Don’t touch me on my Palestine, says SA

The jail cell on Robben Island where former president Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his 27-year prison term locked up by the apartheid government. South Africa has every right to fight apartheid elsewhere, given its history, says the author. Photographer: Armand Hough / Independent Newspapers

The jail cell on Robben Island where former president Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his 27-year prison term locked up by the apartheid government. South Africa has every right to fight apartheid elsewhere, given its history, says the author. Photographer: Armand Hough / Independent Newspapers

Published Jan 15, 2024


Lesotho and South Africa are important neighbours. Fleeing refugees from apartheid knew Lesotho as home. It is part of the DNA of these two neighbours, despite ill-informed contemporary flaring of hostilities from time to time.

I had the benefit of long-term accompaniment of the Titi family, who fled from apartheid South Africa and became my neighbours in 1981. This, ironically, before I had to flee Lesotho into South Africa in 1982 myself.

One day, walking with Selemela towards a car parking lot, he made a very strange exclamation that is screwed into my DNA and has informed both my work and private life.

Acting on instinct, he alerted me that we might have to flee, by asking: “What are these South African Special Branch policemen doing here?”

I replied: “Tanqi (uncle, as Madisi’s children referred to him), there are no police here.”

But he persisted in raising the danger flag, saying: “Can’t you see those caps against the rear screen of this car that is parked next to yours?”

I had not spotted the caps, but even if I had, they were Lekhanyane Church caps. Tanqi, coming from Port Elizabeth, did not know about Lekhanyane, but his relational instincts with caps was with apartheid police. The police had taken the better part of him, and to him these were police caps.

The Israeli occupation of the land of Palestine invokes deep metaphors.

Whilst Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu reserved the Amalek reference to himself, there are many that can be invoked in history, politics and more importantly in culture, as a store of value for nations that should counter and correct this Zionist narrative.

Amalek is described in the Hebrew Bible as a staunch persecutor nation of the ancient Israelites.

When you dish from a pot that you are not authorised to attend to, often you burn and the exclamation from the burning will be “Ichu!”.

Those who were not even aware of your surreptitious deed will ask, quite surprised, about how you got burnt. The Basotho have a saying about poking one’s nose into matters that should not concern you: “U cha u ts’olang?” This means: “What were you dishing to attract the burning?”

Taking the mantle of struggle to the International Court of Justice is a position privileged for South Africa. The Basotho are known to engage in pecking-order fights, presumably once they have imbibed home brew.

The fight is over who is entitled to take the last calabash, called Tono or Maritsa, from a home-brew barrel – usually a 20-litre baked clay pot. The eldest is entitled to this privilege. But wannabes inadvertently want to challenge authority and try it. It always ends up ugly and in court.

So, once a white magistrate presiding over this case asked the contesting Basotho men: “Why don’t you start with Tono and then consume the rest in peace, rather than end your celebration in a fight?”

Those asking South Africa, “U cha u ts’olang?”, are certainly like the magistrate who had no clue as to what Tono is. It is the DNA-sequenced pecking order and succession among the Basotho, just as is apartheid response by South Africa.

In all occupied territories of the world, the Israeli state has taken the label that South Africa through practice of occupation created and efficiently exercised.

Israel’s political, economic and social conduct against Palestinians qualified it as an apartheid state, not only by peace-loving countries, but by the United Nations. This medal globally belongs to Israel and South Africa, and God forbid it should be extended to any other country.

It, therefore, does not come as a surprise that in a world that has witnessed the 100-day horror movie – and counting to date – of the extermination of Palestinians in the open-air prison that is Gaza, it is only South Africa that has a relational instinct to this protracted horrendous practice because it is in the defence-and-attack DNA sequence of South Africa. It behoved South Africa to step up to the plate.

If South Africa did not, there would be no other entitled to partake of this horrible “Tono”. Many, like the white magistrate presiding over a case of fighting over Tono, ask the question: “What skin off South African’s nose is Palestine?”

In 2016, under the Six S Power theme, Struggle, Solidarity, Statistics & Skills for Sustainable Societies, I, as the Statistician-General of South Africa, invited the president of the Palestinian Statistics Authority, Dr Ola Awad, to engage on this unique apartheid experience and what the label means to Palestine and to South Africa, and what should be done.

The engagement with South Africans on this theme is captured in The New Age (TNA) Breakfast that Dr Awad and I hosted in Rosebank on this YouTube address:

This intervention came in part as a consequence of the adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, and we, as Chief Statisticians of our respective countries, aimed to draw world attention to the lurking danger of apartheid and its continued challenge to the world.

For that reason, the Six S Power theme was foresighted in understanding the dimensions, including the depth of, the cancer of apartheid, and what has to be done about it so that it never visits new victims, mutates within Palestine and or South Africa, and or returns in its classical form. The maternal instinct of the horrors of apartheid behoved South Africa to take the lead, and lead. And the country has led.

Little did I know that my honouring of the visit to the Palestine Statistics Authority in 2013 and my intervention in the keynote address, titled, The Statistician-General in the 21s Century, presented in Ramallah on September 23, 2013, would invoke a hostile response.

In my rendition I had reiterated that coming into Palestine-occupied territory invoked the spooks of apartheid. This included the allegations that the Israel military seized census records of Palestinians with the sole aim of targeted attacks on them. Yet another violation of United Nations fundamental principles.

I only learnt about this hostile response when I was on a Population Census mission in Beirut in 2019.

South Africa has to take the Tono. We are reminded by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, addressing the Humboldt Forum in Germany, about the story of the rapper.

A piece of cloth that is inseparable from a Nigerian man, if taken from him, can lead to war. It is a metaphor for claiming your birthright. A rapper is to a Nigerian what all museum artefacts stolen from Africa by Europeans are to Africa. South Africa and Palestine are enjoined by the rapper of apartheid and thus only South Africa is entitled to partake of this bitter Tono on behalf of Palestine. It is the right thing to do. It is a rapper that the natives should demand from colonialists.

Dr Pali Lehohla is a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished Alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa.