Palestinians and the whole Arab world as homophobic, women hating and child abusing. With the use of colonial and racist language such as “barbaric” and “uncivilised” Israel is touted as a beacon of civilisation and as the only ‘true’, ‘freedom-loving’ democracy in the Middle East.

This is part of Israel’s ‘pink-washing’ campaign, formulated in 2008, as part of their Brand Israel campaign. Israel promotes itself as a progressive Gay Capital in order to win the support of more ‘liberal’ Americans and other Europeans who were beginning to frown upon its policies of segregation. This tactic of ‘pink-washing’ is used to portray Arab society as backward and homophobic in the hopes that it will detract from the Israeli occupation, which oppresses and exploits millions of Palestinians.

This narrow gender-discourse not only attempts to justify Israel’s racial supremacy but also denies the complex lived reality of human beings. It denies the diversity of Palestinian society, it ignores the existence of the Queer BDS movement and disregards support of the Palestinian struggle shown by many black feminist movements.

This kind of racism is on-going in South Africa too. If the 2012 Johannesburg Gay Pride Parade was anything to go by, LBGTI rights apparently do not address the struggle of black lesbians in townships who are frequently raped and murdered. They certainly do not include the 1in9 campaigners who were told by Joburg Pride organiser Tanya Harford to “go back to the township”.

By targeting people based on one identity and excluding the multiple layers of their identities, such as their race, class and culture, people are very easily and deliberately dehumanised.

As we celebrate human rights day we need to consider whom these rights include and exclude based on what we deem to be human. We need to think about the multiple struggles that Palestinian people face: as Palestinians, as women and as LGBTI. We must also think about black South African gay people who face homophobia and racism on a daily basis as well as the degree of violence against women in this country.

We need to recognise that once we start to disconnect freedoms from each other, we create a hierarchy of whose freedom and what freedom is more important than others. We cannot emancipate our identity in parts. The fight to be who we are as a whole is not divisible or negotiable.

We must acknowledge that the struggle for Palestinian freedom, for women’s liberation, for LGBTI rights and the fight against racism and capital are all struggles for humanity.

As we focus on women’s human rights in Gauteng, we must remember that human rights are not just legal rights: all human beings should live with dignity and respect not because they have human rights but because they are human.

*Pseudonym: The author wishes to remain anonymous.This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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