I’ve said on numerous occasions – to whomever will listen, regardless of sympathies – that South Africa has nothing to offer in the resolution of the impasse in Israel/Palestine (however one wishes to phrase that). Nothing. South Africa simply has no experience with competing territorial claims, and none in rival nationalisms where religion is a major orientation.
On the contrary, in South Africa a shared Christianity was a rare point of commonality in its transition, however nominal it may have been for particular protagonists.
My view does not seem to hold much purchase, as a flare up of this particular conflict is likely to be received with great passion in South Africa. The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 and Israel’s reaction set off the latest round of public turbulence. The pro-Palestinian voice has asserted itself far more audibly: demonstrations to show this have been large and persistent, and the South African government’s position has arguably been more bellicose towards Israel than ever before. (For what it’s worth, my own sense is that the official sentiment is now no more than a grudging acceptance that Israel is a reality, but not that it has a legitimate existence, within any borders at all.)
As a consequence, the attack on Israel, the butchering of civilians and the kidnapping of hostages, has receded (or been pushed) out of much of the public narrative.
This is unfortunate, since it has a bearing – in a manner that the details of this conflict (the erroneous apartheid analogy notwithstanding) do not – on South Africa.
Terrorism: take out the pejorative connotations and look at it as a descriptor. Terrorism is the use of terror – the employment of violence and the threat of violence, especially as it regards civilians – for political ends. This was precisely what Hamas did.
Hamas also stands within a particular ideological tradition, that of Islamism. A couple if years ago, I ventured this explanation: ‘It is important to understand what “Islamism” means. It is not simply the observance of the Muslim religion. It is rather essentially an ideology that references the perceived politico-religious demands of the faith – politicised religion, in rough terms. This sort of orientation is not unique to Islam but has arguably assumed in the religion a prominence that is unmatched elsewhere. There are several reasons for this: the failure of alternative ideologies (secular nationalism and socialism), the triumph of the Shia revolution in Iran in 1979, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca – also in 1979 – and Saudi Arabia’s turn to extreme religious conservatism, as well as the invocation of religion in such conflicts as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Balkan Wars, Chechnya and the various conflicts in the Middle East. Islamism was able to position itself as a fresh, redemptive answer to temporal problems based on Divine law, and enjoying both deep cultural roots and therefore a large degree on legitimacy. Some adherents would choose to pursue this peacefully, others through violence, holy war or “jihad”.’
Put these things together, and it’s a point of some considerable concern. As an ideology that references the Divine, Islamism is universal in its aspirations; it is also one in which conventional or rational restraints common to political action elsewhere function rather differently. Life and death in particular hold different meanings. (A willingness to die for one’s cause may be common across militant groupings, but secularists will have a pronounced preference for surviving to enjoy the fruition of their efforts.)
It’s no surprise that suicide as a political tool has been employed by those with a strong religious orientation – whether this is Buddhist monks self-immolating in protest in Vietnam and China or the ‘suicide bombers’ that have become a feature of some Islamist movements.
To a significant degree, Islamism functions as an ideology of contemporary revolutionary protest. There is strong emphasis – within its own frame of reference – on justice. Rather like Communism in previous generations, it promises a sweeping, infallible cure not only for immediate grievances, but for global problems. For those inclined towards its premises, it presents a beguiling vision.
And for others – not necessarily Muslim – Islamism presents a critique of and pushback against injustice. The philosopher Judith Butler, for example, once publicly described Hamas and the Lebanon-based movement Hezbollah as a part of the ‘global left’ given their anti-imperialist stances. This is not to imply a wholehearted endorsement of Islamism, still less of any of the movements embodying it, but rather something along the lines of ‘fellow-travelling’ or the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend.
Politically mobilised religious ideologies, with their sense in the inevitability of their victory and the Manichean worldview, do not lend themselves easily to compromise.
Islamist violence and the use of terrorism has become an escalating theme in Africa over the past three decades. It should not be forgotten that some of the early strikes by Al-Qaida (which would later make Osama bin Laden a household name) were carried out in Africa, notably the attacks on the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.
In the intervening years, Islamist insurgencies have destabilised countries across the continent: from Tunisia and Libya in the north, through Nigeria and the Sahel region in the west, across to Kenya and Somalia in the East and even into Cabo Dalgado in Mozambique. As a consequence, an analysis by two American scholars, Tricia Bacon and Jason Warner, chose its headline appropriately: ‘Twenty Years After 9/11: The Threat in Africa—The New Epicenter of Global Jihadi Terror’.
It’s not possible to generalise about these various movements and the conflicts to which they are a party. Factors include long-standing tensions between different groups, such as between farmers and herders; corrupt or absent government and ineffective maintenance of security; poverty and chronic developmental deficits. Mobilisation in the name of religious identity, through coercion or persuasion (with the input of ideologues and financiers elsewhere), has been a beneficiary. The heavy-handed responses of the governments concerned have helped to feed the resulting insurgencies.
Since even northern Mozambique seems remote from South Africa, what does all of this mean for this country? South Africa faces no domestic Islamist insurgency, but I found the sight of an ISIS flag at a pro-Palestine/anti-Israel demonstration deeply chilling. Theoretically, ISIS is not a party to the current conflict; and its conduct where it gained quasi-state power was frightening in the extreme. Few other organisations in the modern world, for example, have presided over slavery. Rejecting this organisation and what it embodies should not be difficult.
The praise for Hamas and the display of its iconography – although probably to have been expected – sends a similar message. I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that sympathy for the cause of a ‘people’ need not be transmogrified into endorsement of the strategies or ideological positions of those claiming to represent it. There is no contradiction between feeling passionately about the Palestinians’ rights to statehood, yet to be concerned at what a Palestinian state may in practice look like – say, for democrats, for religious minorities (or those of no faith at all) or for homosexuals. This is doubly the case should an organisation like Hamas be in a position to set those terms. Yet I’m afraid that in various ways, this distinction has been lost.
(An aside: according to the ANC’s Obed Bapela, the party was informed by Hamas that the plan was to ‘liberate’ all the territory ‘from the river to the sea’, and then ‘they can then look at modalities on how to accommodate who is there, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Palestinians.’ I cannot imagine those ‘modalities’ being at all accommodating to anyone not sharing Hamas’ preferred ethno-religious identity or political orientation. These ‘modalities’ might well include such practices as murder and expulsion.)
I fear that South Africa may be at greater risk than is commonly supposed. This is not because there is a nascent insurgency developing, but because South Africa seems to be standing at a conjunction of circumstances where terrorist attacks – probably of the lone wolf variety – could become a reality.
South Africa’s society is hugely stressed and frustrated. Its governance is broken, and the basic social compact that should hold the government and governed together has been violated, invariably by the ineptitude and venality of the former. Under such circumstances, it’s to be expected that people will seek out alternative poles of loyalty and security. A muscular appeal to a religion and to the civilizational traditions on which it draws is a powerful one.
There is clearly some sympathy with Islamism: this is the ISIS flag and the lionising of Hamas as the ‘Islamic resistance’. How widespread this is, is difficult to say. This is an empirical question to which I do not know the answer, but it’s probably fair to say that it’s a small minority, and maybe no more than a handful willing to use violence, and even fewer willing to do so domestically. That in itself need not be a comfort; very small numbers of committed ‘militants’ can wreak enormous damage. The Irish Republican Army in the post 1960s-era probably never had more than a few hundred active members at any time (I once heard, never more than 100), but was a painful thorn in Britain’s side for decades.
There is also evidence of financial support for Islamist groups running through South Africa.
Perhaps more importantly, there exists a wider circle of the fellow travelling variety. For the most part, these are people of a left-leaning disposition; most would not want for themselves anything like what the Islamists prescribe for the world. But they see its proponents primarily as challenging imperialism and the evils of Israel and standing stalwart for the oppressed of the earth. (My own Facebook feed is thick with Tik Tok videos – shared by charismatic Christians, no less, who would fare poorly in an Islamic Caliphate – pushing an Islamist-sympathetic narrative on Israel. I suspect they have very little understanding of what they are promoting, seeing this merely as a grand morality play in which they side with the underdog.) To a significant degree, I see this line of thinking well represented within the ruling party and the state, in some political parties and in some Christian churches. The sight of a smiling delegation from the Anglican Church posing with Hamas representatives recently seems to me to capture it well.
The last group would not provide active support for Islamism, but a sort of atmosphere of legitimation to Islamist sentiment and opposition to regarding it as a danger to South Africa; a nothing-to-see-here response to warning signs, such as the hoisting of ISIS flags.
Is it? to some extent, there is precedent. In the 1990s, the Western Cape was rocked by the emergence of a vigilante group, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD). Its initial focus was (as its name implies) on the criminal underworld that throttled many Coloured communities in the province. A turn to violence and the assertion of a distinctly Islamic identity saw its members undertaking violent attacks on targets perceived to be linked to the US or Israel, and the South African state. South Africa, it claimed, was ruled by an unholy and therefore illegitimate regime.
It’s not inconceivable that something similar could arise in future, and from much the same set of proximate causes, bolstered by Islamist ideology that has made landfall through some clerics trained in madrassahs abroad, and omni-available online and social media content. Apparently, this was how Tony-Lee and Brandon-Lee Thulsie and Renaldo Smith, would-be South African jihadis, were radicalised.
This is not an easy issue to tackle. A constitutional democracy allows wide latitude to its people to exercise their freedoms and conscience and political organisation. (As appalling as I find it, the display of ISIS symbols is probably lawful and should remain so.) Any action must recognise the guaranteed rights of people to engage in activism without undue state intrusion. This applies too to the ability to form organisations and pressure groups, even if their objectives are opposed by many – this is an essential part of an open society, and it’s why we should be resistant to demands for registration of such bodies or the vetting of their office bearers. Equally strongly should be any tendency to hold religious or ethnic groups collectively responsible, and to seek to intrude on their religious and cultural practices. Each and every South African is be recognised by the state as a specific and unique individual, and bearer of the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
But a democratic and constitutionalist society is also entitled – required – to defend itself and the lives and wellbeing of its people.
Terrorism is fought on multiple fronts. One of these is military, where these groups constitute a battlefield force. South Africa has put troops into the fight in Cabo Delgado. This is at best a limited solution, and for the threats confronting South Africa domestically, this is an intelligence matter. Here, South Africa is badly wanting.
Not fit for purpose
As the 2021 riots demonstrated, South Africa’s intelligence services are not fit for purpose, being embroiled in the ANC’s political battles. It’s by no means clear that the country’s capabilities would be able to detect and counter a determined terrorist conspiracy. In fairness, this is not a unique problem for South Africa, though in our case, the wilful, small-minded and illegal degradation of our intelligence capacity to protect the people of the country.
This will need consciously to be rebuilt, although the resistance of the ANC to altering its own state capture practices does not bode well.
Equally importantly, the ideological dimensions need properly to be recognised. This is not to ignore the grievances that can lead to radicalisation (remember that PAGAD was initially received very favourably by a country sick of violent crime), but it is to understand that Islamist political programmes sit very uncomfortably – I would venture irreconcilably – with a secular constitutional democracy. It is also not to make a case, necessarily, for sympathy for Israel. But it is a call to take a level-headed look the ideology at play, and to halt the self-referential romanticisation of it.
Not a comfortable situation to be sure. But the ISIS flag at a demonstration in Cape Town might give us pause, especially as a neighbouring state and several other countries on the continent are having to deal with this very directly. South Africa, for its part, may have nothing to offer conflicts in the Middle East, but it may find that the fractious politics of those distant parts come to play an outsized role in our lives.
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