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PALESTINIAN anthropologist and grass-roots activist Ala Alazzeh remembers being sent as a 12-year-old boy to buy a packet of cigarettes and being scolded by a bystander for choosing a brand containing tobacco believed to be imported from South Africa.
That was 1988, when apartheid was in full force, and 12 years after South African prime minister John Vorster’s visit to Israel which laid the groundwork for an intimate and long-standing military collaboration between the two countries.
It was a decade in which, according to Guardian journalist Chris McGreal, the two countries were echoing each other “in justifying the domination of other peoples. Both said that their own peoples faced annihilation from external forces — in South Africa by black African governments and communism; in Israel, by Arab states and Islam”.
“So South Africa has always been a significant place for me,” Alazzeh told The Witness during a recent visit to the city to deliver the second annual Mzwandile R. Nunes Memorial Lecture hosted by University of KZN’s Ujamaa Centre for Biblical and Theological Community Development and Research.
“And when apartheid collapsed, it was an inspirational moment for Palestinians.”
Palestinians today look to South Africa for solidarity, he said. “People in South Africa were able to dismantle the most racist system in the world. We expect a lot from South Africans.”
Alazzeh said he believes the global economic downturn could precipitate a move towards fascism in countries such as Israel.
“The Great Depression of the twenties and thirties heralded the rise of fascism in Europe. I worry that this so-called ‘crisis’ of the world economy may give more power to authoritarian movements and produce painful consequences for Palestine in particular,” he said in his presentation on the implications of the global economic crisis for Palestine and the South.
Alazzeh said the global economic downturn was now being described as a “crisis” because it affected the interests of the ruling capitalist elite.
“The crisis is real, but it has nothing to do with financial matters. For a long time, there has been a crisis for the working classes, for landless people, refugees and farmers ... profit over people is the baseline of the crisis,” he told an appreciative audience, made up of university staff and students, young people from a range of church-based organisations and members of the public.
Born, raised and still resident in the Azzeh refugee camp in Bethlehem, the smallest United Nations-registered refugee camp in the West Bank, Alazzeh lectures at Dar Al-Kalima College in Bethlehem and is pursuing PhD studies at the Rice University in Texas, United States.
In his spare time, he’s a volunteer for a grass-roots educational organisation working with refugee children in his camp.
In his speech, he said the phenomenon of settler colonialism is integral to understanding the situation in Palestine where the peace process, started in the 1990s, reinforced Palestine’s position as a consumer economy heavily dependent on aid.
He highlighted as a potential problem the growing trend towards what he called “NGO-ism” which sees grass-roots activists in Palestine increasingly moving into formal employment in non-governmental organisations, themselves increasingly accountable to their funders rather than the beneficiaries of their work.
In this context, grassroots volunteerism should be encouraged, said Alazzeh, who also praised the Islamic Movement in Palestine for their grass-roots work. “I’m not an outright supporter of the movement, but they are doing work on the ground,” he said.
After the lecture, Alazzeh was to fly to Johannesburg to be part of the Abahlali-based Mjondolo delegation attending the Constitutional Court hearing into the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-Emergence of Slums Act (Slums Act), passed in 2007 by the provincial legislature.