Published in Al Qalam newspaper
The last week of September 2010 proved to be an eventful one for the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement in South Africa. Following vigorous campaigning by activists for the University Of Johannesburg (UJ) to cut its ties with the Ben Gurion University (BGU) in the Negev, a petition was signed by over 200 academics from 22 institutions across South Africa, including top-ranking intellectuals, scholars and religious leaders. Signees include the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Kader Asmal, Allan Boesack, Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, Mahmood Mamdani, Adam Habib and Barney Pityana, amongst other prominent names.
UJ’s ties with BGU date back to the 1980’s, and have come under heavy criticism due to its continuation from the Apartheid regime, seen as an unnecessary carry over with oppressive connotations . BGU is ostensibly involved, directly and indirectly, in Israeli military operations and occupation. It has offered scholarships to students who served in active combat units; turns a blind eye to oppressive practices like land dispossession in its vicinity and practices discrimination against Palestinian students.
The historic petition has been likened to another resolution taken by 150 Irish academics not to accept academic posts or appointments in apartheid South Africa. For South African academics to now take up this call, in such huge numbers is momentous. COSATU, the UJ Students Representative Council and academics from Universities across South Africa, including Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Rhodes, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Western Cape and Wits all lent their names to the petition.
Several prominent Muslim academics, including Professors Faried Essack, Ebrahim Moosa Sa’diyyah Shaikh, Rashida Manjoo, Iqbal Jazbhay and Suleman Dangor also endorsed the lobby.
The UJ senate held a long meeting described as “tense” at the end of September to mull over the call to cut its ties with BGU. The senate decided that unless certain conditions are met by BGU within six months, which leads up to April 2011, the memorandum of understanding between the two establishments would automatically lapse.
The conditions include that a memorandum of understanding governing the relationship between the two institutions be amended to include Palestinian universities chosen with the direct involvement of UJ and that UJ will not engage in any activities with BGU that have direct or indirect military implications, which will be monitored by UJ’s senate academic freedom committee. This comes as UJ and BGU had agreed to co-operate on research relating to biotechnology and water purification projects.
Professor Ran Greenstein of WITS University, who is a prominent voice in the movement, wrote that, whilst all Israeli universities have similar practices as BGU, signing for this boycott is significant in expressing concern for the larger context of the occupation, even though the chances of BGU yielding to the demands set by UJ are extremely low. He said that, “it sends a clear message that there is strong and growing disapproval of Israel’s practices, which are illegal and immoral, and that those who fight such practices within Israeli universities can expect solidarity from fellow academics elsewhere. “
Professor Faried Essack, who played a key-role in the UJ petition, said that, “the decision by UJ’s Senate represents a significant milestone in South Africa’s contribution to the Palestinian struggle. Senate’s decision is a huge defeat for the Zionist lobby in South Africa. I welcome the explicit recognition of injustices towards the Palestinian people and the complicity of Israeli universities in maintaining a rather brutal system. However, I quite frankly expected more from a university which aspires to the progressive values as UJ does. It could have and should have been much more explicit and cut off ties immediately rather than postponing this to a later date.” He added that, “the crimes of Israel’s occupation, the extent of its belligerence, and the nakedness of its pretence to civilized values were all simply too obvious; however, this campaign has ensured that it will never be “business as usual” with Israeli apartheid and its institutions. The work of the young activists involved in the campaign was deeply inspiring and demonstrates what can be done by a group of determined campaigners.”
Often, the voices from behind the scenes are unheard and the hard-work undertaken by young solidarity activists go unnoticed. Nurina Ally is one such young woman who spent many long and committed hours ensuring that the campaign be carried through successfully. She commented that, “as a recently formed group aiming to further BDS in South Africa, we took our lead from UJ academics who had already initiated steps toward ending the collaboration. The campaign quickly took on an energy of its own and the unprecedented support received from academics, vice-chancellors, respected leaders, students, trade unions and the general public has been a marker of how clearly South Africans recognise their historic role in making boycott work.”
Until April 2011, it remains to be seen whether BGU will indeed heed UJ’s demands, and if not, whether all ties will be cut off completely and indefinitely. Universities do not operate in a vacuum, removed from their political surroundings but rather, academic work functions within larger social contexts. One of the main arguments of the petition reads that, “While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation”. This, coupled with the disastrous effects of the Israeli occupation on the lives of the Palestinian civilian population are reason enough to cut ties with all Israeli universities.