South African Muslims Didn’t Vote for Pro-Palestine Parties. Why Not?

A long history of inter-communal tension.

by Ilham Rawoot

11 June 2024

A woman waves a Palestine flag while shouting
A Palestine protester participates in a demo outside the US Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa, June 2024. Nic Bothma/Matrix Images

For the first time since Nelson Mandela led it to victory at the end of apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) has lost its majority in South Africa. Having secured just 40.2% of the vote in last month’s election (down from 57.5% in 2019), President Cyril Ramaphosa must now scramble to form a coalition government. While it was predicted that the ANC would lose its majority – for several reasons, including widespread corruption, lack of basic services like toilets and electricity, and regular power cuts – there were two unexpected outcomes.

One was that controversial former President Jacob Zuma’s MK Party (which stands for uMkhonto Wesizwe, named after the ANC’s former military wing during apartheid) obtained 14.6% of the vote. Zuma’s success surprised many in the country to whom he remains a political pariah, having been forced to resign as president in 2018 following allegations of corruption and then spending two months in prison for contempt of court. Zuma continues to invite controversy, saying recently that under his presidency, pregnant teenagers would be banished to an island, and military conscription and corporal punishment in schools would be reinstated.

The other surprise outcome was that the majority of South African Muslims, of whom I am one, place their resentment of their Black compatriots before their solidarity with Palestine.

Strange bedfellows.

Palestinian liberation has been critical to South Africa since the anti-apartheid struggle.

“We know too well our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” Nelson Mandela famously said in 1997. Seven years earlier, Yasser Arafat was one of the first national leaders Mandela met upon his release from prison.

Both the South African establishment and the general public remain deeply committed to Palestine: the ANC has led the international pro-Palestine movement at a government level, taking Israel to the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, and meeting with Hamas officials in South Africa. On the streets, the walls of many houses are covered in murals; a painted Palestine flag covering an entire block of council flats can be seen from the freeway many kilometres away. The country’s Muslims are no exception to this almost universal solidarity.

South Africa’s pro-Palestine marches, which have attracted tens of thousands of people, are the only times most Muslims take to the streets to demonstrate.

International onlookers may be surprised, then, to discover that in May’s election, the majority of the country’s Muslim community voted for the one party that isn’t pro-Palestine: the centre-right and mostly white-led Democratic Alliance (DA).

The country’s main opposition party, founded in 2000 by a South African Jewish Zionist who is married to an Israeli journalist, has always criticised the ANC’s progressive stance on Palestine, pushing for the ANC to use the narrative of Israeli “self-defence”. It is also one of the few parties in the country to be outspokenly supportive of Israel. Following the events of 7 October, the DA released a statement calling on the government to “unequivocally condemn” the Hamas attacks, adding: “While we recognise the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, we equally recognise the right of the Israeli state to defend herself and her people.”

Since then the party has been silent at worst and neutral at best as the genocide has unfolded. With the fear that it would lose its Muslim voters in May, it moved to safer language, but still within the framing of ’both sides’, claiming that it “stands in solidarity with both Palestinians and Israelis who seek a two-state solution” and “against radicalism and violence”.

Many assumed the DA’s stubbornly pro-Israel stance would push Muslim voters either to smaller parties or to the ANC. Yet many Muslims have been outspoken in their criticism of the party’s position on Palestine. Imams pray for Palestine after every prayer, Muslim political parties and politicians regularly make statements about Palestine, and rants about the DA are commonplace at Muslim family gatherings. The polls, however, tell a different story.

A government breakdown of the election results showed that voting stations in Muslim-majority neighbourhoods like Rondebosch East in Cape Town and Westville in Durban produced massive support for the DA (35% and 63% respectively). Memes soon began making the rounds in Muslim community WhatsApp groups, saying “Who TF voted for the DA?” In truth, many of the country’s Muslims didn’t so much vote for the DA as against the ANC.

Historic hatred.

Anti-Black racism has long been a major vein of South Africa’s Muslim life.

The community is made up predominantly of Indian immigrants, as well as the descendants of Indonesian and other south-east Asian slaves brought to the country by Dutch colonisers in the 18th century, A smaller population of Somali and West African migrants is also steadily growing.

Yet it is Indian Muslims who have a particular reputation for anti-Black racism.

Arriving mostly between the late 1800s and the mid-1900s and hailing largely from smaller villages in the north of India, many brought with them a strong sense of the caste system, a system of racial hierarchy that apartheid compounded.

The apartheid government, which ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994, introduced not a binary system of racial control but a spectrum along which racial groups were placed. Between whites and Blacks were Indians – both indentured labourers from South India and north Indians who came as migrants- Coloureds, and south-east Asian slaves. Each was accorded different rights, such as the rights to purchase property, attend certain schools and live in certain neighbourhoods.

After apartheid, many upper-class Muslims found themselves living in former Whites-only neighbourhoods such as the Western Cape, where the DA received 52% of the vote last month.

These are neighbourhoods where sidewalks are well-kept, streetlights always work and there is a large police presence to ensure security, in contrast to suburbs allocated to people of colour during apartheid under the Groups Areas Act, where the majority of people of colour still live, where streets are littered and trash often lays around for days before being collected by the council.

Many have observed that education at Muslim schools “have retained the same racial and cultural exclusivity as that enforced during apartheid”. Following the July 2021 riots in Durban focused mostly on Indian and Black South Africans, the South African Human Rights Commission blamed racism between the two groups for the violence, and the Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Rights Commission claimed that the tensions and mistrust between the groups may have its roots in the clashes between them in Durban in 1949 which left 142 people dead.

Resentment between brown and Black South Africans has long outlasted the end of apartheid. In 2002, less than a decade after the birth of the “rainbow nation”, a Black South African musician named Mbongeni Ngema released a song entitled “AmaNdiya” (the Indians), citing Indian racism towards Black South Africans.

“A brave man is required to confront the Indians,” Ngema wrote. Mandela called on Ngema to apologise for the song; he refused.

Now, as the ANC considers its options, the possibility that it may go into a coalition with the DA has raised concerns that this could affect the government’s outlook, policies and actions regarding Palestine.

But parliamentary arithmetic makes this unlikely. Following Mandela, some speculate that Palestine is a non-negotiable for the ANC – and the ANC and EFF, the two parties openly supportive of Palestine in their manifestos, hold 90 seats between them, 23% of all seats, leaving little need to ally with the DA.

It appears that while the large support at an official level, within the government and religious establishments is likely to remain, solidarities are breaking down within community structures – in part because many in the Muslim community would rather forfeit their support for Palestinians than have a Black government in power.

Ilham Rawoot is a journalist and activist based in Cape Town and Berlin.

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