Minister urges students to lobby BRICS over Palestine

South African students should lobby for the issue of Palestine to be included in the BRICS’ agenda as part of a multipronged approach to tackling the long-standing Palestinian question, the South African higher education minister has said.

Speaking at the University of Cape Town on 14 March as part of the university’s Palestine Solidarity Forum's 14th Israeli Apartheid Week, South Africa's Minister of Higher Education and Training and member of the ruling ANC party’s National Executive Committee, Naledi Pandor, said the South African government and the ANC must re-energise their commitment to tackle issues affecting the people of Palestine, but that by calling for an academic boycott the ministry would be infringing upon academic freedom.

“An academic boycott must be organised by academics not the minister of higher education,” said Pandor, after delivering a lecture titled "Cutting Ties with Israel: Embassy Downgrade? Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions?"

In a prepared speech for the occasion, Pandor said the failure to make progress towards change in Palestine "may mean we need to identify powerful members of the global community who may give greater impetus to progress in finding a two-state solution; perhaps the BRICS countries should be called on to assume such global leadership".

South Africa is this year’s chair of the trade bloc known as BRICS, made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Pandor said South Africans should support international struggles for freedom in the same way that the global community stood in solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

“One of the things we failed to appreciate as South Africans is the immense contribution to our struggle by the international anti-apartheid movement. We enjoyed support from all corners of the world and now that we are free we are ignoring and enjoying our freedom and we have forgotten those who are oppressed in other parts of the world.”

“Now that we have achieved our freedom, we must not forget our friends and allies who helped us liberate ourselves,” she cautioned.

Israel is an officially Jewish country. Palestine is a set of two separate, ethnically Arab and largely Muslim territories: the West Bank and Gaza. While there is no internationally recognised line between Israel and Palestine, the borders are disputed.

South Africa’s ruling ANC recently voted in favour of downgrading the South African embassy in Israel. Pandor said it was not an anti-Israel resolution, but a pro-Palestine resolution.

“There has been consternation in Israel about the ANC decision, but the decision does not detract from our commitment to a two-state solution. It does express our dismay and anger at the absence of any attempt by Israel and its powerful friends in the North to free the people of Palestine from the oppression they suffer today,” she said.

Describing the education system for Palestinians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories as “deeply discriminatory”, she said: “Palestinians receive less funding, fewer teachers, and Arab students and lecturers are underrepresented in Israel’s universities and other institutes of higher education”.

Drawing links between the Palestinian situation and apartheid in South Africa – where there was fragmentation along racial lines, unequal access to education and training at all levels, and no democratic control within the education system – she said Palestinians currently faced a “similar situation, not only in education but also in other key areas of life”.