Wits calls for ceasefire in Palestine, following pressure from students 

Wits University students became the first in South Africa to take a clear stance regarding the Israel and Palestine conflict, through their weeklong encampment.   

On Monday 13 May, a small collective of students (unaffiliated to the Palestinian Solidarity Committee) set up tents on Wits’ Library Lawns, in a show of visible solidarity at the self-named ‘Wits Liberation Zone’

The group wants Wits to take a clear, pro-Palestine stance in the ongoing Israeli assault of Palestinian land. Something students have been doing at universities across the world in recent weeks.  

Students set up camp in solidarity with Palestine and all victims of oppression. Photo: Kabir Jugram

Part of their demands was a call for Wits to provide full transparency regarding their ties to Israeli-aligned companies and divest from oppressive regimes worldwide. In addition, an end to what they felt was targeted harassment and censorship of pro-Palestinian activism on campus. 

The liberation zone extended support to students affected by the recent water and electricity outages in Braamfontein that saw students go without these amenities for over two weeks, as well as students facing mid-year financial exclusion. Thus, free food for students was a feature throughout the past week.  

And while a noble cause, the movement was not without its difficulties. In the week Wits Vuvuzela spent observing the encampment, issues ranging from students sleeping in tents soaked by rain on Monday to campus security taking down a marquee designated for reading sala on Tuesday were observed.  

Physical and academic safety were also top of mind, students told Wits Vuvuzela they feared persecution for their participation.   

On Thursday morning, the group marched to the Great Hall alongside the Wits SRC (who advocated against mid-year exclusions) to bring their demands to the Wits senate.  

The Liberation Zone marched to Great Hall alongside the SRC on Thursday. Photos: Kabir Jugram

In a written reply after the senate meeting seen by Wits Vuvuzela, Wits condemned Israel’s actions in Palestine and called for an immediate ceasefire.  

“As members of the Senate we believe that the actions of the Israeli Defense Force constitute a form of collective punishment globally… which is inhumane and ethically indefensible,” further adding that “we support an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to stop the deaths of civilians and to ensure that food, medical and all forms of needed aid are urgently provided to the civilians in Palestine”.  

Absent from the response was information about disclosures and mid-year exclusions. A disappointed student said, “Long story short, Wits did the bare minimum and only answered one of our demands”.  

Now, the encampment is at a crossroads, as they were only permitted to be on the Library Lawns until Friday, May 17, but many in the group want to prolong their stay until all their demands are met.  

“We remain resolute in our pursuit of full divestment. It is important to note that we are not calling for the dissolution of the camp, but rather advising students to be mindful of the safety implications involved” said a representative of the Liberation Zone. 

This story is still developing as students plan to camp beyond their permitted period. 

Note* some names and quotes have been omitted from this article to protect students involved in the ongoing protest.  

Citizens unite in ‘We The People Walk’

Locals unite, in the north of the city centre, in JHB, to raise their voices to spotlight urgent human rights concerns.

A 5km march starting at the Old Fort building in Kotze Street, with the aim of fostering a collective action towards a more equitable and inclusive future, capped off this year’s Constitutional Hill Human Rights Festival.  

Event organizers celebrate the success of the We; the People Walk, uniting communities for human rights and democracy Photo: Thato Gololo

The peaceful protest, organized by the Constitutional Hill, comes during the month of Human Rights and saw people march through Braamfontein on Sunday, March 24, 2024. The festival honours the memories of those who died in the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre.  

Marchers held flags and posters with slogans like, “It’s your right to know it all.” Attendee, Princess Mkhwanazi told Wits Vuvuzela that she had fulfilled her responsibility as a civil citizen by partaking in the walk. “It’s for highlighting it to everybody, that as much as they (are) in their houses or at work, they also have human rights that should be respected, followed and adhered to,” Mkhwanazi said.

Marketing manager at the Constitutional Hill and Wits alumni, Joshua Sibeko, said, “What we stand for is that only the people of South Africa can change South Africa, if it was not for the people, South Africa would not exist.”

Other activities during the family-friendly festival included education on constitutional rights, film screenings, discussions, and taking people through the motions of voting on mock ballot papers.

IAW2024: Solidarity for Palestine made simple this Human Rights Day

Wits societies’ joint initiative allows for anyone and everyone to show their solidarity with Palestine through the clothes on their backs or keffiyehs around their necks.

The Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) and the Muslim Students Association (MSA) are encouraging Wits University students to wear Palestinian items and colours during Israel Apartheid Month in March 2024, as the situation in the region deteriorates further.

This year a global effort has been made by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to stretch Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) over a month, which has been adopted by the PSC and MSA. Traditionally, IAW occurs during the week of Human Rights Day in South Africa.

Muhammed Suliman, MSA chairperson lamented that although “you have Human Rights Day… everyone fails to see the human rights violations that [are] ongoing” in Palestine right now. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the total Palestinian death toll has climbed to over 32000, an injury toll of over 78000 and a further two million citizens have been displaced.

Abdullah Omar, an MSA Da’wah Committee member said the ongoing situation in Palestine is an “atrocity” that is an example of “what apartheid (in South Africa) could have been”, had it never ended.

Two Wits University students heeding the PSC call on the library lawns. Photo: Tristan Monzeglio
A PSC flag utilising watermelon symbolism and has “resistance is not terrorism” written on it. Photo: Tristan Monzeglio

Suliman said “the Palestine issue is not a religious one… it’s a humanitarian issue”. Academic Officer for the PSC, Noxolo Nxele, said “there’s a lot more to talk about and a lot more people to talk to” and this simple initiative is their effort to expand on the calls for a ceasefire while raising awareness.

Noxolo said there are a vast array of Palestinian resistance symbols (watermelons, olives and keys), that students can use to show their support for Palestine. From what Wits Vuvuzela has observed this week, there have been multiple students wearing keffiyehs and displaying watermelon themed flags in a show of solidarity.

The representatives from the PSC and the MSA also stressed that much more attention and support from Wits is required regarding the promotion of this initiative, as well as others of its kind.

In a statement, the university was only willing to comment on applications made by Wits PSC and the South African Union of Jewish Students, and said all planned events and demonstrations by either society was “approved in line with the University’s policies and procedures”.

Almost one journalist killed a day in Gaza 

“What we have realized in this situation is that evidently the pen is not mightier than the sword,” said South African broadcast journalist, Aldrin Sampear at a night vigil held in Johannesburg.  

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) confirmed that at least 83 journalists and media workers have been killed, 16 injured and 25 arrested in Gaza in the last three months. However, the government media office in Gaza estimates that the total number exceeds 100.

Media experts and civil society observing a moment of silence for fellow colleagues killed in Gaza. Photo: Sfundo Parakozov

An attack by Palestinian resistance group, Hamas on October 7, 2023, has seen the Israeli Defense Force embark on a 16-week offensive, which has led to over 25 000 Palestinian deaths and is yet to abate – even after a historic ruling made by the International Court of Justice on January 26, 2024 to stop any and all ‘genocidal acts’. The last 115 days in Gaza have been described as hell on earth by those on the ground, and the United Nations has dubbed Gaza the deadliest place in the world for journalists and their families.

The CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator, Sherif Mansour said: “The Israeli army has killed more journalists in 10 weeks than any other army or entity has in any single year.” He added that with each journalist’s death, understanding and documenting the conflict becomes increasingly challenging.  

South African journalists and media practitioners organized vigils across some of the country’s prominent cities, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Makhanda. Proceedings started off with a coordinated national moment of silence on the evening of January 28, 2024.

In Johannesburg, the gathering at Mary Fitzgerald Square, saw journalists in all black attire, gather in front of a stage dressed in the placards and printouts which had the images and names of some of those killed in Gaza.  

Voice recordings of journalists Samer Zaneen, Youmna El Sayed, Maram Humaid, and Nizar Sadawi were played out loud to a sombre but attentive crowd. They each shared some of the hardships they have encountered during the suspected genocide and thanked the group gathered for their ongoing solidarity.  

Using the false reportage of ‘40 beheaded babies’ in Israel as an analogy, Sampear said by simply repeating these and other falsehoods, journalists have become an “unreliable source”. Sampear moderated a brief panel discussion with journalist and political editor, Qaanitah Hunter, photojournalist, Gulshan Khan and student journalist, Palesa Matlala.  

“There is an expectation that you should leave a portion of yourself at the door before you even start [reporting] on issues. Thus we [journalists], especially during the ICJ proceedings were accused of not telling the Israeli story,” said Sampear.  

Hunter cited the experiences of South African journalists and writers, Percy Qoboza, Ferial Haffajee and Glenda Daniels who had to report under the apartheid regime. “They reported about the apartheid they lived in, and we cannot tell Palestinian journalists to leave their victimhood at the door before they pick up the mic, because they too, are hungry and displaced,” said Hunter. 

Khan rejected the idea of objectivity altogether calling it a “myth”, while Matlala noted that while biases are difficult to avoid the core principles of journalism are always present in her journalism.

Attendee, Quntha Ndimande later told Wits Vuvuzela that her presence at the vigil goes beyond supporting journalists; she attended because of her concern for truth and freedom. “This [vigil] serves as a reminder of how lucky we are to have the platform and opportunity to express ourselves and I believe that these values [truth and freedom] are something all South Africans should actively fight for,” said Ndimande. 

SA professor speaks outside French university after ban

A University of Johannesburg professor addressed an audience outside the gates of a French university after he was banned from speaking at the institution yesterday.

Despite being banned from speaking at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in France yesterday, Professor Farid Esack still managed to deliver a lecture on “Israel as an Apartheid State” at the main gates of the institution.

Esack is a professor in the Study of Islam, and Head of the Department of Religion Studies at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), and also chairs the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) South Africa board. He was due to speak at the public research university in Paris as part of the Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) but was not able to after complaints were received by the institution.

“A pretty sad sight for France which turned out in their hundreds of thousands to defend ‘freedom of speech’ only a few months ago,” said Esack.

“The major allegations was that I was violent and anti-Semitic. The basis for this?”

“The major allegations was that I was violent and anti-Semitic. The basis for this?” asks Esack

According to Esack, allegations of violence against BDS supporters during the Boycott Woolworths campaign were ascribed to him as the chair of the organisation. “This was the sum of the Israeli lobby’s petition to French universities,” Esack continues.

Esack also addressed allegations that he is anti-Semitic by saying, “believe it or not, it all started with Dubula-i-Juda story that was first printed in Vuvuzela!” he exclaims.

According to Esack, BDS South Africa’s (through coordinator Mohammed Desai), attempts to explain the Wits incident “in the context of larger liberation struggle songs was presented as proof that I am anti-Semitic.”

“The BDS Board, which I chair and of which Desai is a member as the organization’s director, concurred with, unambiguously condemned that incident and BDS reaffirms its commitment to non-violence as its way of responding to the crimes of occupation and dispossession committed against the Palestinian people.”

 

Wits SRC and City of Johannesburg host pro-Palestinian speaker

Wits SRC and the City of Johannesburg took a pro-Palestinian stand yesterday, as they hosted a presentation with guest speaker Dr Husam Zomlot.  

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Dr Husam Zomlot at the Wits yesterday addressing “the situation in Palestine.” Photo: Valerie Robinson

Wits University SRC and the City of Johannesburg hosted a pro-Palestinian presentation, at Wits main campus yesterday.

With Palestinian Week in South Africa taking place next week, Dr Husam Zomlot spoke on “The situation in Palestine”

This event was part of a series of events put together to celebrate the relationship between South Africa and Palestine by the City of Johannesburg. This follows the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the City and Ramallah.

The guest speaker was Dr Husam Zomlot who is the director of the Commission for International Relations in Palestine.

The meeting started off with the chairperson, Prof Noor Nieftagodien, who is the Chairperson of the History Workshop School, shouting to the audience: “Viva Palestine!” To which the crowd responded “Viva”. He said he did this to see if the “right people are present.”

The South African Union of Jewish Students issued a statement on their Facebook account leading up to the presentation.“The mandate of the SRC is to promote the interests of all Wits students, not those which align with their own personal ideological agendas…We have no problem with hosting Palestinian week; but let perspective be added. We request the SRC invite an Israeli speaker; to share their story, and let our students decide for themselves.”

“We are expecting us, as leaders of the SRC, to be charged as well after making this speech”

Wits SRC President Mcebo Dlamini visited Palestine in November and said at the presentation that what is happening in Palestine now “it is an advanced form of colonialism from what we experienced here.” He said that negotiations will never assist anyone because there are those who have power of the media.

“We are expecting us, as leaders of the SRC, to be charged as well after making this speech because racism is still here in this university and it is still run by rationalists and people who do not want to hear the truth,” said Dlamini, when referring to taking a stand against Israel.

Zolmot said that Israel has won every battle against the Palestinians but has lost the war, with Palestinians having won on all moral, political and legal fronts.

“Israel want the occupied land more than what they want peace,” said Zolmot. He said Israel would rather be known as an apartheid state than relinquish control.

The assumption that Israel wants to be democratic, Zolmot said, is one of the main misconceptions that has kept Palestinians under its control. He ended his presentation by saying: “[Palestine is] much nearer to the finish line than many may think.”

Q&A with Bassem Eid

Bassem Eid, founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Photo: Provided

Bassem Eid, founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Photo: Provided

Palestinian journalist Bassem Eid is the founder and former director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies brought him out to speak about his work at various universities around the country during Israel Apartheid Week (IAW). This is his fourth time in South Africa.

What is your background?
I grew up in a camp in the Old City in Jerusalem. We were evacuated for no reason, one year before the 1967 war. I worked for B’Tselem [The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories] from the start of the first intifada [uprising], but I resigned because I was more interested in monitoring the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) violations of their own peoples’ rights.

What kind of work did you do there?
We released reports, six times a year that looked at the violations and atrocities committed by the PA, under the Yasser Arafat regime.

Did you feel this was more important to focus on than what the Israeli Defence Force was doing?
Yes, because it is more painful to commit these atrocities against their own people. For me, it became about defending Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. For them, the PA became another kind of occupation, and because of their corruption, these people have been left hopeless.

What is the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
There is no solution right now. The major problem right now is the lack of leadership on both sides. They will both have to wait for the coming generation. The right-wing Israeli government and the old faction of leaders on the Palestinian side.

Is Israel an apartheid state?
No, it isn’t. South African apartheid has never existed in Israel. Palestinians can study and receive medical care, which are the two most important rights.

What do you think about IAW?
It adds more hate to existing hate. South Africa has a propagandist notion towards the conflict. The money that is thrown at IAW should be used for South Africans who need it in the fight against poverty. BDS (Boycott, Divestement and Sanctions) is a prelude to genocide and the destruction of the Palestinian people. They have no idea what’s going on, they’re just adding more fuel to the flame.

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International law debated over Gaza conflict

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WAR TALK: Former Constitutional Court Justice Zak Yacoob (centre) uses Skype to moderate a debate on alleged violations of international law by Israel. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

The accusation that Israel is violating international law in the Gaza conflict was the issue at the first in a series of talks moderated by former Constitutional Court Justice Zak Yacoob at Wits Caltsty auditorium on West campus.

The debate featured well known law professors including Prof Alan Dershowitz, speaking for Israel’s actions in Gaza, and Prof John Dugard of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands speaking against Israel’s role in the recent conflict.

Dershowitz said Israel was defending itself in the conflict and should not be reprimanded for this. He argued the Gaza conflict was similar to a bank robbery in which police officers might hurt innocent civilians being used as shields by criminals.

He added that Israel should not be criticized and this would embolden Hamas, its opponent in the Gaza strip, to continue attacking Israel.

“Israel should not be condemned. If it is condemned it would encourage Hamas to do what it does,” Dershowitz said.

Dugard did not agree to the defence claim argued by Dershowitz.

“Israel’s defence claim is non-existent…It is a punishment to kill those occupying Gaza,” he said.

Dugard argued that only three Israeli civilians have been killed but over 2 000 Palestinians have been killed and 10 000 injured. He called Gaza a “killing field”.  He added that Israel was guilty of crimes against humanity because it had intentionally killed a large number of innocent Palestinian civilians who were in hospitals, mosques, schools and homes and should be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC) or a tribunal.

Dugard said accountability and responsibility was required from both Israel and Hamas.

“Accountability is of great importance in this battle,” Dugard said.

Dershowitz rejected holding Israel accountable in the ICC. He attacked the court’s credibility going so far as to call it an “apartheid court”.

“The international court is certainly not international and it is not a court of justice. It is essentially an apartheid court,” Dershowitz said.

BDS protests outside Joburg High Court

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A supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign stands in solidarity with the protest outside High Court earlier today. Photo: Luca Kotton

 

By Roxanne Joseph and Luca Kotton

Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign protested outside the Johannesburg High Court today where a case about the removal of Palestine solidarity billboards was to be heard.

The BDS movement, who are suing Continental Outdoor Media for the removal of Palestine solidarity billboards in 2012, staged a protest outside the court despite a postponement of the matter to later in the week.

The organisation is represented by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) and is arguing that the removal of the billboards goes against the principle of Freedom of Expression, according to BDS South Africa coordinator Muhammad Desai.

Desai says BDS are very confident they will win the case as this is a “contractual” and “constitutional” issue.

“The facts are very clear, in which Continental Media has succumb to the pressure. Unfortunately for Continental Media the Israeli lobby went very quickly to the media to take down the billboards. We don’t see any sign of the Israeli lobby now,” Desai said.

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Supporters of the BDS movement, including the ANC Youth League and Cosatu, protested outside High Court earlier today. Photo: Luca Kotton

He added, “We are here to send a very clear message … playing around with freedom of speech and freedom of expression will not be taken lightly. We fought very hard for these freedoms.”

The billboards depicted the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land through a series of maps titled “Palestinian Loss of Land- 1946 to 2010.”

The matter was not heard in court today as the LRC believes the time allocated to the case is too little.

“We need more than four hours for the matter to be heard, it’s quite a complex matter. So we’re waiting for a time later in the week when more than four hours can be allocated for us,” according to Naseema Fakir, regional director of the LRC.

Israel independence celebrated while Palestinian supporters protest

Camels, jumping castles and free falafels were all part of the unusual 66th Israel Independence Day celebrations at Wits yesterday.

But while some Witsies crossed the library lawns on the back of a camel, the Wits Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC) held a film screening to protest the celebrations.

The film based on the life of “terrorist” fighter Leila Khaled was used as a means of showing the desperation of the Palestinian people who are fighting for their independence.

While the film was being screened, some members of the Wits PSC protested on the library lawns alongside the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJUS) who celebrated Israel’s independence.

Several protesters said Israel had blood on its hands because the state was created “through the blood of Palestinians.”

Members of the Wits PSC insisted that while the film focused on violent means of protest, the PSC itself believed in a non-violent approach to the dispute between the two nations. Aaliyah Mohammed, a member of the PSC, says the committee fights by calling for sanctions and boycotts on Israeli academic, cultural and sport activities.

Another committee member, Muhammed Ismail Bulbulia added: “Until the very end, I would fight for what I believe in provided I’m justified in fighting for it.”

Both the protest and the celebrations were conducted next to each other but no incidents were reported.