The Platform

New arrivals at Crossroads Squatters Camp near Cape Town in 1982. (United Nations)

South Africa’s legal proceedings against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) make logical sense given the country’s history.

As 2023 concluded, South Africa delivered a jolt to the international community by initiating legal proceedings against Israel, challenging its actions toward Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The complaint, lodged with the International Court of Justice on December 23, is a response to Israel’s overwhelming military operations against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip that has killed over 28,000 Palestinian civilians that began on November 7.

The official submission, referred to as the Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip (South Africa v. Israel), exemplifies a nation’s resolve to translate condemnation into action, grounded not in political alliances but in a principled stand for human rights.

The question that surfaces is why South Africa chose to initiate this suit against Israel and what historical parallels draw South Africa into strong alignment with the Palestinian cause.

Sign in Durban that states the beach is for whites only under section 37 of the Durban beach by-laws.
Sign in Durban that states the beach is for whites only under section 37 of the Durban beach by-laws. (Wikimedia)

Africa’s own narrative has been marked by experiences akin to those endured by Palestinians today. The Berlin Conference in 1884–1885, convened by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck at Portugal’s behest, invited European powers to carve up African territories for themselves. This marked the beginning of the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa,’ which saw European powers dominate the continent within decades, often disregarding the existing societal and cultural frameworks of Africa for their own agendas.

The historical context of colonialism is starkly evident in South Africa, where British dominance took hold in the 19th century. This era witnessed an aggressive expansionist policy aimed at consolidating the entire South African region. The British military campaigns, often marked by severe tactics, overpowered various indigenous groups, including the Zulus and Boers, to commandeer the region’s rich natural resources. The colonial administration enacted policies that disproportionately favored a minority, disregarding the welfare of the broader South African populace.

The intensification of systemic discrimination in South Africa reached a critical point with the ascendancy of the National Party, headed by DF Malan. This government institutionalized apartheid, a term derived from the Afrikaans word for “separation,” which codified a rigid racial hierarchy from 1948 until the early 1990s. The apartheid regime was marked by a repressive political ethos that was designed to cement the white minority’s control over the nation’s political, economic, and social institutions, to the detriment of other racial groups.

This exclusionary system, reminiscent of the colonial subjugation seen in Indonesia during Dutch rule, prioritized the interests of the white population, enforcing a racial stratification based on skin color. Under apartheid, draconian legislation such as the Land Act and the Group Areas Act exiled Black South Africans from their ancestral lands, while the Population Registration Act categorized individuals into racial groups, entrenching the divisions apartheid sought to enforce.

Apartheid-era train station.
Apartheid-era train station.

Coupled with the Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959, this policy stated that different racial groups should live in separate areas. Only a small part of South Africa was given to Black South Africans to form the “Homelands.” This evil policy eliminated Black settlements in white-occupied cities by moving them out of the city. The most famous expulsions occurred in District 6, Sophiatown, and Lady Selborne. Blacks were moved to settlements outside the city, where they were not permitted to own property and were only permitted to rent, as the land was presumably owned by whites. These policies made life difficult for Black South Africans as they lost their homes, were evicted from land they had owned for years, and moved to remote areas far from their places of work.

In South Africa, under the strictures of apartheid, the law forbade romantic unions across racial lines, codifying society into four distinct racial categories: Black, Indian, Coloured (non-white), and White. This segregation extended to public spaces, with non-white individuals barred from facilities designated for white use only, including restrooms and beaches. This systemic marginalization relegated millions of Black South Africans to the peripheries of economic prosperity, concentrated within the white-dominated metropolises.

Despite the government’s rigorous efforts to quell dissent, resistance among Black South Africans persisted, occasionally supported by white allies. This resistance was expressed through a series of protests, uprisings, and direct actions. One seminal event, the Sharpeville massacre on March 21, 1960, ended in tragedy when police fired upon the demonstrators, resulting in 69 fatalities and numerous injuries. Another significant uprising was ignited in Soweto in 1976, when the state’s imposition of Afrikaans as a mandatory language for Black students led to widespread riots. The violence of the Soweto uprising resulted in thousands of students wounded and hundreds killed, including the young Hector Pieterson, whose death was captured in an iconic and haunting photograph that underscored the brutality of the apartheid regime.

The iconic photo of the body of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, carried by Mbuyisa Makhuba with his sister, gained global attention, exposing the world to the cruelty of the apartheid government
The iconic photo of the body of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, carried by Mbuyisa Makhuba with his sister, gained global attention, exposing the world to the cruelty of the apartheid government. (Sam Nzima)

The South African government’s brutal actions sparked condemnation from around the world. South Africa was expelled from the Commonwealth in 1964 due to criticism from Black member states that opposed its racial policies. In 1973, the UN condemned apartheid, which was followed by an arms embargo against South Africa. The United States and Britain also imposed selective economic sanctions on South Africa in an effort to punish it for such acts of racism.

In the face of both domestic and international pressure, South Africa turned a new page in 1994 by releasing its political detainees and formally dismantling the apartheid system. The nation has since reconstituted itself as a constitutional democracy, one founded on the tenets of non-racialism, breaking with the divisive ideologies of its past. Presently, South Africa is a prominent advocate for Palestinian autonomy, drawing parallels with its own historical battles against subjugation. Despite the clear distinctions between the two peoples in history, faith, and language, South Africa’s support is rooted in a shared, intrinsic value: the universality of human rights and dignity.

Mochammad Jose Akmal is currently an undergraduate student majoring in government science at Universitas Diponegoro. His academic pursuits centre around areas such as security, online extremism, cybersecurity, social media behaviour, history, and international policy.