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Israeli cooperation with Black leaders during the apartheid era

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Coming out from the cold

By David Kaplan

This article, written in 1997, tells the fascinating story of covert Israeli cooperation with anti-apartheid Black leaders  in South Africa during the darkest apartheid period.

If you chance to stroll along the stone paths of the wooded Beit Berl Campus outside of Kfar Saba in central Israel, you may be surprised to overhear conversations in Xhosa, Tswana, Zulu or Afrikaans. Participants of every shade of colour from South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation” are currently attending a unique ‘Community Development & Leadership Training’ programme. Why unique? Well, there is no other country in the world providing this essential training for South Africa’s future. That it has been doing so without any fuss or fanfare may explain why so few Israelis or South Africans know about it. A closely kept secrete, the programme has been running since the dark days of Apartheid.

 

On the day that a delegation of the South African Zionist Federation in Israel (Telfed) visited the campus, the atmosphere amongst the participants was jubilant. Met with traditional South African dance and music, the 28th group of participants was celebrating the near completion of their course with a farewell cocktail party.

Among the veterans of the Beit Berl programme are over two dozen mayors of South African towns and cities including the present mayors of the country’s two largest cities, Johannesburg and Cape Town, as well as those from smaller towns like Randburg, George, and Grahamstown. To that list, we can now add Port Alfred's mayor, Eric Khuluwe. He tells us, "Port Alfred is growing at an enormous pace as people are streaming in from the rural areas, seeking employment. The job situation is bleak and we are finding it an uphill battle to provide basic civic services. We have sixty-one local councils in my district and we need to involve as many people on the local level as possible in decision-making. This is the policy of the ANC government and is indicative of the nature of our democracy that empowers people to determine their own destiny. The Beit Berl three-week intensive course was excellent; it widened my horizons and provided practical guidance on team-management. I feel far better equipped to return to my city now and impact on its future. "

Since 1986,over twenty South African Members of Parliament, as well as hundreds of local government officials and ministers of provincial councils have passed through Beit Berl. Patrick Adams, a Coloured man in charge of Emergency & Disaster Management for the Cape Metropolitan Council in Cape Town, says, “The course was very professional. I am in charge of Reconstruction & Development programmes in the Western Cape region, and my team is currently immersed in running numerous housing and community projects. Not only have I learned a new dimension of problem solving, but I have also been exposed to the problems in Israel and enjoy a greater understanding of the issues here.”

What seems routine today all began in the undercover world of the early 80s when clandestine contacts took place between progressive Israelis and the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa. The local powerhouse behind this project is Professor Shimshon Zelnicker, who has masterfully manoeuvered between South Africans, Americans and Israelis, a fascinating amalgam of colourful characters including Hollywood stars, Jewish politicos, civil rights activists, freedom fighters and donors.

 

Zeinicker, a professor of political science at Beit Berl and at UCLA, was a member of Shimon Peres' advisory team in 1982. "I was given responsibility for third-world policies, and my first mission was making positive contact with leaders of the struggle in South Africa" The players in this unfolding theatre of clandestine operations spread across three continents. In South Africa, Clive Menell of Anglovaal paved the way by bringing on board Archbishop Benjamin Tutu. Soon other internationally renown personalities like Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden joined the circle, as did Ethel Kennedy, who twisted Tutu's arm into meeting with the Israelis.

 

This was the turning point, for what followed was a secret meeting in South Africa between a delegation of Israelis representing anti-apartheid sentiment and prominent Blacks, such as Albertina Sisulu and Ntatho and Sally Motlana. "We came out of the meeting with a clear mandate for action. Armed with an understanding that there would be no political manifestos and no pictures of politicians kissing each other, but a programme geared solely to assisting in the struggle, we approached Jews in the United States for support. In Israel, Yossi Beilin, Alon Liel, Ruth Baron and myself, among others, spearheaded the programme to be called the Israeli and South African Centres for International Cooperation" (ICIC) and would be based at Beit Berl.

CLANDESTINE RECRUITMENT
The early days saw us "pounding the pavements in South Africa for some twenty months recruiting support and participants. The success of the operation was predicated on our ability to keep it under wraps."  Asked how that was possible, Zelnicker replied, "You know how porcupines makes love?  Very carefully”.

The first group of twenty arrived in 1986 representing three constituencies - Soweto, the Cape Coloured community and Women's groups. “We brought in the Histadrut to help in the initial training,” said Zelnicker. “After the success of that first group, it was easier to obtain more funding. We approached very prominent, radically anti-Israel, Black leaders in the U.S. and received their blessing. Individual Jews donated large sums of money in the full knowledge that they would receive no recognition, and the American Government very quietly also assisted us in funding."

Zelnicker’s shuttling to and fro between Israel and South Africa was not without risk. "My visa was frequently revoked and on a few hair-raising occasions I was taken to police stations and interrogated without recourse to counsel. My associate Ruth Baron was also detained. There were many ways the South African Authorities could have derailed the programme and they made it crystal clear that physical intimidation could be escalated. We were worried about the graduates being whisked away on their return from Israel for interrogation and intimidation, which on occasion did happen." Despite all the harassment, including infiltration by the South African Bureau of State Security (BOSS), the programme flourished.

At one point in the late 1980s, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times bumped into a group of Black trainees in Tel Aviv. He thought he had uncovered the scoop of the century - ANC and AZAPO forge secret ties with Apartheid's ‘ally’! "He telephoned me and said, 'this is sensational. What’s it all about?”  When I explained to him the need for secrecy I thankfully managed to persuade him that the programme and South Africa’s future were far more important than his ego. He dropped the story."

A NEW AGE

It was only a year or so after Mandela's release that the programme's profile entered the public domain. “In 1993 we introduced a rural community development programme in the former homelands, and it was then that we came out into the open,” reveals Zelnicker.

 

Today the programme has wide appeal throughout South Africa. Another participant in the present programme is Thabisile Msezane from Boksburg, who runs a day care-centre. Thabasile explains, "In the Boksburg area there were no schools and children loitered aimlessly in the streets wasting away their lives. Each day I noticed a little boy roaming around the shopping centre where I bought milk. He would ask me for money to buy food. I thought, “What kind of future does this child have?”

 

As I was starting a day care centre, I wanted to enroll this kid and so went in search of his parents. I was directed to a shabby compound behind a farmhouse, where I found his them. While speaking to the boy’s father, the child spread the word amongst his friends telling them he was going to school. By the end of my conversation, I had enrolled another twelve children. Today I have 150 pupils, some of whom walk a distance of twelve kilometres to get to the school.”

Trevor Ngwame, a councillor from Johannesburg, was all praise for the Beit Berl programme. "We are dealing with the legacy of apartheid - no jobs, lack of housing and poor education. My approach is to offer people hope, and motivate them to organize themselves. We have seen how successful Israelis have been in overcoming insurmountable odds.

 

Like South Africa, this country has never been short of problems and yet it manages to advance amazingly. This is what we want to do. Of course, Israel’s problems are very different, and in the South African context we have to ensure that people see a light at the end of the tunnel. I am not na´ve to believe that matters are going to fall into place overnight. While the government must deliver the goods, the people also have to rise up to the challenge and they need the tools to it. This programme has been a tremendous help in this regard.’

 

Zeinicker concludes, "As a Jew I have learnt that liberation is not simply about taking the people out of the ghetto. It means taking the ghetto out of the people. To say that I am proud of this programme would be an understatement."

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