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Rethinking our definition of apartheid: not just a political regime (Part I)

Aug. 27, 2017 7:28 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 28, 2017 4:02 P.M.)
The separation wall in Bethlehem with a mural of PFLP leader Leila Khaled (MaanImages/Jaclynn Ashly)
By: Al-Shabaka

Al-Shabaka is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law. This is the first of a two-part policy brief written by Haidar Eid and Andy Clarno. The full report can be read here.

Overview

As Israel intensifies its settler-colonial project, apartheid has become an increasingly important framework for understanding and challenging Israeli rule in historic Palestine. Indeed, Nadia Hijab and Ingrid Jaradat Gassner make a convincing argument that apartheid is the most strategic framework of analysis. And in March 2017, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) released a powerful report documenting Israeli violations of international law and concluding that Israel has established an “apartheid regime” that oppresses and dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.

Under international law, apartheid is a crime against humanity and states can be held accountable for their actions. However, international law has its limitations. One specific concern involves what is missing from the international legal definition of apartheid. Because the definition focuses solely on the political regime, it does not provide a strong basis for critiquing the economic aspects of apartheid. To address this concern, we propose an alternative definition of apartheid that grew out of the struggle in South Africa during the 1980s and has gained support among activists due to the limits of decolonization in South Africa after 1994 -- a definition that recognizes apartheid as intimately connected to capitalism.

This policy brief details what the Palestine liberation movement can learn from the South African condition, namely recognizing apartheid as both a system of legalized racial discrimination and a system of racial capitalism. It concludes with recommendations for how Palestinians can confront this dual system in order to achieve a just and lasting peace rooted in social and economic equality.

The power and the limitations of international law

The UN International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid defines apartheid as a crime involving “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines apartheid as a crime involving “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups.”

Based on a close reading of these statutes, the ESCWA report analyzes Israeli policy in four domains. It documents the formal legal discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel; the dual legal system in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT); the tenuous residency rights of Palestinian Jerusalemites; and Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to exercise the right of return. The report concludes that Israel’s apartheid regime operates by fragmenting the Palestinian people and subjecting them to different forms of racial rule.

The power of the apartheid analysis was apparent in the way the US and Israel responded to the report. The US Ambassador to the UN denounced the report and called on the UN Secretary General to repudiate it. The Secretary General put pressure on Rima Khalaf, head of ESCWA, to withdraw the report. Refusing to do so, she resigned from her post.

The importance of the ESCWA report cannot be overstated. For the first time, a UN body formally addressed the question of apartheid in Palestine/Israel. And the report addressed Israeli policies toward the Palestinian people as a whole rather than focusing on one fragment of the population. By calling on member states and civil society organizations to put pressure on Israel, the UN report also demonstrates the utility of international law as a tool for holding regimes like Israel accountable.

However, while recognizing the importance of international law, it is critical to note its limitations. First, international laws are only effective when acknowledged and enforced by states, and the hierarchical structure of the state system provides a handful of states with veto power. The rapid suppression of the ESCWA report made these limitations clear. Yet there is a more specific concern with the international definition of apartheid as noted above. By focusing only on the
political regime, the legal definition does not provide a strong basis for critiquing the economic aspects of apartheid and indeed paves the way for a post-apartheid future that is rife with economic discrimination.

Racial capitalism and the limits of South African liberation

During the 1970s and 80s, Black South Africans engaged in urgent debates about how to understand the apartheid system they were fighting. The most powerful bloc within the liberation movement -- the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies -- argued that apartheid was a system of racial domination and that the struggle should focus on eliminating racist policies and demanding equality under the law. Black radicals rejected this analysis. Dialogue between the Black Consciousness Movement and independent Marxists generated an alternative definition of apartheid as a system of “racial capitalism.” Black radicals insisted that the struggle should simultaneously confront the state and the racial capitalist system. Unless racism and capitalism were confronted together, they predicted, post-apartheid South Africa would remain divided and unequal.

The transition of the last 20 years has lent support to this thesis. In 1994, legal apartheid was abolished and Black South Africans gained equality under the law -- including the right to vote, the right to live anywhere, and the right to move without permits. The democratization of the state was a remarkable achievement. Indeed, the South African transition demonstrates the possibility of peaceful coexistence on the basis of legal equality and mutual recognition. This is what makes South Africa so compelling for many Palestinians and a few Israelis seeking an alternative to the fragmentation and failure of Oslo.

Despite the democratization of the state, the South African transition did not address the structures of racial capitalism. During the negotiations, the ANC made major concessions to win the support of white South Africans and the capitalist elite. Most importantly, the ANC agreed not to nationalize the land, banks, and mines and instead accepted constitutional protections for the existing distribution of private property -- despite the history of colonial dispossession. In addition, the ANC government adopted a neoliberal economic strategy promoting free trade, export-oriented industry, and the privatization of state-owned businesses and municipal services. As a result, post-apartheid South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Neoliberal restructuring has led to the emergence of a small Black elite and a growing Black middle class in some parts of the country. But the old white elite still controls the vast majority of land and wealth in South Africa. Deindustrialization and the increasing proportion of the population forced to rely on casual jobs have weakened the labor movement, intensified the exploitation of the Black working class, and produced a growing racialized surplus population that confronts permanent structural unemployment. The unemployment rate reaches 35 percent when it includes people who have given up looking for work. In some areas, the unemployment rate is over 60 percent and the jobs that remain are precarious, short term, and low wage.

The Black poor also confront a severe shortage of land and housing. Instead of redistributing land, the ANC government adopted a market-based program through which the state helps Black clients purchase white-owned land. This has given rise to a small class of wealthy Black landowners, but only 7.5 percent of South African land has been redistributed. As a result, most Black South Africans remain landless and white elites maintain ownership of most of the land. Similarly, the rising cost of shelter has multiplied the number of people living in shacks, occupied buildings, and informal settlements, despite state subsidies and constitutional guarantees of decent housing.

Race continues to structure unequal access to housing, education, and employment in post-apartheid South Africa. It also shapes the rapid growth of private security. Profiting from racialized fears about crime, private security has been the fastest growing industry in South Africa since the 1990s. Private security companies and wealthy residents’ associations have transformed historically white suburbs into fortress communities, marked by walls around private property, gates around neighborhoods, alarm systems, panic buttons, stationary guards, neighborhood patrols, video surveillance, and armed rapid response teams. These privatized regimes of residential security rely on violence and racial profiling to target those who are Black and poor.

According to international law, apartheid ends with the transformation of the racial state and the elimination of legalized racial discrimination. Yet even a cursory examination of South Africa after 1994 reveals the pitfalls of such an approach and highlights the importance of rethinking our definitions of apartheid. Formal legal equality has not produced real social and economic transformation. Instead, the neoliberalization of racial capitalism has entrenched the inequality created by centuries of colonization and apartheid. Race remains a driving force of both exploitation and abandonment despite the liberal veneer of legal equality. Celebrations of the ANC-led government tend to obscure the impacts of neoliberal racial capitalism in South Africa after 1994.

Critiques of Israeli apartheid have largely ignored the limits of transformation in South Africa. Instead of treating apartheid as a system of racial capitalism, most critiques of Israeli apartheid rely on the international legal definition of apartheid as a system of racial domination. To be sure, these critiques have been highly productive. They have sharpened the analysis of Israeli rule, contributed to the expansion of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns, and provided a legal foundation for efforts to hold Israel accountable. The importance of international law as a resource for communities in struggle should not be undercut.

But analysis and organizing can be taken even further by understanding apartheid as a system of racial capitalism, rather than relying so heavily on international legal definitions. By differentially valuing people’s lives and labor, racial capitalist regimes intensify exploitation while exposing marginalized groups to premature death, abandonment, or elimination. The concept of racial capitalism thus highlights the mutual constitution of capital accumulation and racial formation and contends that it is not possible to eliminate either racial domination or class inequality without tackling the system as a whole.

Understanding apartheid as a system of racial capitalism allows us to take seriously the limitations of liberation in South Africa. Studying the
success of the South African struggle has been highly productive for the Palestinian freedom movement; understanding its limitations can also prove productive. Although Black South Africans gained formal legal equality, the failure to address the economics of apartheid placed real limits on decolonization. In a word, apartheid did not end -- it was restructured. Relying too heavily on the international legal definition of apartheid could lead to similar problems down the road in Palestine. We raise this as a cautionary note with the hope that it will contribute to the development of strategies to address Israeli racism and neoliberal capitalism together.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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