Eric Lee

Why South African trade unionists hate Israel – and what we can do about it

The news this week out of South Africa could hardly have been worse.

Tony Ehrenreich, provincial secretary of the Western Cape branch of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), was accused by Jewish organizations of hate speech.  They claimed that on Facebook he wrote:

The time has come to say very clearly that if a woman or child is killed in Gaza, then the Jewish board of deputies, who are complicit, will feel the wrath of the People of SA with the age old biblical teaching of an eye for an eye . . .The time has come for the conflict to be waged everywhere the Zionist supporters fund and condone the war killing machine of Israel.

Ehrenreich denied that he was an anti-Semite, but it’s not the first time a COSATU leader has used inflammatory rhetoric against Israel and the South African Jewish community.

Bongani Masuku, who is in charge of international relations at COSATU, was convicted of hate speech by the South African Human Rights Commission in 2009.  At the height of the 2008-9 Gaza war, when tensions were already high, Masuku announced that COSATU would target Jewish supporters of Israel and “make their lives hell” and urged that “every Zionist must be made to drink the bitter medicine they are feeding our brothers and sisters in Palestine”.

The case of Masuku demonstrates how serious the problem is.  It is not confined to South Africa.  COSATU has tried to use its considerable influence in the international trade union movement to whip up hatred towards Israel.

A COSATU-led attempt to demonize and isolate Israel at the June 2010 congress of the International Trade Union Confederation was thwarted.  But Masuku and his comrades continue to use inflammatory rhetoric, claiming that Israel is “worse than apartheid”, and relying on their reputation as the movement that brought down the racist regime in South Africa.  Over time, it is likely that their influence will grow.

Why are these South African trade unionists so hostile to the Jewish state?

There are a number of reasons, including the Israeli government’s unfortunate decision to collaborate with the apartheid regime in South Africa right up until its fall.   Israel worked — covertly in most cases — with the racist regime because it was facing diplomatic isolation and took friends wherever it could find them.

Ironically, the liberation movement in South Africa did the same thing — finding allies where they could when they felt weak and isolated.  That explains why Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) found themselves closely allied to Arab dictators like Qaddafi, or the Soviet Union and its client states.

Unfortunately, those alliances helped teach the ANC that Israel was the enemy.

Some might also say that the relationship between the local South African Jewish community and the black majority has contributed to the rise of anti-Semitism in the country.  While there were certainly some Jews who supported the apartheid regime and profited from it, there were many others — most notably Joe Slovo, the leader of the South African Communist Party — who played leading roles in the liberation struggle.

It is time for the South African labour movement to move on, and to reject the extreme hatred of Israel they learned from Qaddafi and Brezhnev.

To do this will require a re-thinking about certain ideas that have been unchallenged in South Africa for a generation.  But this is a moment where many South Africans are questioning their leaders, and the iron grip of the ANC leadership is slipping.  Maybe it’s time for the comrades to re-think the traditional hostility towards Israel too.

Israel can play a role in this — and the Histadrut is central to the process.  The Histadrut can build bridges with South African trade unions (not all of them COSATU affiliates), identifying those who, unlike Masuku and Ehrenreich, are not fanatically pro-Hamas.

The Histadrut has much to teach South African trade unionists, especially when it comes to organizing new members in a challenging environment.  But Histadrut can also learn from South Africa’s trade unionists, whose successful revolutionary struggle continues to inspire the world.

It is not about using the Histadrut as an arm of Israeli foreign policy.  It’s about both sides, South African trade unionists and Israelis, rediscovering that what unites them is more important than what divides them.

It’s about rediscovering solidarity.


About the Author
Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the author of several books about 20th-century history. His next book is The August Uprising 1924: Georgia and the Birth of Democratic Socialism. He was a member of Kibbutz Ein Dor from 1981-1998.