Protest against the proposal, Cape Town, South Africa, June 29, 2012.
Protest against a proposal to label West Bank goods as coming from 'Israeli Occupied Territories,' Cape Town, South Africa, Friday, June 29, 2012. Photo by AP
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Johannesburg  – The Students’ Representative Council of the University of the Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, known as Wits, has declared an academic and cultural boycott of Israel in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

Apparently spurred on by an impassioned presentation by Israeli anarchist and activist, Jonathan Pollak, brought to South Africa by the Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions movement, the SRC president Tebogo Thothela announced the boycott on September 2.

Wits, one of South Africa’s four premier universities, has a long history as a center of anti-apartheid activity since the late 1950s.  

Wits university authorities admitted as many black students as possible though, at the time, this was against the law. Wits’ legendary vice-chancellor Guerino Renzo “Boz” Bozzoli was famous for defying the authorities and protecting his students. Renowned human rights lawyer, John Dugard, now an ad hoc judge at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, led the famous Wits law department.

During the South African apartheid struggle, a series of SRC presidents and students often clashed with police and were beaten, arrested and jailed. In general, SRCs in South Africa have been more politically active and relevant in national politics than is usually the case with student unions elsewhere in the world. 

 “Throughout the world, students joined people of conscience in opposing the [Apartheid] regime which systematically perpetrated racial injustice in South Africa,” states the Wits SRC resolution to boycott Israel. “Because of our history... we must unite and stand in solidarity with those who face similar oppression.

“The Wits Student Representative Council stands firm in its support of Palestinians and the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [against Israel] movement...[the SRC] will not participate in any form of cultural or academic collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions and will not provide any support to Israeli cultural or academic institutions.”

As part of the boycott, the SRC plans to approach other Wits departments and organizations to support their resolution, promote and support the annual Israeli Apartheid Week and BDS efforts, investigate any financial, cultural and academic associations between Wits and Israeli institutions and encourage other SRCs at South African universities to do the same.

Last year, the University of Johannesburg cancelled its bi-lateral agreement with the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the first academic institution internationally to cut ties with an Israeli institution formally. It was a cause célèbre and source of divisiveness in the local community as well as a major feather in the cap for anti-Israel BDS campaigners.  As a result, Israel withdrew the technology used by the University of Johannesburg in water purification projects.  

Wits is generally considered a much more prestigious university in terms of tradition and academic and political reputation.

“[It is] deplorable that the Wits SRC has adopted a vicious and one-sided resolution aimed at shutting down all debate and discussion surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Daniel Katzew, chairman of The South African Union of Jewish Students.  “This was done without consultation with the SRC’s constituents.  A sensitive issue such as the conflict in the Middle East has the potential to affect a large body of their constituency, and they should have followed due process.

“The veiled threat by the SRC to boycott not only Israel, but also to ‘promote the BDS campaign in terms of academic and cultural institutions relating to Israel’ is a bully-boy tactic to silence those with differing opinions on campus. …  Surely such fascist behavior has no place at Wits University, a university that has always prided itself on embracing diverse views and even dissenting opinions.”

Katzew noted, however, that the word "Zionist" does not appear anywhere in the SRC   resolution. "This does present something of a window for us, the Jewish students' union,” he said. “We are not after all an Israeli body, but a Jewish-Zionist one. So, presumably, we shall carry on with our activities such as Yom HaAtzmaut celebrations, etc."

Significantly, Prof Yunus Ballim, the Acting Vice-Chancellor and principal of the university, responded quickly.

“The University would like to affirm that the views and opinions expressed by the Students’ Representative Council and other student groups do not represent the official views of the University,” he said in a statement. “Nor are they an accurate reflection of the views of the majority of students, staff and alumni.

“Wits University is a leading institution on the African continent renowned for encouraging dialogue and debate on often diverse and conflicting views confronting society. It provides a platform for different constituencies to express their views and opinions through considered debate and intellectual engagement in the spirit of tolerance, respect and openness.”