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Mahmood Mamdani on South Africa’s Genocide Case Against Israel & Reemergence of Non-Aligned Movement

Web ExclusiveJanuary 25, 2024
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Extended discussion with Mahmood Mamdani, professor of government at Columbia University who specializes in the study of colonialism. He’s the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities. He was previously a professor and director of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The International Court of Justice has announced it’s delivering an interim ruling on Friday in South Africa’s genocide case against Israel. South Africa has asked the court to impose a number of emergency measures, including ordering a halt to Israel’s assault on Gaza.

This comes as a new poll in the United States shows more than a third of Americans now believe Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.

We’re joined right now, in Part 2 of our discussion, with Mahmood Mamdani. He’s a professor of government at Columbia University who specializes in the study of colonialism. He is author of numerous books, include, most recently, Neither Settler Nor Native. He was previously a professor and director of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Thanks so much for staying with us, Professor Mamdani. Can you give us a preview — it’s not really a preview because the arguments already took place at The Hague — around South Africa’s case, genocide case, against Israel? Can you talk about the significance of this?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, the South African case has a strong side and a weak side. The strong side is its content, its substance, and that is based almost entirely, from what I can see, on U.N. documents. So the court is not going to question the authenticity or the veracity of those documents. Almost everybody agrees that the intellectual case is very strong.

The weak side is the procedural side. And it’s interesting that the Israeli — the lawyers for Israel did not contend to claim that a genocide was unfolding. What they contended was whether South Africa was the appropriate party to bring this question to the court. And they said South Africa had simply not given enough time. And when discussing time, they said that South Africa had not taken into consideration Jewish holidays, belittling the substantial question, which is genocide.

Now, it’s very difficult to believe that an international court would rule on procedural grounds in a case of genocide. They would have to give primary attention to the strength of the argument. Is a genocide unfolding or not? Are emergency measures required or not? That’s my sense.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you can talk about the significance of South Africa bringing this case, with South Africa’s history, of course, of apartheid?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, we all know that Israel has a history of snubbing any international organization, any international initiative, including U.N. resolutions, including U.N. Security Council resolutions. So the first question is: How come, in this instance, Israel did not snub the International Court of Justice? How come it appeared before the International Court of Justice? It’s difficult to answer the question, but I assume that the answer lies in external pressure, and probably divided opinion within the South African government. So, that’s the first point.

The second point is, the court has once before ruled against the U.S. This was in the 1980s. And South Africa — I mean, not South Africa, but Israel has had a record of of sheltering under American power, both hard power and soft power. This time, whether it will be able to do so is also questionable. The Israeli stance has been that the international community has no moral standing when it comes to Israel, because: Where was it when the Holocaust took place? There’s some truth in this, except that it doesn’t apply to most of the Third World, which wasn’t part of the U.N. when the Holocaust took place. It also doesn’t apply to South Africa, which had an apartheid government. And that government was in cahoots with Israel, and Israel was one of the major foreign parties strengthening that government. So, South Africa is in a curious position, where it has the — it has the moral standing, which maybe others lack. It also is known as a transition from apartheid which did not take perpetrators to court, which did not seek revenge against perpetrators. So, who else but South Africa to stand up for victims in Israel?

AMY GOODMAN: I just saw an interesting tweet from Mouin Rabbani, the Middle East analyst. He says, “If [the ICJ] does anything other than dismiss South Africa’s application, this would be hugely significant because it means the world’s highest court has judged that South Africa has made a plausible case that Israel is in violation of the Genocide Convention and that its allegations deserve a full hearing. … As has been noted elsewhere, the Court is, at this stage, not determining whether or not Israel is guilty of the crime of genocide. Rather, it is only examining whether South Africa has plausibly accused Israel of genocide and if so, what 'provisional measures' are required to prevent irreparable harm pending the conclusion of the hearings.” Professor Mamdani, if you could take it from there and also talk about the fact that, whatever they decide, I mean, is a decision of the ICJ enforceable?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Look, no matter how the court rules, it’s going to be monumental. If it rules against South Africa, if it refuses to take any interim measures, the court will be dead, politically and morally. If it does, the court will come to life. And it will be the first international institution to stand up against Israel and Uncle Sam, as the expression goes.

Does the court have powers of enforcement? Of course it doesn’t. As we know, the international system is not a single state, and so it lacks powers of enforcement. In the same time, whatever powers do exist are basically synonymous with the powers of the American government and associated Western allies — Britain, Germany, France, etc. None of these would be willing to do anything else. But this will have been a milestone in the struggle against apartheid in Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to stay in Africa but move to your country of Uganda. In this past week, the annual summit of the Non-Aligned Movement took place in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. The 120-member bloc condemned Israel’s assault on Gaza and called for an immediate ceasefire. And the G77+China summit was also held in Kampala. Can you talk about shifting power in the world, and if you see this as really fundamentally shifting? And do you see organizations like these, or reconfigurations like these, as a counterweight to more powerful multilateral organizations by the Global North?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, as you said, the Non-Aligned Movement voted, I think, unanimously to stand behind South Africa’s application. This is a new phase in the history of the Non-Aligned Movement. It comes into being in the wake of Bandung, and then it kind of fell asleep. And now it’s coming back to life. And that is indicative of a turn in the international situation. It’s indicative of a very clear sign that there’s a multipolar world. It’s no longer a unipolar or even a world where one pole is kind of overdetermining.

It’s also an indication of a political crisis within the Western world, those who have been in charge until now. It is very interesting that in the last election — after the last election, Donald Trump, in one speech, said that he was the only president since the Second World War who had not begun a new war, and the Democrats have been a series of warmongers. Now, empirically, it can’t be denied. It cannot be denied.

So, America stands for warmaking. And China stands for, in African terms, economic development. China wants business. America wants security. And it wants to be at the forefront of the security club, which means selling more arms, which means more American troops on the African continent. It means the right to bomb wherever they think there is a — the “war on terror” is spreading. So, it’s a different situation.

And the African countries are, I think, quite aware that they should not make the mistake that they did during Cold War, which is join one side or another. They are determined to play the drum on both sides, and not to — you know, not to stand for this or that part of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mamdani, I wanted to expand this discussion. You are the author of, most recently, Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities. You have long worked on the question of settler colonialism, from here in the United States to South Africa to Israel. Can you put Israel’s assault on Gaza right now into this broader framework?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, I was not surprised by the assault that unfolded after October 7. I was shocked. I was outraged. But it was in line with a policy for the last 10, 15 years of what the Israeli leadership called “mowing the lawn.” And it was — the language was already one which dehumanized the opposition, the resistance. What was new about October 7 was that the resistance had broken through.

And what’s interesting about the discussion that has followed since then is that the target on October 7 — there were two targets: military targets and civilian targets. The military target was the Gaza — I forget what it’s called — regiment or brigade which had been at the forefront of different interventions in Gaza. And this was more or less successful.

The debate goes on around the civilian target, where the objective, according to Hamas, was to take as many hostages as possible in order to exchange them for thousands of Palestinian hostages held in Israeli jails without due process. Now, that’s where the debate is, because we know who the victims were, but we don’t quite know who the perpetrators were. We have stories which show the involvement of Hamas. We have the stories which show the involvement of civilians from Gaza, civilians un, sort of, supervised, in a way, civilian action, which reminds one of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, the first chapter, on violence, the violence between the settler and the native. And then we have evidence of the Israeli Defense Forces, from the sky, so as to say. There’s been some information coming out in the Israeli press, particularly Haaretz, but we have no consolidated evidence on who was responsible for what. And I think this is necessary. The Israeli case, after October 8, has been built entirely on the claim that the atrocities that took place against civilians were exclusively Hamas-directed atrocities. That’s it. We’re supposed to take it as stated.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mamdani, I also wanted to ask you about the discussion of this, what’s allowed in the United States, as we began our discussion on what’s happening at Columbia University, you know, organizations banned, from the Palestine Students for Justice to Jewish Voice for Peace, the skunking of a protest by students at Columbia who are former IDF Israeli soldiers, and what’s happening to them. I’m wondering if you can talk about this kind of response that’s happening on campuses all over the country, the forcing out of the Harvard president. And now the new Harvard president, a white Jewish man, Alan Garber, is under attack, because he set up a commission to look at antisemitism, put the head of Jewish studies at Harvard as co-chair of that, and because that professor had said it is not antisemitic to criticize the state of Israel, he’s under attack. What do you see happening here?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, as you comment, as you observe, there’s a big difference in the discourse around the American state and the Israeli state in the U.S. You can critique the American state for almost anything. There is, I would say, almost total freedom. But you cannot critique the Israeli state for anything. The minute you do so, you’re open to the charge of antisemitism.

So, one big question is — there are critics of Zionism who have existed for the entire duration of Zionism. They existed during the 1940s, during the 1950s. And they made a distinction between Israel-Palestine as homeland for Jews and Israel-Palestine as a state that the Jews must fight for and from which they must exclude everybody. There’s not a consensus that a homeland equals a state, nor is there a consensus that a critique of the state is the same as a critique of the entire society.

So, this is where these commissions come in, on antisemitism, because they have to deal, first and foremost, with the question of what is antisemitism. There is a commission appointed at Columbia, by the president of Columbia, on antisemitism. And now there is a lively discourse going on in — on email. We have all been invited to the first hearing to be held by this commission, and we’re asking, “What is antisemitism? Tell us. Tell us your understanding of antisemitism. Or are you setting us up, you know, for comments which are critiques of the Israeli state, and therefore can be interpreted as antisemitism?”

And the critics in the Jewish community are growing, more and more. Everybody can see that. It is not a surprise that two of the organizations suspended by Columbia, one of them is a Jewish organization, and the other is a secular organization, open to everybody.

So, I think what is at stake here is the future of the American university, because this thing is playing out at the Ivy League universities, at the research universities in the U.S. And if academic freedom is going to be abridged at research universities, research is in danger.

AMY GOODMAN: Mahmood Mamdani, I want to thank you so much for being with us, professor of government at Columbia University who specializes in the study of colonialism, the author of numerous books, his most recent, Neither Settler Nor Native. He was previously a professor and director of the Centre of African Studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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