To Salif Keita from Friends in South Africa


“The temptation in our situation is to speak in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine…we can fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others faces. Yet we would be less than human if we did so. It behoves all South Africans, themselves erstwhile beneficiaries of generous international support, to stand up and be counted among those contributing actively to the cause of freedom and justice…we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”Nelson Mandela, December 4 1997

BDS South Africa
You may not know me, nor of my work or the organization that I am part of (and am writing on behalf of), BDS South Africa ( However, I (together with millions of South Africans and Africans), of course, know of you. We know of you through your contribution to making this world a better place through, for example, the work of the Salif Keita Global Foundation, being one of our continent’s best ambassadors, and of course, for sharing your “golden” music with so many. It is with this admiration and affinity that we write to you.

With that, kindly receive the warm greetings of BDS South Africa, a South African Palestine solidarity and human rights organization advancing the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel campaign in South Africa. We are writing to you with much concern, concern that you are scheduled to perform in Israel. But, we also write to you with hope, hope that you will heed the call from your fellow artists, Malians who have approached you, French activists, and, most importantly, the Palestinians (with their principled and progressive Israeli allies) who have all called on you in the last few weeks to respect the boycott of Israel, cancel your trip and, in essence, not to support racism and Apartheid. We respectfully offer some background to our position:


“I never tire of speaking about the very deep distress in my visits to the Holy Land; they remind me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like we did when young white police officers prevented us from moving about. My heart aches…Palestinians have chosen, like we did, the nonviolent tools of boycott, divestment and sanctions.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Separate roads[1], separate buses[2], having a law that allows one ethnic group automatic citizenship but prevents another group (millions of whom are refugees in neighboring countries) citizenship and access to their previous homes are just some of the ways in which Israel discriminates against Palestinians [3]. We will not go through the details of the legislation, practices and acts of racism and apartheid that Israel is enforcing against the Palestinians, those are well documented by Amnesty International [4], Human Rights Watch[5] and, in fact, our own South African government, in 2009, commissioned our official state research body, the South African Human Sciences Research Council to answer the question whether Israel is guilty of practicing apartheid. The HSRC, in its subsequent 300-page report found Israel to be guilty of the crime of Apartheid as well as colonialism. That report can be found here:

This position, that Israel practices Apartheid and racism against the indigenous Palestinians, was then confirmed by the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which sat in Cape Town in November 2011[6]. In March 2012 the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination made similar findings[7]. Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC), an official structure of the UN, released a scathing report in Geneva, Switzerland, on the state of human rights in Israel, reporting that there is “institutionalised discrimination” in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Beyond the case that is being made by human rights organisations, UN structures and other bodies, there is also a comparison that has been made by senior South Africans, former anti-apartheid activists and others that what the Palestinians are experiencing is akin to (and in some respects) far worse than what we black South Africans experienced in the 1980s under Apartheid. Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of Apartheid (in South Africa), in 1961 already, was one of the first high-profile South Africans to have compared racial supremacy in Apartheid South Africa to that in Israel. Verwoed did not mince his words: “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state”. However it was really Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu who, in 1987 and then again in 2002, began to make the serious case as to why Israel is guilty of practicing racism against the indigenous Palestinian people. Tutu, in a paper delivered at a conference of Palestinian Christians said: “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at [Israeli] checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”

Since then there have been several senior –and more appropriate, than Verword– South Africans, all veterans of our liberation struggle, who have compared Apartheid South Africa to current-day Israel, including: personal friend and fellow prisoner to Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada; Rivonia Trialist, Denis Goldberg; anti-apartheid icon, Kader Asmal; former South African Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils; Current Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande; and, Winnie Mandela. Most recently, the African National Congress (ANC) Chairperson, Baleka Mbete, at the ANC’s 2012 International Solidarity Conference, also shared this position. And, our own South African Deputy President, Kgalema Mothlante, has gone even further in stating that: “the current situation for Palestinians…[under Israel] is worse than conditions were for Blacks under the Apartheid regime”. The South African Government itself has on two separate occasions (statement 1[8], statement 2[9]) condemned Israeli practices that are reminiscent of “Apartheid”.


“The ANC abhors the recent Israeli state-sponsored xenophobic attacks and deportation of Africans and request that this matter should be escalated to the African Union”African National Congress, Resolution 35 (j), Mangaung, 2012

As was widely reported, in June last year Israeli anti-African protests turned into full-fledged race riots . The Israeli racism and xenophobia against Africans[10] is shared and even encouraged by Israeli politicians including the Israeli Prime Minster, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said: “If we don’t stop their [African immigrants’] entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence…and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity”. Israel’s Minister of Interior, Eli Yishai, has said that African immigrants “think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man!” And the Israeli parliamentarian, Miri Regev, has publicly compared Sudanese people to “a cancer”.

Late last year, Israeli officials initially denied but then in January this year admitted that Ethiopian women immigrating to Israel are coerced into taking long-term contraceptive shots[11]. Israeli activists together with human rights activists around the world condemned the practice as another form of racism, discrimination and xenophobia that Israel practices against Africans.


“The abhorrent and draconian control that Israel wields over the besieged Palestinians in Gaza, and the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank coupled with its denial of the rights of refugees to return to their homes in Israel, demands that fair minded people around the world support the Palestinians in their civil, nonviolent resistance. For me it means declaring my intention to stand in solidarity, not only with the people of Palestine, but also with the many thousands of Israelis who disagree with their governments racist and colonial policies, by joining a campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, until it satisfies three basic human rights demanded in international law.”Roger Waters, Pink Floyd

Israeli racism, toward indigenous Palestinians and Africans, is not a question, or matter of opinion, it is a fact. The question, then, is how does one respond. What is to be done? How do peace-loving peoples of the world not be complicit in Israeli racism and, for some of us, how do we contribute to supporting the oppressed (and their allies from within the oppressive society)?

In 2005, inspired by the successful boycott and isolation of Apartheid South Africa, Palestinians — after having engaged for years in mass protests, popular uprisings, the armed struggle as well as a seemingly endless negotiation process — called on the international community to play a decisive role in their struggle for self-determination and an end to Israel’s Apartheid policies. Palestinians called on global civil society, artists and multi national corporations to impose a program of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The Palestinians laid out three demands that Israel needs to respect for the boycott to be called-off. Firstly, an end to the illegal Israeli Occupation. Secondly, allowing Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. And, thirdly, for Israel to ensure full equality for Palestinian citizens living inside Israel. The three demands – all based in international law and numerous UN resolutions – ward off fears (or false-accusations) that the BDS campaign is a malicious, blunt and punitive one which is out to punish Israelis. Its not; the BDS campaign is a practical, non-violent, goal-orientated and focused campaign that is uncompromisingly entrenched in international law and human rights – also, one that is increasingly supported by (progressive) Israelis themselves!

Just some of the artists and intellectuals who have publicly lent their support and respected the boycott include: award-winning musician, Stevie Wonder; Jazz artist, Cassandra Wilson; Roger Waters of Pink Floyd; musician, Elvis Costello, author, Alice Walker; intellectual, Stephen Hawking and most recently, the film director, Mira Nair.

We hope that you too, will join this list of artists. We, as South Africans, expected this from the international community in the 1980s and the Palestinians now expect this from us – to support their boycott and not cross the picket line.


“While human beings are being wilfully denied not just their rights but their needs for their children and grandparents and themselves, I feel deeply that I should not be sending even tacit signals [to Israel] that this is either ‘normal’ or ‘ok’. It’s neither and I cannot support it.”Maxi Jazz of Faithless on why his band cancelled on Israel

We understand how difficult it would be for you to reject an opportunity to share your music with others. People like you are the reason other artists want to exist. Your music motivates beyond concert stages, penetrating into the intimate personal spaces of individual human lives and transforming them forever, the way only true art can. Unhappily, matters are not so simple in this context (just as how they were never simple during apartheid in South Africa). Art does not simply take place in a vacuum. The belief that cultural activities are “apolitical” (or that one is simply performing music, not getting involved in politics) is a myth. Performing in Israel will be a slap in the face of Palestinians but it will also be tacit support for the Israeli regime and its practices of apartheid.

One might wonder what purpose refusing to perform in Israel might serve? As a people whose parents and grandparents suffered under (and resisted) Apartheid in South Africa, our history is testament to the value and legitimacy that the international boycott had in bringing an end to the Apartheid regime in our country. When artists and sportspeople began refusing to perform in Apartheid South Africa, the world’s eyes turned to the injustices that were happening here. This then created a wave of pressure, which ultimately contributed to a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa. The same is not only possible for Palestine-Israel, but also inevitable. The question is: On which side of history does one want to be? Performing in Apartheid South Africa — in violation of what us oppressed black South Africans and our white allies asked for — during the 1980s was to be on the wrong side of history. Today, performing in Israel — in violation of what the oppressed Palestinians and their progress Israeli allies have asked for — is choosing to be on the wrong side of history. We hope that you will choose to be on the right side of history and not entertain Apartheid.


“The issue of a principled commitment to justice lies at the heart of responses to the suffering of the Palestinian people and it is the absence of such a commitment that enables many to turn a blind eye to it…. If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu

We have penned this letter a mere few days before your performance. Perhaps, we should have written earlier, however, we do trust that you have read the several letters already sent to you as well as engaged with those that have tried making contact with yourself and your management.

We hope to make this letter available to media that have contacted us as well as several of your South African and international fans who made inquiries with us, particularly with your performance in Johannesburg recently for our beloved Madiba. We hope that we will receive a response before then as we would love to communicate to your fans and others here in South Africa of your decision. We look forward to hearing from you, that is, hearing the good news that you will not be entertaining (Israeli) Apartheid.

With hope,

Professor Farid Esack
Head of Religion Studies at the University of Johannesburg and Chair of BDS South Africa’s Management Board

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