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BDS lobby fails at Brics

The proceedings of the fifth Brics summit that took place on March 26 to 27 2013 at the Durban International Convention Centre provided an international stage for civil organisations to garner the limelight for their causes. One such organisation, which promotes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel by South Africa, foundered in its call on Brics’ countries to sever trade with Israel’s “illegal” settlements in the “Occupied Palestinian Territories” and to impose an immediate arms embargo on Israel. They held a protest attended by about 150 people in Durban as part of their awareness campaign. South Africa joined the Brics (an acronym for the grouping of the world’s leading emerging economies, namely Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc in 2010 and will hold the chair until the next summit in 2014.

The intervention by the BDS activist group threatened to subvert the conference had it succeeded in gaining traction and was reminiscent of the infamous 2001 Durban conference, which inextricably linked Durban with the most anti-Semitic rhetoric witnessed in any democratic country since the Second World War.

The Durban 2001 World Conference against Racism gained notoriety and infamy for its attempts to link Zionism and racism. The focus on blaming Israel as the main perpetrator of slavery, racism and human-rights abuses hijacked the agenda of the conference and deflected attention away from all the other villains. It also frustrated genuine victims from obtaining the attention they deserved. Ironically, the two states that most adamantly pursued the linking of racism with Zionism were Syria and Iran. Syria has since proceeded to murder close to 100 000 of its own people and not one resolution of condemnation of human-rights abuses, or of war crimes has emanated from the holy sanctum of the United Nations or the World Criminal Court. Iran pursues a policy of religious persecution against Bahais, Christians and other minorities, regularly executes people in public places and suppresses all expressions of political opposition, is now the butt of international sanctions.

What made this BDS initiative particularly ominous, was the powerful groups allying themselves with its objectives and propagating its narratives: namely, The Young Communist League of South Africa, supported by the South African Communist Party and The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Buti Manamela, South African member of parliament and national secretary of the Young Communist League of South Africa, officially handed over a memorandum on behalf of several South African organisations appealing to Marius Fransman, deputy minister of the department of international relations and cooperation, at the summit for “decisive action” on Palestine. In Fransman they have a willing collaborator. Through his reckless comments questioning the loyalties of South Africa’s Jews to the country and accusing them of indifference to the well-being of its “poor” citizens, he has become culpable of fomenting divisive policies threatening the peaceful co-existence of Jews with other groups in the “rainbow nation”.

Resulting from a prior skirmish the Jewish Board of Deputies has taken Fransman to the Human Rights Commission for stating that it was not right and fair that Jews should be the recipients of tenders to purchase properties, in areas which he designated as previously “Muslim”. On relations with Israel, Fransman and his mentor Ebrahim Ebrahim have pursued a belligerently hostile policy towards Israel. Travel by all tiers of government officials to Israel to gather information, or for purposes promoting economic ties has effectively been halted. South Africa has been at the forefront of countries condemning Israel at the United Nations and has actively litigated against Israel at the International Criminal Court to have its “security wall” declared “illegal”.

Assured of widespread support from Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of Cosatu, Young Communist League secretary Manamela and widespread sympathy from the upper echelons of the African National Congress, BDS South Africa co-ordinator Muhammed Desai had reason to be upbeat.

According to Desai the Brics can and should play a decisive role by taking “two immediate actions: impose military and arms embargo on Israel and secondly to end all and ban all trade with Israel’s illegal settlements”. He also called for the suspension of economic, financial and technological assistance to and co-operation with Israel and for a severance of diplomatic, trade and cultural relations with Israel

Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, also of BDS South Africa, echoed these demands. “We now hereby call on Brics to take decisive action against the increasing Israeli occupation (and its illegal settlement enterprise) as well as Israel’s apartheid policies against the Palestinian people. The time has come for progressive countries that seek a peaceful and just world to take clear action in the interests of the oppressed Palestinians — taking such action would put Brics on the side of the developing countries, on the side of the peoples of the world and on the right side of history.”

In a region bereft of legitimate leaders and of functioning democracies the moral bankruptcy of the BDS agenda to overlook all the human-rights abuses of the Arab regimes is apparent and abhorrent.

The BDS talks loosely of bringing “justice” for the Palestinian people without spelling out what exactly is intended. It fails to posit any clear positive plan of how Israelis and Palestinians will live and share the land. Its partisan agenda blames only one side, the Israelis, and expects only compromises from the Israelis. It prescribes only punitive measures for the Israelis and absolves the Palestinians of all responsibility or blame. This view, sees Palestinians only as victims, with no control over their fate. This fatalistic view is unhelpful. It circumscribes the role Palestinian leaders can play and should be perceived as demeaning to the Palestinian people.

It is a credit to the leaders of Brics, and particularly to the minister of international relations and cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, that they did not succumb to pressure from the BDS lobbyists. It is perhaps time for South Africa to follow the example set by all the other Brics states that maintain excellent and mutually beneficial relations with Israel.