What Palestinians and the world could learn from South Africa’s BDS movement

By Priyanka Borpujari,

On July 9, despite the chill in the winds, about 200 people gathered outside St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa. This is the Anglican cathedral that Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu uses as a religious, and political, seat. Outside the stone structure was a passionate shout to Israel to stop the blood-spill in Palestine: little girls with their heads covered coughed between the slogans, young men exchanged their keffiyeh as they carried the Palestinian flag. In doing so, the crowd joined thousands across the world in protesting against the violence in Gaza.

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The traffic was not affected, but the message, from the heart of Cape Town, was loud: that the current violence against Palestinians bore every resemblance to the Apartheid in South Africa. Following the protest demonstration was a press conference called in by the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC), ANC Youth League, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the Palestine Solidarity Forum at the University of Cape Town (UCT-PSF), Palestinian Solidarity Association of University of Western Cape (PSA-UWC), the Assembly of the War Resisters’ International (WRI), the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) and Kairos Southern Africa, among others. They urged that the Israeli ambassador to South Africa must be expelled, and the South African ambassador in Tel Aviv be recalled. A week later, about 30,000 marched through central Cape Town to the Parliament, protesting the “massacre” in Palestine.

AMU students protest against genocide in Gaza

Clearly, the solidarity movement for Palestine runs deep in South Africa, and this is furthermore so with the unanimous call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel by the groups that called for a press conference. The BDS campaign was a crucial dent to the Apartheid regime in South Africa, which was impacted economically when American financial institutions pulled out from their investments in South Africa. Of course, one could argue that the concern for plummeting stock market numbers, rather than the concern of human rights abuses in the name of skin colour, is a flawed basis for garnering freedom from an autocratic rule. And, after all, the financial institutions began to see red when their investments in South Africa were going sour post the devaluation of the South African Rand, despite the country’s promising gold reserves. But, a well-coordinated BDS campaign – that had former bankers turned conscientious objectors to conscription like Terry Crawdford-Browne, to Nobel laureates like Desmond Tutu leveraging his new global acclaim to draw attention to the investments in the Apartheid regime – had forced the regime to realise that Apartheid was no longer profitable.

By 1979, gold prices had shot up to $800 an ounce, and the value of the South African Rand against the American dollar was $40 per Rand. But with the collapse of gold prices, South African Prime Minister PW Botha instituted the tri-cameral constitution, which excluded the Blacks, thus abdicating any responsibility towards half the country’s population. That brought about an unrest, and the Rand collapsed – from a $1.50 to a Rand in 1979, to being at parity by 1983 and only $0.33 by 1985.

Terry Crawford-Browne, author of “Eye on the Money” and “Eye on the Diamonds”, and who is finishing the third of the trilogy with “Eye on the Gold”, and also a member of Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC), was at that time the regional treasury manager for Nedbank, one of the national South African banks. He and others had warned the general management about a looming financial crisis; this was ignored based on the gold reserves. “Instead, the Reserve Bank’s response was that the Rand was going to recover and it borrowed dollars, because the dollar would collapse and the gold will rise, the Rand will recover and SA would profit on that. So eventually, they were funding 10-month projects with little money, and companies were becoming bankrupt. As the unrest grew further in 1984-85, we could not roll over those Euro-Dollar loans,” he remembers.

Banking sanctions were discussed in South Africa by 1985, following which Botha declared the first state of emergency. Chase Manhattan Bank in New York announced that it would not roll over its $500 million dollars in loans to SA and that it wanted its money back. Botha was adamant at not allowing the world to intervene, and the Rand collapsed another 20 per cent.

The whole banking system was shut for three days. Bankers Trust, which was Nedbank’s main correspondent bank in New York, had loaned $200 million to South Africa. “Suddenly two days later, $60 million came through Nedbank’s account in New York. They had $200 million outstanding in South Africa, they seized our $ 60 million to set off against that $200 million. The legalities was to be sorted out later. Instead, the whole New York banking system imploded! The South African Council of Churches was also amazed, and decided that if we could cause such chaos from Cape Town, then banking sanctions in New York could be the pressure point against the apartheid system,” Crawford-Browne remembers, as he emphasises the importance of BDS movement in Palestine today, in the historical context of its significance in South Africa.

The BDS campaign in South Africa was based on asking the international banking community to apply political conditionality in dealing with the loans until there would be a government in South Africa that was responsive to the needs of all of its people. The five basic demands then was the end the state of emergency, removal of the ban on political organisations, release of political prisoners, repeal of Apartheid legislation, and constitutional negotiations for a non-racial democracy.

When Margaret Thatcher and the South African Reserve Bank renewed a debt for three more years in 1989, an adopt-a-bank campaign was developed in New York. The Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Catholic Churches “adopted” banks, putting before the banks the choice of the pension funds business of those churches, or the banking business of apartheid South Africa. “The loans gave us the vehicle, but it was the payment system that mattered because of the role of the US dollar as settlement currency in international foreign exchange markets,” he says.

So how does this have relevance today? The Palestinian BDS movement born in July 2005 has become an instrument of making necessary yet reasonable demands, by trade union federations and organisations in Palestinian society. It relies on the conscientious decisions of the likes of the $200 billion Dutch pension fund PGGM, which recently divested from the five largest Israeli banks because of their involvement in occupied Palestinian territory.

The BDS National Committee (BNC) calls for pressure to be mounted on governments, the UN, private and public companies and institutions, to cease any arms deals with Israel, to cease cooperation, including joint ventures, trainings and consultancies with the Israeli army, military companies, and military-related R&D projects, to end all military aid to Israel, and to refrain from any cooperation with Israel in the manufacture and development of nuclear weapons, thereby pushing the case for a nuclear-free Middle East.

While the movement aims at targetting Israel’s economic backbone – its arms race in the global market – Omar Barghouti also mentions that the campaign needs to hold Israeli war criminals and companies involved in war crimes responsible in national and international courts. In an opinion piece published in the New York Times earlier this year, Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and the author of “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights”, wrote how Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu felt threatened by the non-violent strategies of the BDS movement.

The BDS campaign is significant for the citizens of the country which is Israel’s most important arms customer: India. While civil society members from India protesting against the violence in Palestine were trashed by the police outside the Israeli embassy in the Indian capital in New Delhi, it is all the more significant that a non-violent yet strategic movement like BDS be actively pursued in India. One of the primary reasons for this is the bilateral trade between India and Israel worth $4.39 billion as of 2013, which is set to rise up to $10 billion in the next five years. What is the nature of this trade? In 2012, Indian arms purchases from Israel accounted for roughly a third, or $1.71 billion, of Israel’s $5.2 billion in arms exports. Israel’s military industry firms also intend to establish five factories in India for the production of artillery shells.

According to a recent report in Tehelka, Israel has offered its help in battling insurgencies in India, particularly with the Maoists – with, in particular, “intelligent”, semi-autonomous drones. In 2003, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement proclaimed how Israel was the frontrunner in countering terrorism in the Middle East, and that India ought to learn its lessons from Israel on countering Islamic terrorism.

During his decade-long tenure as the CM of Gujarat, Narendra Modi had been silently building ties with Israel through various grassroots business ventures. Earlier this year, joint technology fund was established between the two countries, which is intended to help both Israeli and Gujarat-based companies in strengthening an industrial relationship. This therefore explains the Indian government’s carefully chosen syllables in only mourning for the victims of the violence in Palestine, and not condemning Israel’s actions. Even though India has maintained a pro-Palestine stance, India’s relations with Israel took an upward swing with the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps this is why civil societies across the world concerned with this genocide – which, some rightly term as worse than apartheid, or, which Turkish PM has deemed as worse than what Hitler did – could pressure institutions in their home-ground against pursuing ties of any form with Israel. Does that begin with boycotting avocados exported by Israel? Crawford-Browne might suggest that as a good idea; oranges exported from South Africa were boycotted by tons in countries where they were hitherto relished. It would also mean understanding how investments by Barclays helps is the supply of Israeli arms and other occupation businesses; how Hewlett-Packard supplies sophisticated surveillance to control the movement of Palestinians; and how Caterpillar provides bulldozers that are used to demolish Palestinian homes and farms.

“Banking sanctions were the only non-violent leverage we had. We had almost four years of violence driven by the apartheid government, until by November 1993 the transition to democracy was irreversible and Mandela agreed to lift the banking sanctions,” says Crawford-Browne, as he heads to Belgium to meet executives at SWIFT, or the society for worldwide interbank financial telecommunications, that links 10,000 international banks and it authenticates the transactions.

Crawford-Browne has a significant agenda: commissioning lawyers in Brussels to look into the legal practicalities for a court application in the Belgian courts, requiring SWIFT to program its computers to suspend its transactions to and from Israeli banks. With the world attention on BNP Paribas for sanctions busting on Sudan, Iraq and Iran, and money laundering being a serious issue, there is every possibility that SWIFT would rationalise the need to apply for sanctions on trading with Israel. We are aiming to collapse the Israeli banking system. Of course we cannot charge Israel with the capacity of their weapons, but we want Israel to sign a non-proliferation treaty and to end the occupation in this apartheid war. We ended apartheid in South Africa; now is the time for the apartheid in Palestine to end,” he says.