100 years on, BalfourMustFall
March 9 2015 saw the beginning of a movement directed at the removal of the statue of megalomaniac British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes from the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT). What began as opposition to a single bust soon morphed into a wave of protests that sparked an unprecedented level of debate, capturing the imagination of countless participants across the country and the globe.
After weeks of spirited action and challenging supremacy, privilege, racism and the lack of transformation, the movement’s activism bore tangible dividends. Rhodes fell on April 9 that year, when the statue was removed from the campus.
While Rhodes is often eulogised as a philanthropist, in the southern African context the businessman-turned-politician typified imperialism and entitlement, with his grandiose hopes of conquering territories from the Cape to Cairo and establishing secret societies for “bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule”.
During his tenure as prime minister of the Cape colony later, Rhodes entrenched this insidious colonial outlook through the Glen Gray Act, a policy often seen as the blueprint for the formalised system of apartheid that was to follow, due to the restrictions it placed on black land ownership and its fostering of the migrant labour system.
In introducing the act, Rhodes spelt out his appraisal of the black majority: “As to the question of voting, we say that the natives are in a sense citizens, but not altogether citizens ... they are still children.”
Admit into this discussion Palestine, other British actors and November 2 1917, and be prepared for some uncanny parallels.
On that date, Arthur Balfour, British foreign secretary at the time, and a former prime minister (incidentally, also a close associate of Rhodes) issued the infamous Balfour Declaration. It promised leaders of the Zionist movement that Britain viewed “with favour” the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine – without the consent of the Arab inhabitants of the country who constituted some 94% of its population at the time. The move was at odds with Britain’s own World War 1 promises to the Arabs that it would allow selfdetermination in the region.
“In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. Zionism, be it right or wrong, is more important than the wishes of
700 000 Arabs,” Balfour wrote in 1919, shedding light on a racist world-view not unlike that of Rhodes.
The consequence of Balfour’s “legally void, morally wicked and politically mischievous” declaration, as jurist Henry Cattan put it, was the British Mandate for Palestine, whereby Britain imposed military rule on the Palestinians and violently suppressed their legitimate concerns. When Palestinians protested against this policy, British colonial rule responded brutally, killing, wounding, imprisoning or exiling over 10% of Palestine’s adult male population between 1936 and 1939.
As Charles Glass wrote in the London Review of Books, during this period, British security forces resorted to using the standard tactics of anti-colonial warfare: torture, murder, collective punishment, detention without trial, military courts, aerial bombardment and “punitive demolition” of more than 2 000 houses.
By 1947/48, this colonial policy segued to the mass dispossession of the Palestinian people by Zionist paramilitary gangs, a status quo that was entrenched under Israeli rule. The Balfour Declaration and the decades of British mandate rule effectively provided the architecture for dispossession and disenfranchisement of an entire nation, which continues today.
And thus, 100 years to the date of that fateful missive, activists the world over are calling on the British government to officially apologise for the disastrous consequences of the Balfour Declaration.
“It is important to remind the world and particularly Britain that they should face their historic responsibility and atone for the big crime Britain committed against the Palestinian people,” reads a communiqué from the UK’s Balfour Apology Campaign.
“We believe that the British government’s recognition of its destructive colonial past is a necessary step towards achieving peace, justice and reconciliation.”
With its current leadership, an official British apology appears distant. Nevertheless, just as with the removal of the Rhodes statue at UCT, agitation for an acknowledgement of the colossal disdain which Balfour showed the Palestinians is a highly symbolic undertaking. It is vital to redress the injustices meted out to the Palestinians that his declaration set in motion, and to reignite the pursuit for lasting peace and justice in the region.
Moosa is a researcher with the Palestine Information Network. Follow them on Twitter