In this guest article, Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) groups in Wales explore Wales’s proud history in opposing apartheid in South Africa. They consider whether Wales can still feel proud considering that we have collectively buried our heads in the desert sands when in comes to the ongoing apartheid Israel has imposed upon Palestinian people.
Wales: calling for a ceasefire in Gaza
Yes we can feel proud that on 8 November 2023 the Welsh Senedd joined the majority of the world’s countries in calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. These calls, however, were not led by Welsh government itself – but by Plaid Cymru, supported by 11 Labour backbenchers and the only Liberal Democrat.
Out of 60 Senedd members just 24 voted in support of a ceasefire. Several put forward an amendment calling for a humanitarian pause, and 19 voted against, including the entire Welsh Conservative group. The 13 Welsh Labour government ministers abstained as the ‘Welsh government has no jurisdiction over international affairs‘.
In March 2022, in an admirable display of solidarity the Welsh Government voted in support of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. And public bodies in Wales followed suit, engaging in a boycott of goods and services and divesting investments and pensions from Russian companies, and those with Russian ties.
At the time, first minister Mark Drakeford stated that:
The people of Wales are appalled at the invasion of Ukraine.
Though when it came to calls for an immediate ceasefire amidst the appalling bombardment of Gaza, Drakeford attended but did not take part or comment. And in a way, perhaps that is understandable.
As the result of the debate was announced, cheering and shouts of “free Palestine” could be heard coming from the public gallery. And it is this cry for freedom, rather than the calls for a ceasefire, which are at the heart of the wider issue of apartheid.
Israel: practising apartheid
In March 2022 Michael Lynk, the then-UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, released a statement which said that:
apartheid is being practiced by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory.
This echoed findings by Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights organisations.
The statement speaks of a:
deeply discriminatory dual legal and political system… [of] the walls, checkpoints, roads and an entrenched military presence… [separating] more than three million Palestinians, who are without rights, living under an oppressive rule of institutional discrimination and without a path to a genuine Palestinian state that the world has long promised is their right.
The statement described Gaza as an “open-air prison“ which even before the “siege on Gaza” was:
without adequate access to power, water or health, with a collapsing economy and with no ability to freely travel to the rest of Palestine or the outside world.
Lynk concluded that:
a political regime which so intentionally and clearly prioritizes fundamental political, legal and social rights to one group over another within the same geographic unit on the basis of one’s racial-national-ethnic identity satisfies the international legal definition of apartheid.
The UN rapporteur’s remit covers only the occupied Palestinian territories and not Israel itself. Other human rights groups have referred to Israel practising apartheid against Palestinian citizens of Israel as well. For example, a 2022 Amnesty International report states that Israel imposes a system of oppression and domination against Palestinians “wherever it has control over their rights”.
Nelson Mandela’s visit to Wales
We have learned that Wales has a proud history of opposing apartheid. When president Nelson Mandela made his only visit to Wales in 1998, four years after the ANC had been swept to power in South Africa’s first democratic elections, he praised Wales’s contribution in the fight to end apartheid.
The man, who had been labelled and imprisoned as a terrorist by the apartheid regime, was introduced by the then-Cardiff city council leader Russell Goodway as:
a beacon of light during the dark days of apartheid and oppression… a symbol of hope in the new world order.
After meeting with the queen and thanking those in Wales who had campaigned for apartheid’s end, he told the crowds at a Freedom of the City Ceremony in Cardiff Castle that he asked the people of Wales to:
accept our heartfelt thanks on behalf of the people of South Africa for your solidarity. When the call for the international isolation of apartheid went out to the world, the people of Wales responded magnificently.
So how did this Wales come to have the proud history of opposing apartheid?
A proud history of opposition and solidarity
The archives held by the National Library of Wales record that “The Welsh Committee of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) was established in 1981″ as the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement (WAAM) bringing together numerous local branches “as a national movement in Wales, with a clear Welsh identity”.
According to these records its aims and objectives included informing the people of Wales and elsewhere about apartheid and campaigning for international action to bring about an end to apartheid.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, the government of the UK traded with and openly supported the Apartheid regime of South Africa, despite the open knowledge that South Africa was an apartheid regime. This included the sale of weapons and other apartheid equipment.
And today we make similar public shows of unconditional support for an apartheid regime, and actively encourage trade and investments in arms and other equipment used to enforce apartheid. This includes companies based in Wales.
The archives state that WAAM’s campaigning work:
covered a wide range of areas including sports, cultural and consumer boycotts, and campaigns against investment in South Africa by British and international companies and banks, against nuclear and military collaboration, loans to South Africa and oil sanctions.
There are huge similarities then between WAAM and the PSC and other groups in Wales who are working to end apartheid and liberate the Palestinian people through calling for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).
Similarities across the decades
As the apartheid regime of South Africa was a key Cold War ally then, Israel is a key strategic ally of the UK today. Then – as now – apartheid is an inconvenient truth best ignored, or even suppressed – to the extent that heavy pressure (which included spying) was put on activists campaigning to end apartheid.
And then – as now – expressing solidarity with an oppressed people is an incredibly brave thing for people to do. In Wales such outspoken activists included Peter Hain, who went on to become MP for Neath and the Welsh Office minister, and Mick Antoniw who became the AS/MS for Pontypridd and counsel general for Wales.
And their valued contribution, and that of Wales, was celebrated by Mandela when he stated that:
The knowledge that local authorities all over Wales were banning apartheid products from canteens and schools – and that the universities, the Welsh Rugby Union, and the choirs had cut their links – was a great inspiration to us in our struggle.
So, how does Wales fare when it comes to opposing apartheid today?
Opposing Israel’s apartheid in the 21st century
We’ve heard about how groups small local groups are coming together to campaign for BDS in Wales. And in a piece for the IWA called Protecting the Right to Boycott in Wales, the author examined the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill (UK) and its likely impact on the right of public bodies to BDS here in Wales.
The article outlined how the UK government is attempting to undermine devolution and the powers of public bodies to take part in BDS, and how worryingly the bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons with ease on 3 July 2023, after many Labour MP’s followed the party whip and abstained. It passed through both committee and report stages unamended.
Yet on 15 November 2023, following the terrible events of 7 October and the brutal bombardment of Gaza which followed, when asked to vote on the SNP amendment to the king’s speech calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, 56 Labour MPs rebelled and voted in favour of the amendment.
The rebellion, however, was largely confined to Labour MPs from England. Out of 40 MPs from Wales only five voted for a ceasefire: three Plaid Cymru MPs, one Labour, and one independent. One Labour MP was unavailable to vote as they were in the US. In the UK parliament the Welsh record on opposing apartheid isn’t looking great.
Standing against international law is not conditional
According to Lynk:
The 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court came into law after the collapse of the old South Africa. It is a forward-looking legal instrument which prohibits apartheid as a crime against humanity today and into the future, wherever it may exist.
Standing against apartheid then is therefore a matter of international law which Welsh politicians cannot pick and choose to ignore.
Thankfully, on 8 September 2023 Rebecca Evans, MS and minister for finance and local government, laid a legislative consent memorandum before the Senedd which stated that it would not be appropriate to adopt the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill (UK) for Wales. She stated:
I cannot recommend consent is given whilst questions remain as to the compatibility of this Bill with convention rights and international law.
Then on 22 November 2023, the Legislation, Justice, and Constitution Committee laid its final report on the proposed bill before the Senedd noting that:
The devolution settlement requires the Welsh Ministers to comply with both international obligations and the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention rights).
The committee also shared the ministers’ concerns that:
A decision by the Senedd to consent to the Bill could contribute to a breach of international law and would mean the Senedd acting incompatibly with international obligations, which would be in contrast to the spirit of the devolution settlement.
When this report comes up for debate in the Senedd chamber, it looks highly likely that any motion to oppose consent for the bill as it stands will gain the support of the majority, but not all, of the Senedd’s members. Like the vote for a ceasefire, this will stand as a signal of solidarity between the people of Wales, as represented by the Senedd, and the Palestinian people in their ongoing struggle against apartheid.
But such a signal of solidarity still falls far short of the actions needed.
BDS and more
Significant areas of concern remain with regards to Wales’s ongoing relationship with the apartheid state of Israel. If the campaign to end apartheid is to be successful once more, then civil society will need to organise around the anti-apartheid banner, and bring concerted pressure to bear on the public sector so that it can play its part in boycotting goods and services, divesting finance, and engaging in sanctions.
Are we comfortable with Wales being a place where the Israeli arms industry does business? With Wales being a place where the Welsh public sector provides public sector inward investment support to cyber security, aerospace, and other firms with links to an apartheid regime? With Wales as a place where public sector pensions profit from apartheid? As the people of Wales, are we okay with this?
Friends of the Earth Cymru, People & Planet, and Palestine solidarity groups have been calling for the divestment and decarbonisation of public sector pension funds for several years. In July 2023 several Welsh PSC groups wrote to their local authorities to express their concerns about the continuing investments of over £4.6bn of funds. Yet little progress on divesting has been made.
Wales must oppose apartheid once again
In his opening speech on the Ceasefire debate, Rhun ap Iorwerth said:
There cannot be justification for the collective punishment of an entire population.
As the UN and other human rights organisations makes clear, apartheid is collective punishment.
Palestine solidarity groups in Wales are calling on civil society to join in the campaign for BDS. The groups are, for example, calling on everyone in Wales to boycott Israeli goods and companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Yes, Wales has a proud history of opposing apartheid. But apartheid isn’t history. Let us work together to maintain Wales’s proud history of opposing apartheid whenever and wherever it arises.
Let us come together and oppose apartheid once again.
Featured image supplied