WAVING a Free Palestine flag, Dr Kelly Gillespie kept looking anxiously for her partner Leigh-Ann Naidoo as she waited in the arrivals terminal at OR Tambo International Airport.
Although she was surrounded by a sea of supporters, chanting “Free Palestine” and “Down with Israel”, all her concern was for Naidoo, who had spent a night in detention in Israel’s Givon Prison with 12 other international activists.
“I’m very excited but it feels like I’m only really going to know she is safe when she lands,” said Gillespie, a senior lecturer at Wits University.
Naidoo, a Free Palestine activist and 2004 Olympian, was captured with the others in their vessel the Zayatouna- Oliva while in international waters during their Women’s Boat to Gaza campaign.
The aim of the campaign is to “bring hope to devastated Gaza” and to break the long Israeli blockade of Palestinian territory.
The couple’s 7-year-old daughter, Lerato, whispered to Gillespie: “We’ll have to buy mommy new clothes.”
Gillespie smiled down at her, agreeing.
“Leigh-Ann’s clothes were confiscated at the prison,” she said. “She hasn’t changed since Wednesday... I’m so lucky to have her. She makes me so proud.”
A few minutes later, a tired-looking Naidoo emerged to ululation, cheers and Gillespie’s embrace. She picked up a Palestine flag and shouted “Free Palestine”.
The campaign’s vessel was 65km from Gaza’s shores when it was intercepted on Thursday.
“We made it so close, we were counting down,” said Naidoo.
“Then we saw these four huge military ships on the horizon and our satellite communication was cut. They (Israeli forces) were watching us the whole time, there’s no doubt. We had these young kids, 20-year-olds, female and male soldiers, board us with this Robocop equipment. They were so scared of us when they came on board, as if they thought we were going to hurt them.”
All the group saw of Gaza, she said, in its “absolute darkness”, was the haze from its generators.
“There’s a part of me that failed because we didn’t reach Gaza and the people waiting for us.
Naidoo, who is doing a PhD in education and is a leader of the #FeesMustFall movement at Wits, did not want to elaborate on her prison ordeal.
“You have rooms of six with bunk beds, toilet and shower... I was woken up and put to sleep so many times – I think we spent 36 hours on land...
“In being part of this campaign, everyone kept asking me, ‘where do you connect to Palestine, why do I feel so strongly about it?’ But Israeli apartheid was taken from the handbook of apartheid in South Africa. There are so many similarities. It’s basically apartheid on speed in the sense the possibility to be brutal is amplified so much because of the amount of money and the military technology that exists over there.
“But the basic ways that one dehumanises people, it’s about insisting people believe they are different to one another... forcing people to expose themselves physically through strip searches. They dehumanise you in ways that don’t require a lot of money.
“The thing that was confusing for me was that the oppressor looked like the oppressed. The dehumanising process is about locking you up, questioning you and then cross-questioning you as if you are a terrorist, as if you come with intent even if you say that’s not the case.
“This was a peaceful boat with women, and all we were doing was taking the message of solidarity to a devastated place.
“But you are on the wrong side of this, you’re the enemy... I think we were primarily treated very well, we were clear we were going peacefully and we had media attention. They can show you a little bit of humanity when you are not challenging them.”
Naidoo said her teacher father had been involved in anti-apartheid activities when she was young.
“From a young age apartheid police were coming into our home, so I’m fairly paranoid. I always think of the worst-case scenario, it’s a good way to plan for situations.”
Gillespie thanked the international team of women who “were absolutely incredible in their integrity”.
She complained that the International Relations Department had “piggy backed” on other people’s work.
“They didn’t call me once to update me about anything, there was no communication. It was distressing.”
South African ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane, who travelled on the same flight as Naidoo, was booed at Naidoo’s press briefing yesterday after he told the room he was the ambassador to Israel. People chanted “Palestine, Palestine”.
Later, as Naidoo gazed at her daughter, she said: “I thought of Kelly and Lerato, but I’m glad they made the sacrifice for me to be able to go so I can help people.”