The effort to silence Marc Lamont Hill after his recent UN speech sparked debate about his call for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” Faced with accusations of anti-Semitism, Hill apologized for causing pain and explained that he used the phrase to evoke the vision of a democratic bi-national state where Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews can live together. As Maha Nassar points out, this is how Palestinians have historically used the phrase. “From the river to the sea” became a popular slogan among Palestinians during the 1960s and 1970s as part of the broader call for a secular democratic state in all of historic Palestine.

Support for a bi-national state in Palestine/Israel is growing again. In part, this is an unintended consequence of Israeli state racism. Israel has all but eliminated the possibility of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories by fragmenting and colonizing the West Bank, besieging the Gaza Strip, and annexing East Jerusalem. Moreover, the Israel government recently passed the “Nation State Law,” which entrenches the second-class status of its Palestinian citizens by describing Israel as the “nation state of the Jewish people,” declaring Jewish settlement a national value, and claiming that Jews have a “unique” right to self-determination in Palestine/Israel. Finally, the government refuses to even consider the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Together, these policies have created a situation in which the only alternative to apartheid is a secular, democratic bi-national state.

What would such a state look like? Scholars, activists, and others interested in exploring this question often look to South Africa for inspiration. Indeed, Edward Said, Ali Abunimah, and other Palestinians have explained that their vision of a one-state solution is informed by the South African struggle against apartheid. In 1994, the South African apartheid regime was overturned and black South Africans gained formal equality under the law – including the right to vote, the right to live anywhere, and the right to move without permits. The democratization of the state was a remarkable achievement. Indeed, the South African transition demonstrates the possibility of peaceful coexistence on the basis of legal equality and mutual recognition. This is what makes South Africa so compelling for people seeking an alternative to Israeli apartheid.

Yet 25 years after the end of apartheid, the lives of working-class black people remain extremely precarious in South Africa. With high rates of permanent unemployment, a severe shortage of decent housing, a devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic, perpetual landlessness, and state violence, the black working class has been denied the promises of liberation. What went wrong? And how can Palestinians avoid these pitfalls as they envision a post-apartheid future?

One place to begin is by examining the revolutionary strategy of the most powerful block within the South African liberation movement, made up of the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies in the South African Communist Party (SACP). Defining apartheid as “colonialism of a special type,” the ANC/SACP argued that liberation would require two stages: first a struggle against the racist/colonial state and then a struggle against capitalism. A smaller block within the movement, including the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO), insisted on a one-stage struggle that would confront not only the racist state but the underlying system of “racial capitalism.”  In the Azanian Manifesto, the radical wing of the movement argued that racial capitalism “holds the people of Azania (South Africa) in bondage for the benefit of a small minority of white capitalists and their allies, the white workers and the reactionary sections of the black middle class.” Fearing that the ANC approach would simply entrench the inequality generated by apartheid, they called for a struggle led by black workers that would confront racism and capitalism simultaneously.

The transition of the last 25 years has lent support to their argument.  In 2002, Neville Alexander declared that, “what we used to call the apartheid-capitalist system has simply given way to the post-apartheid capitalist system.” During the negotiations, the ANC made major concessions to win the support of white South Africans and global capitalist elites. Most importantly, the ANC accepted constitutional protections for the existing distribution of private property – despite the history of colonial dispossession. Instead of land redistribution, the ANC adopted a market-based program through which the state helps black clients purchase white-owned land. This “willing seller-willing buyer” program has only led to the redistribution of 7.5% of South African land.

In addition, the ANC government adopted a neoliberal economic strategy promoting free trade, export-oriented industry, and the privatization of state-owned businesses and municipal services. This has given rise to a small black elite, but the old white elite continues to own the vast majority of land and wealth in the country.  In the words of Achille Mbembe, “This is the only country on Earth in which a revolution took place which resulted in not one single former oppressor losing anything.”

Meanwhile, the lives of poor and working-class black South Africans are as precarious as ever. Post-apartheid South Africa is now regarded as the most unequal country in the world. In recent years, South Africa has been the site of constant struggles as working-class black communities fight for access to land and housing, water and electricity, health care and education, and a living wage. Renewing a Mozambiquan rallying cry, social movements in post-apartheid South Africa insist that “A luta continua” (“The struggle continues”).

Studying the success of the South African struggle has been highly productive for the Palestinian freedom movement; understanding the limitations of the transition can also prove productive. Most immediately, a critical look at post-apartheid South Africa suggests the importance of analyzing Israeli apartheid as a system of racial capitalism. People are increasingly familiar with the intensification of Israeli racist state violence: an ongoing siege and regular military assaults on the Gaza Strip; the amputation of East Jerusalem from the West Bank with a ring of settlements, an apartheid wall, and military checkpoints; the fragmentation of the West Bank into a series of isolated Palestinian enclosures (which together make up 40% of the West Bank); and the aggressive colonization of the remaining 60% of the land. Yet most discussions of Israeli apartheid overlook the neoliberal capitalist dynamics that facilitate this violent settler-colonial project.

Since the 1980s, Israel has undergone a fundamental transformation from a state-led economy focused on domestic consumption to a corporate-driven economy integrated into the circuits of global capital. Neoliberal restructuring enabled Israel to engineer the disposability of the Palestinian population. The transition to a high-tech economy significantly reduced Israeli reliance on Palestinian labor. Free trade agreements with Jordan and Egypt allowed Israeli manufacturers to shift production from Palestinian subcontractors to export-processing zones in neighboring countries. The collapse of the Soviet Union followed by “shock doctrine” neoliberalism led more than one million Russian Jews to seek opportunities in Israel. And neoliberal restructuring on a global scale led to the immigration of 300,000 migrant workers from Asia and Eastern Europe. These groups now compete with Palestinians for the remaining low-wage jobs. By intensifying the disposability of the Palestinian population, neoliberal restructuring has allowed Israel to seal off the Gaza Strip and isolate the West Bank enclosures.

Moreover, Israel has partially outsourced the occupation to the Palestinian Authority (PA).  Most importantly, the PA operates an enormous security apparatus that works hand in hand with the Israeli military to suppress resistance to the occupation. Trained by the US, the PA security forces have become the front lines of the occupation in the West Bank. They coordinate with the Israeli military to contain Palestinian resistance and protect the status quo. In addition, the PA has embraced a neoliberal vision of liberation and is working to build a private sector-led, export-oriented, free-market economy. The Palestinian Reform and Development Plan, for instance, calls for cuts to public employment and an expansion of private-sector investment, including free-trade industrial zones along the wall. But investors have walked away due to Israeli restrictions on imports, exports, and movement as well as the relatively high cost of Palestinian labor compared to neighboring countries.  While intensifying the suffering of working-class Palestinians, neoliberal policies have contributed to the emergence of a new Palestinian elite in the West Bank composed of the PA leadership and Palestinian capitalists who serve the occupation.  The PA’s security and economic policies have generated sharp critiques from working-class Palestinians about the class dynamics of complicity.

Recognizing that Israeli apartheid operates through neoliberalism could facilitate the development of strategies that challenge not only the racial state but the system of racial capitalism. An end to the occupation, full legal equality, and the right of return are baseline demands. But South Africa provides a cautionary tale about the limitations of a purely rights-based approach to liberation. Challenging racial capitalism would mean developing political-economic structures that prioritize people over profits and addressing the need for the ethical redistribution of colonized land and accumulated wealth. And it would mean addressing the fact that racism permeates all aspects of life and that overcoming entrenched racial domination requires more than just legal equality.

In recent years, Palestinian and Israeli radicals have engaged in dialogues about the difficult process of building a secular democratic state. As Haidar Eid argues, it is imperative that efforts to resist Israel apartheid are accompanied by a clear vision of a post-apartheid future.  This vision, he argues, should emphasize that Jewish Israelis “will have a safe place in a decolonized Palestine with full guarantees for their civil, political, and cultural rights.”  Omar Barghouti describes the one-state solution as the key to a process of “ethical decolonization.”

Understanding Israeli apartheid as a form of neoliberal racial capitalism could also facilitate efforts to build transnational solidarity. Palestinians and South Africans have developed strong, principled forms of solidarity to support ongoing struggles in each country. As Marc Lamont Hill argued in his UN speech, “We must struggle together in order to resist, because state violence in the United States and state violence in Brazil and state violence in Syria and state violence in Egypt and state violence in South Africa and state violence in Palestine are all of the same sort.” State violence is a central feature of the neoliberal apartheid systems that have deepened the disposability of the racialized poor in Palestine, South Africa, the United States, and in much of the world. And the critique of racial capitalism is becoming increasingly important as movements and activists build connections between struggles against racialized poverty and policing throughout the empire.

Andy Clarno is associate professor of Sociology and African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  He is the author of Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine/Israel and South Africa after 1994 (University of Chicago Press 2017).

Image: Markus Ortner via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.5)