On Monday evening, South African activists and educators Klaas Mokgomole and Mmamalema Molepo spoke to a group of more than 30 students in the Ross School of Business about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its relation to the apartheid government in South Africa. The event was co-hosted by Africans for Peace, an organization that writes about global affairs from an African perspective, in addition to Hillel, Chabad and StandWithUs, a pro-Israel international organization.
The discussion, which attracted a predominantly white and Jewish audience, focused on Mokgomole and Molepo’s experiences visiting Israel after becoming involved with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as university students in South Africa.
Mokgomole was an active member of the BDS student group at the University of Witwatersrand. Molepo never officially joined the movement as a student at the University of Cape Town, but still believed Israel was an apartheid state. Both activists are no longer affiliated with the movement and said they now think BDS lied to them about the state of discrimination in Israel.
“Israel is still where Palestinians live,” Molepo said. “Israel is still where a lot of Palestinians go to school. Israel is still where a lot of Palestinians get their food from. Israel is still where a lot of Palestinians get their water from. Gaza gets their electricity from Israel and the one thing you never hear is that whenever the ‘right to return’ marches happen, people actually burn down the power stations in Gaza. So it becomes a thing where people lose power and the Israeli Defense Forces has to go and fix that.”
Mokgomole also said he was struck by the differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa, since he was often told that Israel was an apartheid state. After getting expelled from his university for antagonizing Jewish students, Mokgomole began to educate himself about Israeli society. He said when he visited Israel for the first time and asked an Israeli airport employee for the “Blacks-only bathroom,” he was surprised to receive a silent stare in response.
“I told him, ‘Look, I’m from South Africa and I was told that Israel is an apartheid state,’” Mokgomole said. “During the South African apartheid, Blacks and whites were not allowed to use the same bathrooms. Blacks and whites were not allowed to use the same buses, the same schools, a number of things. So I’m in Israel, and I was told Israel is an apartheid state, and in an apartheid state I don’t want to be arrested for using the wrong bathrooms. He said ‘No, no, no, we don’t have that here. You can use any bathroom if you identify your gender and use the right bathroom for your gender.”
Echoing Mokgomole’s argument, Molepo noted how the four racially-based social classes that existed during the South African apartheid created a society built on discrimination that explicitly denied Black people their rights to education and employment. Molepo said even though he doesn’t agree with all of the Israeli government’s policies, he can’t classify it as an apartheid country because he doesn’t see the same kind of overt racism.
“Within the whites and the Blacks, you find that people weren’t allowed in the same bathrooms, the same buses, the same benches,” Molepo said. “Let’s say if my mother had to raise (a white boy), when they get to a park, she would have to sit on the floor and he would have to sit on the bench, because she’s not allowed to sit on the same bench as me no matter how close they are, no matter what. I find none of that in Israel.”
LSA senior Robert Weinbaum, StandWithUs Emerson Fellow, invited the two activists to campus. He said he hoped the discussion would allow students to reach their own conclusions about whether Israel should be called an apartheid state or not.
“Being at an event on campus and especially in an academic setting, Israel being described as an apartheid state as an adjective, it is very matter-of-fact,” Weinbaum said. “I never really found a place where that was a discussion — what does that really mean? In what ways is it an apartheid state? I felt like it was important to create an environment where that kind of conversation could be held and really critically look at Israel and compare it to apartheid South Africa.”
LSA senior Emily Olin, who attended the conversation, studied at the University of Cape Town last semester and noted how prevalent anti-Israel sentiment was at the university. After seeing the BDS movement on the Cape Town campus, Olin said it was interesting to hear from South Africans with an alternate perspective.
“When we were at the University of Cape Town, we were there for Israeli boycott week, and I have pictures on my phone of the defaced Israeli flag,” Olin said. “My parents were visiting and I brought them up to campus and I was like, ‘Look, this is kind of crazy.’ I thought (this talk) was really interesting from the perspective of a non-outsider who has experienced apartheid, real apartheid, not studied about it, not read about it — their families have experienced it. I think it was a very valuable perspective.”
Even though Molepo and Mokgomole stressed the differences between South African apartheid and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they said peace should be reached through negotiation just as apartheid was ended through election. Molepo said a two-state solution that preserves Israeli independence should be the goal of these discussions.
“We need to understand that Israel has a right to exist,” Molepo said. “BDS sometimes comes with a narrative that says, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.’ So what does that say then for the Israeli child? What does that say for the people that were born in that period? Does that mean they’re nonexistent people? It’s something that we always need to be conscious of — the fact that these are people’s lives we’re speaking about at the end of the day.”