Beyond Sterile Negotiations: Looking for a Leadership with a Strategy

Al-Shabaka Policy Brief

Lessons learned from South Africa

Does the experience of struggle against apartheid rule South Africa offer a way beyond the tensions between a human rights-based approach and a political program for national liberation? There are of course differences between the Palestinian and Apartheid South African cases. For example, the call to boycott Apartheid South Africa was made by African states in 1961 and adopted by the UN General Assembly adopted in 1962 (Resolution 1761.) By contrast, the 2005 BDS Call was made by a large coalition of Palestinian civil society associations and networks, was only partially endorsed by the Palestinian Authority, and has not been embraced by any Arab regimes, let alone by the UN General Assembly.

And yet, despite its apparent cohesion, the South African boycott movement also suffered from internal divisiveness. Bill Fletcher Jr., scholar and past President of the TransAfrica Forum, notes that although the African National Congress (ANC) was the most widely known South African political party in the United States, other parties included the Pan-African Congress (PAC) and Azania People’s Movement (Azapo). Each party represented distinct movements influenced by international and domestic politics. As in the case of Palestine, international solidarity had many choices for an authoritative reference. Unlike the case of Palestine, however, Fletcher explains, “solidarity was very broad and there was never a need to pick sides, to choose which organization to ally with.” Instead, solidarity activists committed themselves to end Apartheid, although, as Flethcher notes, “no one was quite sure what the end of Apartheid would mean.” Despite lacking a shared political vision, solidarity activists agreed that victory would include Black majority rule, an end to segregation, land redistribution, and the release of all political prisoners.

The challenge to the South African call for boycott did not emerge from internecine tension but instead from African-American led solidarity efforts. In particular, forces that opposed the radical call for boycott coalesced around the Sullivan Principles, drafted by Reverend Leon Sullivan. Despite their celebrated legacy, Sullivan’s “blueprint for ending apartheid” was a “distraction” as Fletcher puts it: “Sullivan was aiming to delegitimize the ANC and the PAC…the people that advocated the Sullivan Principles were opposed to the BDS forces in the US and the revolutionary forces in South Africa.”

Barghouti points to similar struggles within the BDS movement against Israel where, “some soft Zionist groups have tried at various stages, sometimes desperately, to dilute the demands of the BDS call, limiting them to ending the 1967 occupation, and, in conjunction, to obscure the Palestinian reference of the global BDS movement, but their efforts were decisively aborted.” Although these “soft Zionist” attempts clearly have their own political agenda, they also highlight the problem of the absence of a political program, and the dependence on a rights-based approach. In this context, activists can, and are often encouraged to express their support for human rights irrespective of the political will of the people they claim to support.

Non-revolutionary political solutions

The possibility that rights could be attained without achieving a revolutionary solution also loomed as a threat for the South African anti-apartheid movement. Fletcher notes that although activists recognized that the African-American struggle for equality was addressed legislatively and without a revolutionary solution, “It was common for people to assume that because the ANC and the PAC had armies…. that of course there would be a sweeping away [of repressive systems].”

Of course today, people’s movements with armies are marginalized as terrorist organizations. In any case, the potential for revolutionary transformation will arguably have to emerge from a political, economic, social, and civic platform. The most pressing challenge at this juncture is to decide who will engender this platform, and how they will do it, and to define the scope of its geographic reach, and the salience of its political representation.

To this end, the movement to revitalize the Palestinian National Council (PNC) may prove significant. Following Al Jazeera’s release of the infamous “Palestine Papers,” Palestinians from Lebanon, Britain, the US, the Occupied Territories, and within Israel demanded more accountable political leadership. The resuscitation of the PNC stood out among this decentralized movement’s demands. That demand has since crystallized into a global, coordinated movement to first register Palestinians by October 2012, and then to hold elections for the PNC. Even after registration is complete, and assuming that PNC elections are accepted as legitimate by an identifiable Palestinian national body, the “what next” question will continue to loom large.

Nour Joudah, a DC-based graduate student and Palestinian activist, notes that these questions are more likely to be answered in practice than in meeting rooms. She comments, “we are going to work from all sides - BDS, protests, international solidarity press and public relations. And through all this, we will continue to have the conversation of 'what next?' in a state of limbo with a political leadership seemingly uncommitted to resistance.”

Joudah’s response appears closest to the South African model for revolutionary transformation: to work on all fronts while addressing the core question of a national liberation strategy and the leadership necessary for its achievement. The Palestinian political arena currently encompasses a non-representative political body that claims leadership in international circles (the PA/PLO), a powerful civil society movement that seeks Palestinian rights without claiming representation or a political program (the BNC), smaller but growing Diaspora groupings that do seek political representation (the USPCN and PYM), and a budding effort to seek national representation through universal elections to the PNC. In this context, the most effective strategy does seem to be to struggle for rights while working on a political program and engendering a representative leadership, especially at a time when an increasingly sympathetic world is gradually expanding its support for the Palestinians’ national aspirations.

Noura Erakat is a Palestinian attorney and human rights advocate. She is currently an adjunct professor of international human rights law in the Middle East at Georgetown University. Most recently she served as Legal Counsel for a Congressional Subcommittee in the House of Representatives and as an advisor on Middle East affairs for Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Noura comments regularly on US foreign policy and international law matters. She has appeared on Al Jazeera International, NBC's "Politically Incorrect," and Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor." Her writings have appeared in The Huffington Post, Berkeley Law School's Journal for Middle East and Islamic Law, Counterpunch, Al-Majdal, and the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).