South African Academics Condemn Israel’s Gaza War

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Israeli and Palestinian flags on a brick wall with blood splatters. International conflict and the fight against terrorism.

Outrage about the situation in Gaza is growing in academic circles in South Africa, judging by the proliferation of critical pronouncements about the unfolding crisis in Palestine.

Thousands of individuals in South Africa’s higher education sector have taken a public stand against Israel’s war in Gaza, imploring related bodies and institutions in South Africa to do the same.

A prominent recent initiative came in the form of an open letter, which started circulating on 9 November and has, by 13 November, drawn the support of 1,063 individuals – including researchers, lecturers, administrators and students at public universities and other structures in the country.

“As South Africans, we recognise the importance that international solidarity played in our struggle to end apartheid,” the signatories say, welcoming the “growing solidarity action from many sections of civil society in South Africa, such as interfaith groups, students, academics, solidarity groups and trade unions”.

These all “condemn the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe and call for an immediate ceasefire and the smooth passage of humanitarian aid into Gaza”, the open letter says.

It goes on to “condemn Israel’s onslaught on the people of Gaza, its blockade of water, food, medicines and fuel to Gaza, and the targeting of schools, universities, hospitals and emergency support infrastructure”.

In Tanzania, 86 academics issued a “statement in solidarity with Palestine” on 21 October. They called on their government to break all ties with Israel, and on other Tanzanians “not to remain silent” but “come out in any way that is appropriate … as do our fellow Africans in South Africa”.

The open letter also mentions the recent bombing of the Islamic University of Gaza and Al-Azhar University of Gaza by Israel.

Israel launched its military campaign to defeat Hamas after Hamas fighters entered Israeli territory on 7 October and killed hundreds of Israeli civilians as well as soldiers, leaving 1,200 dead. They also took 240 hostages.

The Israeli military response, involving thousands of air strikes and a ground invasion in the 30-mile (48km) long Gaza Strip, has killed more than 11,000 people, 68% of them women and children, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, and has created a humanitarian crisis, with most of the two million population forced to flee their homes.

It was reported earlier that Palestinian higher education has been severely disrupted by the war in Gaza and the ongoing conflict in the West Bank and Jerusalem, citing an announcement by the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research that 439 Palestinians from the university community had been killed and 11 higher education buildings destroyed or damaged since the start of the war.

Earlier protests in South Africa

In South Africa, an earlier open letter by educators, artists, students and cultural workers in October attracted the support of more than 1,400 signatories.

They “asserted the right to teach against [both] anti-semitism and the occupation of Palestine” and called on educational institutions to “protect educators who stand with Palestine”.

There have also been statements about the war by several established academic groupings in South Africa in the past two weeks.

The Institute for Economic Justice called “for an immediate cease to Israel’s assault on Gaza, the lifting of the blockade preventing essential medicines, fuel, food, and water from entering Gaza, and holding all those responsible for war crimes accountable”.

The International Education Association of South Africa condemned the destruction of schools and universities in Gaza by the Israeli army, saying “These attacks on Palestinian educational institutions are nothing but an epistemicide – a brutal attempt to annihilate the Palestinian knowledge system”.

The South African Sociological Association expressed “solidarity with the students, academics, activists and governments who have raised their voices against the Israeli blockade of Gaza”.

Students have also been speaking out. In a statement on 11 October, the South African Students Congress (SASCO) reaffirmed its “unconditional support” for the people of Palestine, the “students and scholars” there, and the “Palestinian cause for liberation”. The organisation also said it “supports the call for an academic boycott of Israel by all South African institutions and scholars”.

Spearheading the initiative

Saleem Badat, a research professor in the Department of History at the University of the Free State (UFS), spoke to University World News about the open letter of 13 November. He was one of a “collective of five” individuals who spearheaded the initiative.

The others were Professor Ahmed Bawa, the previous CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf), Professor Salim Vally, director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, Nasima Badsha, former CEO of the Cape Higher Education Consortium, and Judith Favish, affiliated to the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.

Other signatories include Professors Reggie Nel, dean of theology at Stellenbosch University, Priya Soma-Pillay, chairperson of the school of medicine at the University of Pretoria, Pierre de Vos, holder of the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at the University of Cape Town, and Jairam Reddy, former vice-chancellor of the then University of Durban-Westville (now part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal).

The open letter bemoans the “deafening silence” from university leaders, administrators and sectoral bodies, in particular, USAf, and says that universities in South Africa “should be playing a leading role in raising concerns about … the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza in line with the values of our constitution which enjoin us to respect human rights and the right to life”.

Badat had, on occasion, served as chairperson of the organisation when he was leading Rhodes University from 2006 to 2014. His successor at Rhodes University, Professor Sizwe Mabizela, is among the signatories of the open letter.

Approached for comment, Mabizela made it clear that Rhodes University had not taken any particular stand on the situation in Gaza as an institution: “Any official position of the university would have to be debated and approved at the university governance structures.”

He said that he supported the open letter in his capacity because “[e]very human life is sacred” and “[t]he needless, senseless and callous loss of human life – new-born babies and the elderly – and the wanton destruction of property offend my sensibilities”.

He added: “No peace, let alone lasting peace, can be achieved through the murder of defenceless people. Holding people hostage is just as indefensible and morally reprehensible as the bombing of hospitals.”

Pronouncements by universities

Staff members and students from 18 of South Africa’s 26 public universities signed the November open letter in their capacity. University World News could find only two formal pronouncements about the situation in Gaza by public universities in South Africa.

On 20 October, UFS issued a statement calling for “the peaceful resolution of conflict in the Middle East”.

It said that the management of the university “strongly condemns the killing and displacement of innocent civilians as a result of this conflict”, adding that UFS “calls on international bodies, governments, and civil society to prioritise peaceful means of resolving these conflicts, guided by a dedicated commitment to human rights, social justice, and humanitarian interventions”.

In an internal memorandum distributed by e-mail on 3 November, Stellenbosch University Rector and Vice-Chancellor Professor Wim de Villiers noted the “complexity” of “navigating” the Israel-Palestine situation as a public institution.

He emphasised that Stellenbosch University stands for “the principles of peace, respect for human rights, freedom of expression and the principles of international humanitarian law”, and remains dedicated to “the core values of academic freedom, inclusivity and the promotion of constructive dialogue”.

He added: “It is in this spirit that we support our student communities, including those with differing perspectives on the Israel-Palestine issue, in expressing their views peacefully and engaging in constructive discussions within the boundaries of university policies and the law.”

The November open letter calls on USAf, the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and their member institutions to “issue a statement that unambiguously expresses solidarity with universities in Gaza and the occupied territories and mourns the death of academics and students who have been killed during the Israeli onslaught”.

It also implores these bodies to “promote the academic and cultural boycott of Israel by calling on universities to sever all institutional links with Israeli institutions”.

Mateboho Green, corporate communications manager at USAf, told University World News that the CEO, Dr Phethiwe Matutu, had received the open letter and that the organisation is “considering the matter”.

Professor Stepanie Burton, interim president of ASSAf, said the organisation’s council “is engaging in discussion regarding the preparation of a statement”, adding that “such consultations are necessary, and can take time”.

How the higher education sector should handle a situation like the Israel-Palestine conflict, contested by opposing sides, each with strong views, is a thorny issue. Academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association are often weighed up against security concerns and institutions’ fear of offending or alienating any particular section of their community.

Gasant Abarder, media manager at the University of the Western Cape, told University World News that, “part of what universities do, is to contest ideas in an academic space, but also to facilitate conversations and dialogues that can hopefully lead to solutions”.

“There is a lot of anger out there at the moment. So, university researchers and academics have to be thought leaders and help us make sense of complex situations like Palestine and Israel, but they should also bring temperatures down,” he said.

2023 University World News

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