The crisis in Gaza is both personal and political

People in Gaza have been under siege for more than two months. Picture: Reuters

People in Gaza have been under siege for more than two months. Picture: Reuters

Published Dec 18, 2023


Lebogang Ramafoko

For those of us born in the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa, our Struggle for liberation from apartheid and the Struggle of the Palestinian people were inextricably linked.

Nineteen Forty-Eight is a year indelibly engraved into the memories of generations of Palestinians and Black South Africans - as one that changed our fates forever.

In 1994, we became full citizens with equal rights, and apartheid was officially declared over. Three years into our democracy, in 1997, Nelson Mandela, our first democratically elected President, cautioned us not to get too cosy in our own freedom, reminding us that ‘our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’

Madiba was speaking at an event on December 4, 1997 in Pretoria to commemorate International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian People. Since 1994 and the end of apartheid, an attentiveness to the Palestinian struggle has hummed consistently in the background of South African life, led by a new generation of Gen Xers adept at social media, who have linked their struggles for #FeesMustFall in South Africa to #BlackLivesMatter in the United States to #FreePalestine in Palestine.

So, the October 7 attack by Hamas in which 1,400 Israelis – mostly civilians - were killed and over 200 hostages were taken reverberated through the country. The South African government immediately called for restraint and for the immediate cessation of violence, and emphasised that it was a moment that required adherence to United Nations resolutions and to international law, and not a resort to ‘violence, killings, imprisonment, forced removals, illegal settlements, and the continued siege of Gaza’.

Oxfam, like many global organisations, condemned the Hamas October 7 attack as a breach of international humanitarian law. Watching the Israeli military onslaught on Gaza and seeing the sheer destruction, terror and suffering unfold at a scale that is staggering and incomprehensible has triggered generational trauma for many of us with memories of forcible displacement, starvation, deprivation, of systemic military chaos inflicted on unarmed civilians throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in apartheid South Africa.

Israel’s response to the Hamas attack has been the very opposite of restrained.

Since October 7, more than 18,000 Palestinians have been killed, with approximately 70% being women and children, and 50,000 reported injured. While in the West Bank, Israeli forces have shot and killed 263 people - including 68 children - since 7 October.

The Gaza municipality reported that sewage was flowing in the streets after all pumping stations had ceased operations due to a lack of fuel. According to the UNHCR, over 1.8 million people are currently displaced, and more than 500,000 people will not be able to return to their former homes.

In South Africa, civil society, artists, and citizens – normally at loggerheads with our government –suddenly had reason to be proud of the South African government’s unequivocal stance with the majority of countries at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on October 27 calling for an immediate ceasefire and refuting Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’ using military means as an occupying power.

The abject horror felt by thousands at the Israeli bombardment has given rise to a rare moment of unity between civil society, artists, activists, and the government against whom they are often in opposition.

Around the country, there have been rallies, events, and lobbying in support of Palestine, and calls for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador have been widespread and ongoing.

On November 14, more than 700 South African Jews – including prominent South Africans, such 2021 Booker Prize winner, Damon Galgut, internationally renowned artist and illustrator, William Kentridge, and Weekly Mail founder and journalism professor, Anton Harber – signed an open letter calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

The letter reflects the deep roots of Jewish people in South Africa, the diversity of the community, and the long history of resistance to apartheid. The list includes many artists, associates and activists I have known throughout my life as an activist and as a professional working in media and social justice.

And while the bombardment of Gaza is a deeply personal issue for us with a long memory of the Palestinian conflict, it is a deeply personal and ongoing nightmare for our Oxfam colleagues living and working in Gaza, who now speak of young children asking their parents to pack their clothes into separate bags for their next displacement under fire, in case their parents are killed. People are now fighting over basic necessities like food, water and fuel.

The failure of the international community – particularly Israel’s state supporters – to support the call for a ceasefire, make them complicit in the mass death, forcible displacement, starvation and deprivation.

More than two million people are now penned in the besieged north and throughout the entrapped south. Nowhere is safe for civilians in Gaza now facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity.

In 1997, Madiba cautioned against ‘the temptation to speak in muffled tones about the rights of the Palestinian people’, and against ‘having achieved our own freedoms, we now fall into the trap of washing our hands of the difficulties of others’.

Now, more than ever, we should heed Madiba’s 1997 advice and resist the temptation to ‘speak in muffled tones’ about the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza under Israeli bombardment today. Now, more than ever we should be demanding a ceasefire. Anything less than a ceasefire is a death sentence for the more than two million trapped Gazans.

*Ramafoko is the Executive Director of Oxfam South Africa and is currently the only autonomous Oxfam affiliate in Africa.

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.