Student protests are pivotal to ending the Gaza genocide

DIRCO Minister Dr Naledi Pandor has welcomed the growing international movement of student activism in support of justice for the people of Palestine. | Jason Boud

DIRCO Minister Dr Naledi Pandor has welcomed the growing international movement of student activism in support of justice for the people of Palestine. | Jason Boud

Published May 12, 2024


By Tswelopele Makoe

SOUTH Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) Dr Naledi Pandor has welcomed the growing international movement of student activism in support of justice for the people of Palestine.

Speaking at the second Shireen Abu Akleh Memorial Lecture at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Pandor, a crusader for Palestine’s liberation, said: “South Africa’s institutions of higher learning had a special responsibility to show solidarity with Palestine because of SA’s history.”

The lecture commemorates Abu Akleh, a distinguished Palestinian-American journalist who served as a reporter for Al Jazeera and was fatally killed in 2022 while reporting on the West Bank.

Here, Pandor highlighted the mobilisation of higher education students across the world in support of Palestine, saying: “We are also buoyed by the growing mobilisation on college campuses across the world in support of the just cause for freedom and justice of the people of Palestine.”

The nation of Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas have been at the current state of war since early October of 2023. The tensions between the two have been steadily heightening since Hamas ascended to power and became the sole ruler of Gaza back in 2007.

Both sides have accused each other of crimes against humanity and have been embroiled in several confrontations over the past decade alone.

Since October 7, more than 34 000 Palestinians have been killed, and tens of thousands injured by Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza. This includes over 14 000 children and 10 000 women. Today, over 10 000 others are still missing and presumably trapped under heaps of rubble.

Israel’s war on Gaza has been especially gut-wrenching to watch, as our own context shares a similarly ferocious past. The history of South Africa, the ruthlessness of the apartheid regime, and the extensive journey that has been taken to rebuild the nation has not been an easy feat.

It is evident both now, and throughout global history, that war is extensively destructive. The obliteration of schools, hospitals and various other infrastructures is debilitating in the long term. The destruction of infrastructure has been directly linked to lower levels of literacy in affected societies.

Furthermore, war (leaves) masses of people homeless and insecure. This affects the standard of living, the socialisation of a community, the attainment of self-empowerment, societal development and the overall quality of life of affected communities. This is especially detrimental to low-income countries.

Wars have an adverse ripple effect across the nation. National instability leads to an incline in violence, crime and general lawlessness. There is also a major environmental impact that takes place, affecting living conditions, food production, business productivity and the overall national economy.

For some nations, it takes generations to reverse the effects of wartime. The physical and psychological consequences are perpetually felt. In addition to this, the people that are considerably affected by wartime are innocent bystanders, the civilians.

The trauma of catastrophic injuries, disabilities, illnesses and death are not only devastating, but also difficult to contend with in unstable environments.

The psychological impact of war should not be underestimated. Countless people experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), debilitating depression, heightened anxiety, among various other psychosomatic issues.

This leads to an array of societal challenges that have to be grappled with. For example, malnutrition, sexual violence, homelessness, substance abuse ‒ to name a few ‒ are especially propelled in contexts of war and instability.

Speaking at the Abu Akleh Memorial Lecture, Pandor spoke at length about student protests opposing the Gaza war. Since mid-April, student activism against the war has been extensively publicised, inspired by a camp-out protest that was held by Columbia University students in the United States of America.

This has inspired innumerable student protests across the globe, from European countries such as Spain, Denmark, the UK, Netherlands and Belgium, to Japan, Australia, Lebanon and Jordan.

The protesters, alongside an array of academics at various institutions of higher learning, are calling on their institutions to dissociate from companies profiting from the Israel-Gaza war.

“Columbia was the first US university to divest from apartheid South Africa,” Pandor recalled. Pandor also recognised Yale University, the University of Minnesota, New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for recently joining the pro-Palestinian movement.

Closer to home, Pandor highlighted the fact that the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University Senate members have all released official statements of support advocating for an immediate ceasefire to the genocide and barbaric destruction of Gaza.

“The UCT Senate has resolved that no UCT academic should collaborate with any academic on any research project if they are identified with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). The majority in the Senate voted in favour of supporting Palestinian academics and the right to have debates on Zionism without being accused of anti-Semitism.”

The Minister said one of the strongest statements on this matter came from the University of Fort Hare (UFH), demanding an immediate ceasefire to be enforced by the United Nations, along with the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza. “The university has expressed its support for our government’s call for the International Criminal Court to investigate international war crimes committed by Israel.”

UFH have also committed not to pursue any institutional links with Israeli institutions, as these have played a central role in supporting settler colonial oppression and apartheid and have been complicit in grave violations of human rights.

Student protests are a democratic tradition across campuses all over the world. They highlight the participation of the youth in shaping national discourses and social justice issues in their society.

The proliferation of student protests across the world has been a stark indication of the extensively blatant human rights violations that are taking place in Gaza, and more so, the inability of superior international organisations such as the United Nations, to truly protect the people when it matters.

This has been repeatedly proved, particularly in the African contest, where despite humanitarian aid and political interventions, conflicts are generally prolonged and nefariously instigated.

In South Africa, the youth – and students effectively – comprise the larger majority of the population. There is a proclivity of governance and those in power to blatantly exclude and ignore the voice of the youth. In fact, it is oftentimes through protests that student voices and challenges are highlighted at all.

Students and the youth in general have a unique power to shape the direction of our society. Every institution, every sector in our society has youth representation.

It is vital that they do not stand silent in times of injustice. South African youth in particular should look to their immediate past, the erstwhile apartheid regime, and be steadfast in the mission to ensure that such atrocities never take place again.

Protests and various forms of activism are pertinent in our society. They not only define boundaries, but (demonstrate) that there are consequences to injustice, and more importantly, highlight the role of the citizens in the functions and politics of a nation.

It is also pertinent to remember that the youth is the future. They have a responsibility to shape the society that they were born into, and to hold all forms of deviance accountable.

Governments should be progressive and stand in solidarity with students protesting the Gaza war. It is an internationally publicised atrocity that will affect Palestinians for generations to come.

To turn a blind eye to the genocide in Gaza is to be overlooked when your own home is obliterated. Based purely on the sentiments of Ubuntu/Botho, South Africans should be steadfast and ferocious in their advocacy for a ceasefire in Gaza and an immediate dissociation with those that continue to perpetuate this atrocious genocide.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once honourably said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

* Tswelopele Makoe is a Gender & Social Justice Activist, published weekly in the Sunday Independent & IOL, Global South Media Network and Eswatini Times. She is also an Andrew W Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.