Published in The Mercury 11th August 2014
I have a confession to make. In 1974 I stole municipal property with an accomplice. We went out one evening to unscrew apartheid signs on bus shelters.
Read now, they seem simply weird. ‘Europeans Only. Slegs Blankes.’ Yet to people of that time and place, they were ‘reality’. Everyone knew who was meant to sit there, and who not: there were shared understandings that now seem incomprehensible. No wonder young Black people struggle to make sense of the apartheid era.
However bizarre, these signs were an integral part of the racial narrative of South Africa. This asserted that we Whites were upholders of civilisation in a dark continent. Look at our technology, our democracy, our systems, against the backwardness and violence of Africa. We could even build nuclear weapons (though that was secret).
The idea of living with others as equals was a naïve and sentimental delusion. It was our responsibility to keep control over the rest of the population, who were so easily misled by terrorists. Acts of resistance were violence and demonstrated what we were up against. In this narrative, it was natural that Whites would control all major resources, that Black people would be pushed into smaller and constantly more crowded enclaves. Our security forces would make incursions into these enclaves to punish those who refused to accept the logic of our narrative.
This now seems so pernicious that one can forget how persuasive it was. Even Whites who disliked those in power went along with it. The minority who rejected it totally it were treated as traitors. And one can so easily forget how many lives were maimed and broken by a narrative that demanded more and more violence with time.
I can compare it with the anti-Semitic narrative of the 1930s, of innocent Germans threatened by evil plotting. Nazi images presented the Jew as the ritual murderer who would eat Christian children. This dark, rounded, manipulator of money was contrasted with the golden-haired maiden, with the muscular, clean-living young man with sharply-defined features.
However grotesque and bizarre these images, like the crude caricatures of Black people in the cartoons of the apartheid era, they worked. They enabled the killing of millions and silenced opposition. It is a narrative that has still not died in Europe and Russia; the violence of that narrative is still denied.
I don’t think we can understand the Middle East without seeing the racial narrative that informs the West and Israel. In this reading, civilised, advanced Israel is set against the barbarism and authoritarianism of Arabs. ‘Reasonable’ Western accounts of the Middle East portray Israelis as a small minority surrounded by people who by nature are hostile and anti-democratic. Resistance is ‘terror’.
Naturally, the West should ally itself with the one true democracy. So the West’s language of human rights is dropped in favour of ‘legitimate security concerns’; it assumes the impossibility of treating Jews and Arabs as equally human. Liberal commentators deplore violence, but themselves buy into a narrative that is fundamentally violent.
This narrative gives birth to madness. We had racial signs on bus shelters; Israel has freeways linking it to Jewish settlements on seized Palestinian land. Palestinians may not use them and they block passage through Palestinian areas.
To me, this narrative is as familiar as that of apartheid. It is also a narrative that lets the West off the hook. The Holocaust was a Western, not Arab, phenomenon. Western countries not guilty of the Holocaust refused to accept Jews fleeing the Nazis. There had been centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, centuries of Jews being refused the right to own land, or being confined to ghettoes.
In contrast, for centuries Jews had lived in harmony with Christian and Muslim Arabs across the Middle East. Generally Jews enjoyed greater security under Muslim rule than under Christian rule.
And as for the authoritarian nature of Muslim states, do people know that Britain and the US smashed the first Iranian democracy in 1953 and installed a repressive regime and that they armed repressive (and anti-Semitic) rulers and protected them against their populations? Take Bahrain now as an example.
The fact that this narrative is pernicious does not mean that it lacks power. It justifies to Israelis the continuing displacement of Palestinians, the language of ‘terrorism’, the silencing of questions over how violence is used, the failure to take responsibility for the deaths of families. It justifies to the United States that it supplies armaments that it knows will be used against civilians.
Challenge this narrative as an Israeli and you are branded a traitor. Criticise Israel and you get the shrill defensiveness that I recall so well from the apologists of apartheid: We are not understood. We are the victims. You don’t understand Africa. You don’t understand the Middle East. There is a total onslaught against us.
It is time to end this narrative. Let it go the way of apartheid.
Crispin Hemson is Director of the International Centre of Nonviolence, based at Durban University of Technology