Support the Mass Struggle

Translation/Interpretation/Caption Text: 

In 1980 the Palestinian refugee artist Abdul Hay Musallam created a Palestinian-South African solidarity sculpture that was featured in a poster entitled, “Support the Mass Struggle Against Apartheid in South Africa.”

The International Artists Group (IAG) poster publication is important for being one of the earliest known representations of Palestinian/anti-apartheid solidarity. 

The poster was created at least two full decades after anti-apartheid activism had already assumed global dimensions as a mass movement. As will be argued in this paper, by the early 1950s even the nascent state of Israel had already started creating its own representations of apartheid, effectively making apartheid the subject of books and plays suitable for domestic mass-consumption, and marketing anti-apartheid activism as a central vehicle for its foreign relations.

By the turn of the 1960s, following the Sharpeville Massacre near Johannesburg, when state brutality against Black South Africans was broadcast to the world, anti-apartheid activism generated unprecedented levels of international awareness, leading to a series of UN condemnations and resolutions. Apartheid “opened a window on the paradoxes of the so-called ‘modern’ world—and highlighted how concepts of nationalism, development, justice, and self-determination [could take] on new meanings” (Irwin 2010: 323).

By 1980, apartheid had, for many groups, become a lens through which knowledge-power could be theorized. Musallam’s own artwork was generally influenced by symbolism (Look 2015). In the present instance, the anti-apartheid poster’s representation of an emblematic “Africanness” uncomfortably recalls colonial motifs, with the barefoot, pre-modern Africans as guerilla fighters wielding modern military weapons, but flanked by tribal huts and rural motifs.

The English caption appears as if in a schoolchild’s script, in an uneven cursive that seems inexperienced and insecure, or “primitive,” with a (mis)corrected error in the cursive “f” in the centrally framed word, “Africa.” This expression of childishness, incompetence or carelessness is remarkable in the body of Palestinian posters, which were, as a rule, highly invested in both graphic and technical sophistication.

Researcher Dan Walsh, whose Palestine Poster Project Archives has an original print of the poster, has proffered the explanation that “spelling mistakes were common in revolutionary posters.” There is dubious evidence to support this explanation, especially as, jarring against the labored writing, the actual spelling of the difficult word “apartheid” is without error. In all, for whatever reasons, the message that the poster conveys winds up being as much about South African-Palestinian solidarity as it is about its opposite: disruption, fissure, uncertainty and distance – as well as stereotype. The inextricable contradictions posed by this rare Palestinian anti-apartheid solidarity poster from 1980 allow new points of entry into a series of questions that this thesis seeks to address. Primarily, how did the Palestinian resistance render the meaning of apartheid and appropriate that term for the analysis of its own condition during the early postcolonial era? And what had mobilized such appropriations?

Within a growing corpus of research aiming to historicize the “apartheid analogy,” it is often pointed out that between 1971-1972, Beirut-based Palestinian circulars (namely, Shu’un Filastiniya and Al-Hadaf) were brokering early comparisons between the Bantustan strategy in South Africa and the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands (Clarno 2009: 66-67). Thus it is often assumed that the theorization of Zionist segregation as a “style” of apartheid (much as Jim Crow was theorized as a “style” of apartheid) did not occur until the early 1970s, and that even then, the comparisons were infrequently made, and made without any attendant cultural expressions.

The belated appearance of apartheid as a mode of analysis in Palestinian discourse in the 1970s, and its relative absence in debate until around the mid-1980s (when the apartheid analysis of Palestine suddenly began to proliferate rapidly in images and texts) is commonly accepted as a given. Thus in the introduction to a 2015 collection of essays entitled, Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy, the editors claim that “although comparisons between Israel and South Africa stretch back to the 1970s, the past decade has seen a growing recognition that Israel’s policies and practices toward the Palestinian people should be characterized as apartheid” (Soske and Jacobs 2015:2; my emphasis)