An Aug. 9 rally in Cape Town, protesting Israel's military action in Gaza, drew as many as 200,000 people. Some protesters carried placards condemning Israel as an "apartheid state," the same phrase used to denounce South Africa's official policy of racial discrimination until 1991.
Millions of South Africans feel a connection to Palestinians living under what is considered Israeli occupation, a point reinforced by Israel's close relationship with South Africa's apartheid governments of the 1970s and 1980s.
Although South Africa's small Jewish population -- estimated at 15,000 in a country of 48 million people -- has a strongly pro-Israel sentiment, it includes writers like Heidi-Jane Esakov, who posted a comment on the Israeli website +972:
"For many South Africans this conflict feels deeply personal. Across religion and race many identify with the Palestinian cause and see the conflict as an extension of their own struggle against apartheid... the relevance for South Africans is further heightened with South Africa's apartheid experience playing a significant role in how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is being framed and understood at the global level."
Her fiancé, David Jacobson, who like Esakov is South African and Jewish, added, "Our apartheid past has left us with a sense of unfinished business. There's transference here, (the conflict in Gaza) is personal. It's seen as another colonial exercise."
South Africa's unease with the Gaza conflict is subtle, but evidence is noticeable. A high school football league did not schedule games after an Islamic school withdrew, claiming it could not compete with students' minds on Israel's actions in Gaza.
Joshua Broomberg, a deputy head of a Jewish school involved in a debating tournament, and his fellow debaters wore Palestinian headscarves "to show our opposition to human rights violations carried out against the people of Palestine," he said on social media. They were vilified for their actions, although defended by the ruling African National Congress party.
The day following the massive Cape Town rally, a pro-Israel rally drew no more than 5,000 people. The Facebook page of the Jewish Board of Deputies, South Africa's strong supporter of Israel, routinely receives threatening message involving World War II concentration camps. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki has called for a boycott of Israel-made products.
South Africa's attitude on Gaza follows a comment made in 1997 by Nelson Mandela: "Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians." One of Mandela's first international trips, after his 1990 release from prison, was to then-Palestine liberation organization chairman Yasser Arafat.
The land of apartheid seem solidly on the Palestinian side.
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