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Social Text 21.2 (2003) 95-110
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Visions of the Future during Political Transitions
Comparing Afrikaner and Israeli Attitudes
This essay focuses on discourses, anxieties, and competing strategies of white Afrikaners during the political transition in South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its sources rely on opinion surveys, election results, political party pronouncements, academic analyses, and personal observations in lectures, group discussions, and formal interviews throughout this period. The article seeks to explore what can be learned from the negotiated settlement of a seemingly intractable ethnoracial conflict for the unresolved strife in the Middle East. When and why did a privileged ruling group consent to negotiate itself out of power? What divisions occurred and how were internal cleavages handled? How was the historic compromise marketed to a skeptical constituency? What role did civil society and dissidents play in the change? In short, can the South African "miracle" be replicated in the Middle East?
Many activists advocate similar antiapartheid strategies (divestment, boycott) against Israel and assume that strong pressure would produce similar outcomes. There is nothing wrong with such idealistic optimism, except that it may foster illusions. The underlying assumption that the South Africa model of conflict resolution readily lends itself to export ignores unique historical circumstances. It may actually retard necessary new solutions by clinging to visions or processes of negotiation that may not work in another context. Above all, in South Africa an entire regime had to be changed, while in Israel the occupation and the status of the territories is the main contentious issue. Therefore, a more nuanced understanding of differences and similarities may enhance new approaches.
Differences and Similarities between South Africa and Israel/Palestine
The lessons to be drawn were probed in a more comprehensive comparison, published as Peace-making in Divided Societies: The Israel-South Africa Analogy (Adam 2002), on which this essay elaborates. Six elements were evaluated in both contexts: economic interdependence, religious divisions, third-party intervention, leadership, political culture, and violence. As a background to the Afrikaner debate, it seems worthwhile to summarize [End Page 95] the main arguments in each of the six realms for a clarification of the similarities and differences:
1. Economic interdependence and the emergence of a politicized union movement since the mid-1970s socialized South Africa in negotiation politics and trade-offs. The Israeli economy depends minimally on Palestinian labor, and the two economies exist more or less side by side. Israel uses closure as collective punishment. Palestinians are deprived of industrial action (strikes, consumer boycotts), which was heavily used by black South Africans to combat apartheid. Demographic ratios and dependency on black labor ruled out collective expulsion in favor of more expedient divide-and-rule policies in South Africa.
2. Religion in South Africa served as a common bond to assail and delegitimize apartheid, while Judaism and Islam compete for sovereignty in Jerusalem. Religiously motivated settlers and ultraorthodox believers may not be as easily marginalized as Afrikaner extremists merely interested in territorial autonomy.
3. Both the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Party (NP) eschewed third-party intervention in their negotiations. An Israeli-Palestinian settlement depends heavily on a U.S. policy that strongly supports Israel. Sanctions (divestment and trade boycotts) are generally overrated in triggering South African change. Only loan refusals and, to a lesser extent, moral ostracism impacted significantly on the apartheid government. Such action against Israel by the West is inconceivable at present. Unlike Afrikaners, Israelis enjoy a supportive diaspora.
4. The South African negotiations were facilitated by a cohesive and credible leadership with a widely endorsed open mandate on both sides. Leaders could sell a controversial compromise to a skeptical constituency. Both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership is fragmented, with militant outbidding, a frequent tool of populist mobilization. The apartheid Westminster electoral system rewarded majority parties, in contrast to the minority influence in the proportional representation in Israel.
5. Much more personal interaction in a vertical status hierarchy shaped South African race relations, compared with the more horizontal social distance between Jews and Palestinians...