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International Brigade Against Apartheid. Ed. Ronnie Kasrils. (With Muff Andersson and Oscar Marleyn). Jacana Media, Auckland Park, South Africa. 2021.

When reviewing a book already given high testament by the likes of Richard Falk, Ilan Pappé, Omar Barghouti, and John Pilger, among many others, the easy recommendation is simply read this book: it is an important addition to the history of the South Africa apartheid era.

The work consists of a series of short excerpts/essays from the people directly involved with the anti-apartheid struggle in apartheid South Africa: from those in the actual fighting to those in other countries far removed who worked actively to bring the anti-apartheid struggle into the public view.

The first section deals mostly with those essentially on the front lines, where the front line was a loose configuration reaching from clandestine underground units inside South Africa to those working in neighbouring countries, where some saw

“the territorial division between Botswana and South Africa as a creation of colonialism; and could naturally cross those borders in the physical as well as the mental sense,”

“…we are essentially one people….borders are artificial.”

The stories range in detail for each individual, but have much in common. Many are foreigners, and white foreigners were particularly helpful simply because of the ease of movement for whites. Most held socialist or communist ideals for liberation and anti-colonialism, remembering that apartheid started before Vietnam and passed through the era of the Vietnam war and African decolonization. Many were union members, activist students, and had parents who exposed them in their family environment to humanitarian ideals. All knew someone who had been imprisoned, tortured, and/or killed by South African agents and the military.

The second section of the book discusses the anti-apartheid solidarity across the globe. Strong support came from many European countries: France with its history of the Algerian war of independence; Belgium with its historical memories and strong socialist principles in concert with its own concerns about the Flemish/French language divide; the Basques, wanting their own freedom from Franco’s Spain; Ireland and its fight with the British for freedom drew strong support. Not surprisingly many of these same areas are now supporting the call for Palestinian rights against Isreali apartheid.

The strongest support for military aid and training came from the Soviet Union and Cuba. Many Africans were trained in the Soviet Union, both materially and ideologically. Soviet advisors supported military actions within the border states to South Africa. Cuba provided the strongest direct military support and stopped the South African invasion of Angola, resulting eventually in Namibian independence as well as that of Angola.

Unsurprisingly perhaps in relation to Soviet and Cuban support, but I was surprised by the strong support from the German Democratic Republic,

“Support for the liberation struggle was a basic foreign policy principle and even enshrined in the GDR constitution. This solidarity was based on historic anti-colonial traditions of the German labour movement and the antifascist resistance struggle, which had a strong impact on GDR solidarity with the struggle against colonialism and racism.”

For many countries support for the anti-apartheid movement came from the bottom up. Trade unions, churches, student organizations and other NGOs campaigned for successful BDS actions. In Canada the groundroots support was strong, yet only when it became politically (financially) expedient did Canada join the political chorus for the end of apartheid. As will be enjoined below, the same pattern exists today with Palestine.

There are moments throughout the writings where the eventual success of the movement and its post-freedom decline in economic and civic equality are mentioned. It is more fully addressed in the final section,

“Political power, a vital and incalculable achievement by the forces of liberation, came through a negotiated settlement which averted a bloody civil war – but at a price of arguably unforeseen consequences. The country was ensnared within a neo-liberal, free-market global economy reinforcing existing power relationships and structures of financial and trade dominance. This inevitably perpetuates and maintains the class, race and gender relationships that the ANC, along with other liberation movements, aimed to transform.”

Ultimately, yes, getting rid of the apartheid system was successful and worthwhile. What remains is perhaps an even larger struggle,

“What was decisive was the just cause of the people, unity in action, a resolute people’s struggle, international solidarity, turning the tide. So too, with the apparent power of the USA, and its allies. The mass struggles against imperialist domination, the anti-war movement, the phenomenal emergence of the Black Lives Matter protests, never-ending Palestinian resistance, widespread rage against racism and white supremacy, the popular determination to protect the environment – these are illustrative of current grassroots level opposition.”

It seems it is still mostly up to the “grassroots” as the entrenched neoliberal military-financial powers continue to oppress people around the world. As indicated by Ramzy Baroud, after the success of the anti-apartheid movemement,

“official Western narratives began to shift, abruptly discarding their former allies in Pretoria. However, the likes of Cuba, Algeria, Libya, the PLO and other governments and entities that operate outside mainstream Western political paradigms were cast aside from the post-apartheid discourse, so as not to offend Western sensibilities.”

In Palestine, apartheid has once again taken hold[1] as

“…Israel remain[ed] committed to the Pretoria apartheid until its final days, but it also violently cracked down on Palestinians who expressed solidarity with South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.”

Israel appears to have a much stronger hold on ‘western’ politics and business than South Africa did. It is more powerful militarily than its neighbouring “frontline” states who seem to have accepted the status quo. It has very strong support from the U.S. for its military value as an “outpost” of western power in a hostile environment (needlessly so, but the legacy of colonialism and the contemporary neocolonialism through financial oil and outright military assaults keep it hostile to U.S. and western power – all empires need an enemy). It is also very useful domestically for the U.S. with strong evangelical Christian beliefs supporting Israel as they look forward to their desired Armageddon.

The struggle against apartheid continues. In the work, “International Brigade Against Apartheid” a story is related as to how continual long term grassroots activism at various levels eventually overcame apartheid. It is a valuable addition to historical reading demonstrating how in truth the majority of the people of the world wish to live free from racial discrimination and live in a society of equality and justice.

[1] (see https://www.btselem.org/topic/apartheid and https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/27/threshold-crossed/israeli-authorities-and-crimes-apartheid-and-persecution)

Jim Miles is a Canadian educator


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