Conflict, Terrorism, and Invented Settler Colonial Victimhood in South Africa Reflections for Solidarity Building towards a Free Palestine

Underlying the logic of war and conflict that proliferates global narratives on the Israeli state’s ongoing onslaught in Gaza and the Occupied West Bank, is a subtly communicated victimhood conferred to the settler colonial state. Much like South African racialized victims resisting and ‘transitioning’ from a white-minority apartheid state, Palestinians find themselves subjected to a displaced empathy that delegitimizes their victimhood and liberationist efforts through the language of conflict and ‘terrorism’. 

Drawing parallels between South African and Palestinian experiences of settler colonial violence and their respective bureaucracies is not a new intervention. Comparisons are not uncommon considering the coinciding emergence in 1948 of an apartheid state in South Africa and the Palestinian Nakba (the catastrophe), which saw the ethnic cleansing and expulsion of over 80 per cent of Palestinians from historic Palestine by Zionist militias and the Israeli army, creating the State of Israel. While caution and sensitivity must be exercised in highlighting equivalences to avoid inadvertently flattening both contexts of apartheid, the Israeli settler colonial state’s ongoing genocidal rampage in Gaza and the Occupied West Bank implores us to critically (re)engage with the South African anti-apartheid struggle as we foment our solidarities. Particularly on the discourse around ‘conflict’ and ‘terrorism’, anti-colonial scholars, activists, and artists have rightfully highlighted the self-contradictions of settler colonialism and apartheid as a powerful discursive gaslight in action. Through Zionist weaponization of labels of terrorism and conflict, in justifying a no-holds-barred Israeli right to ‘self-defence’ and collective punishment, besieged and exiled Palestinian communities have pointed out glaring erasures of the settler colonial bureaucracy from which acts, the likes of 7 October 2023, are produced and are necessarily respondent to.


Unsurprisingly, the South African anti-apartheid struggle and ‘post-apartheid’ reconciliation, seemingly reflect the very same parallels of narrative construction, which pits victims in resistance as autonomous instigators, bearing agency and volition to violence at par with the state. A glance over the trials of anti-apartheid liberationists in the 1963–1964 Rivonia Trial makes for a teeth-grinding read on the manipulation of language and instrumentalization of incendiary labels. Infamous former prime minister and forefather of ‘Grand Apartheid’, Hendrik Verwoerd’s apartheid state, along with its international patrons including Britain and Israel, were intent on weaponizing the language of terrorism, in treason and sabotage charges against now celebrated African National Congress (ANC) freedom fighters: Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mahlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg. The positioning of the settler colonial apartheid state as ‘victims’ of a black insurgent ‘terror’, was aptly noted by the defendants during trial. Nelson Mandela’s defiant retort at the dock to the apartheid state encapsulated the hypocrisy of colonial legality and self-victimisation by branding the apartheid justice system as ‘illegitimate’. Mandela, facing the death penalty along with his collaborators for forming the militant wing of the ANC Umkhonto we Sizwe, further articulated in his not-guilty plea that the apartheid state and its members should instead ‘stand indicted here’, not the ANC defendants. In their shackled resistance, Mandela and the ANC freedom fighters showed the courtroom and, in extension, apartheid’s legal infrastructure to be yet another site of political struggle, to not only contest but also articulate the production of racial victimhoods within the settler colonial polity. The Rivonia trial is but one of numerous instances where the South African apartheid state responded to both militant and non-violent resistance to racial victimization in terms of terrorism and counterinsurgency. To be clear, the aim of this text is not to engage with the merits of the South African—or Israeli state’s—juridical production of terrorism as an illegality; rather, I am interested in the utility of such framings that co-opt a real or imagined insurgent terror in defence of a settler colonial project. 

Beyond the Rivonia trials, the apartheid settler colonial bureaucracy further extended its self-victimhood even in its moral demise, by framing racial violence within a ‘post-conflict’ reconciliation lens. Following the 1995 Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Bill and the negotiated settlement between the incumbent apartheid National Party and the succeeding ANC, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to mark the official end to apartheid as a system of racial governance and a crime against humanity. The TRC was tasked with implementing a large-scale national truth-seeking process to excavate decades-long structural and racial abuses under the apartheid state, from 1960 to 1994. In pursuit of a ‘post-apartheid’ justice, institutional reconciliation in the South African context prioritised notions of transformative and testimonial justice over legal retribution, to compensate for the apartheid state’s structural violence. Over the course of three years, the commission collected over 20,000 victims’ testimonies, from which it produced a concluding five-volume report in 2003 detailing its findings, as well as a proposed ‘recommendation of measures’ to bring about a reconciled and rebirthed ‘rainbow nation’. However, as I probed the South African settler colonial experience in my research, the institutional production of reconciliation solely along the lines of ‘war’ and ‘conflict’ by the commission became a glaring ethical issue. While I am not South African, it was self-evident the connection between a widespread disaffection with reconciliatory outcomes in the ‘post-apartheid’ era, especially among black, indigenous, and coloured communities, and the displacement of the settler colonial structure that necessitated their victimhood(s).  

At first glance, it would seem that the commission was robust and thorough in seeking testimonial justice for victims, and for that very reason, it is often hailed as a landmark architecture of justice within Transitional Justice and Peace and Conflict Studies. However, I was struck by the lack of historical nuance and sensitivity to the violence victims were subjected to as they testified and recounted to the commission, the abuses inflicted upon them and/or their loved ones. Harrowing testimonies provided by mothers of disappeared, tortured, detained and/or executed anti-apartheid liberationists were particularly unsettling to engage with, not least because of their traumatic content, but also the nature through which they were pushed to a moment of ‘dramatic climax’ in highly emotive accounts. Reading through what can only be described as an interrogative line of questioning by the members of the commission, I was disarmed by the lack of care or consideration for potential re-traumatisation for victims.  

I argue that the disregard shown to victims, who were extracted from and further violated in testimony, reflected the commission’s centring of a performative national ‘post-conflict’ redemption, over a sincere advocacy for justice. Following the conflict narrative thread, the TRC craftily articulated an injury to the national psyche, borne out of an experience of widespread inter-communal and interpersonal discord. In doing so, the commission appropriated victims’ traumatic testimonies to appeal to a national victim complex, aligned with its portrayal of a South African nation in ‘conflict’. In keeping the historical context of such ‘conflict’ conveniently ambivalent, black and indigenous victims became dispossessed of a claim to structural violations dating back to the arrival of Dutch settlers in the 17th century. In tandem, victims bore a heavy and unconscionable responsibility to forgive and absolve the settler colonial state of centuries-long expropriation and displacement. I cannot help but draw parallels with the very same disdain and indifference shown to Palestinian victim communities who are subjected to inhumane inquisitions to evidence their victimhood. The potency of an Israeli-Zionist victim complex is such that daily accounts of settler terror in the Occupied West Bank do not suffice. Restrictions on the movement of a whole population through ‘terminals’ or checkpoints do not suffice. The establishment of diasporas formed by generational exile does not suffice. Palestinians must also reach for a ‘dramatic climax’, pulling their martyred from the rubble and thrusting them in front of cameras in the hopes that the world may not only bear witness to their suffering but also identify a common humanity. 


The experience of the Rivonia freedom fighters and victims in testimony highlights a tactical erasure of the nature of victimhood and resistance in the settler colonial apparatus. Through (re)narrativization and a refusal to speak to structure, the South African apartheid state reimagined resistance to an everyday settler-colonial terror manifested in Bantustan reservations, pass laws, and rampant police brutality, as a threat to law, order, national security, and ultimately civilisation. Similarly, in the Palestinian experience, the Israeli terror state strips racialized victim communities of a claim to human vulnerability by superimposing an invented Israeli-Zionist nation-state victimhood. All the while it pursues and furthers the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians through the bombardment of villages, refugee camps, hospitals, churches, mosques, and knowledge institutions both in Gaza and the Occupied West Bank. Israel has not held back in using the language of ‘security’ against a perpetual Palestinian ‘threat’, in justifying the internal displacement of more than half of Gaza’s population since October of this year. In comparing genocidal violence against Indigenous Americans and Palestinians, Jordanian and Palestinian-American scholar Steven Salaita, remarks that Israel’s holy sovereignty, fashioned from Euro-American religious myths of white superiority, becomes a key feature in contextualising Israel’s self-victimisation. Further to that, we can see in real-time how Israel continues to exploit an exclusive Holocaust memory in staking claim to biblical ‘holy lands’, as a defence of its colonial conquest. 

It has and will always perplex me that the South African ‘post-apartheid’ narrative has been primarily produced and situated within a conflict and war studies scholarly tradition, especially one that actively disregards historical and transnational colonial processes. In my interactions with disciplinary colleagues within and outside my institution, I am quietly amazed by a historically selective and partial reading of what apartheid meant for black, indigenous, coloured and Asian communities. To put it kindly, perhaps this reflects an inability to connect the dots or a refusal to do so informed by a discomfort surrounding colonial legacies. Ultimately for me and most anticolonial scholars, the both-sideism that ‘conflict’ imposes not only undermines any attempts at truth-seeking, but it is also fundamentally detrimental to victim-centred justice. We can already observe how global media institutions, peddling a geo-political conflict analysis of daily Israeli air and ground assaults against Palestinian civilians, nefariously referred to as ‘mowing the grass’, arrest any critical engagement with the state of destitution to which Palestinians have been condemned for decades. More than a manufacturing of consent for Israeli genocidal violence, these narratives ultimately aim to manufacture empathy for a war machine, armed to the teeth with propaganda and disinformation. It bears emphasising that Israel, as part of a network of imperial solidarity, has been invested in multiple sites of death making, simultaneously in Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, Congo and lesser known in duplicitously playing both sides during the 1967-1970 Nigeria-Biafra war, while feigning sincere humanitarian concern for victims of state-sanctioned blockade and genocide.  

Therefore, as we advocate for Palestinian freedom today, I suggest an important starting point to be a conscious effort to problematize and resist suffocating narratives of conflict that continue to delegitimize and deradicalize victimhood. This is a reminder that you need not be a historian or international legal expert to grasp the fundamentals of ongoing Palestinian oppression. The South African experience, while being far from closed, as the reverberations of apartheid are still deeply felt across the nation-space, offers an opportunity to reflect and better understand the denial of racial victimhood and in turn humanity, innate to settler societies. To that end, Australian historian, Patrick Wolfe, contextualizes these violent effects in defining settler colonial bureaucracies as a structure, with concurrent past, present, and future implications, where a genocidal ‘logic of elimination’ compounds the settler state’s engagement with the occupied across time and space.  Our radical empathies require an acute understanding of the entrapment of Palestinian subjectivity and victimhood within this necropolitical continuum.  Owing to the structural and everyday machinations of Israeli settler colonial violence, Palestinian writer and academic, Abdaljawad Omar, illustrates how Palestinians under occupation and in exile, live fragile ‘on the threshold of death’. Death is simultaneously past and future, grieving remains perpetually suspended, and ‘the work of mourning is prevented from beginning’.  

A moment of reckoning is therefore upon us at this juncture, wherein building anti-colonial solidarities, we must also situate our empathies in this context of unending death. We must see our struggles as interconnected in internationalist political grief for the lives of over 18,000 martyrs and counting, including Poet and Scholar Dr Refaat Alareer, Artist Halima Abdul Kareem Al-Kahlout, Journalist and doting father Roshdi Sarraj, kindergartner Abdul Rahman Shaat (Abood) and his two siblings eight-year-old Rawan and twelve-year-old Kareem. Our grief, however, cannot be static or dormant. Borrowing from Tunisian Author and Professor Nouri Gana, our grief must carry the actionable potential to transform through melancholic resistance into ‘a claim or grievance’. I believe such transformative grief can be practised through a conscientious inquiry that demystifies colonial violence and the networks of victimhood it produces. This grievance we assert in refusing the red herring of mutual conflict, the spectre of insurgent terror, and the pursuit of perfect, compliant victims. We remain steadfast in this collective grievance not only for the urgent liberation of Palestinian peoples but ultimately in defence of defiant life

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