Dockers and pro-Palestinians unite in Durban

The anti-Israel protests in the harbour city are the latest in a long line of strikes at the port against colonisation and apartheid.

The call to sanction and boycott Israeli goods and services ratcheted up a notch in South Africa when more than 10 000 people marched in solidarity with Palestine on the beachfront promenade in Durban on Sunday 23 May. Two days earlier, dozens of marchers from trade unions, non-governmental organisations, popular organisations and movements, and religious groups marched to the Durban harbour to call for state-owned Transnet not to allow Israeli cargo ships to dock in South African ports.

Cargo vessel Zim Shanghai docking on 19 May sparked the march at the harbour. The ship belongs to Israeli state-owned company Zim Lines. There was a call for dockside workers to refuse to offload the ship in solidarity with the people of Palestine, who are under siege from Israel. 

A dockside worker, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, revealed on the afternoon of Monday 24 May that the ship had been offloaded and reloaded with new goods, and had left the port. The veteran worker said the berth that was occupied by this vessel had been taken over and “there is a new ship, Bermuda, in pier 108.”

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Anele Kiet, the deputy general secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) confirmed this. “We have been informed that the ship was offloaded,” Kiet said. 

“Our workers fulfilled our commitment to stand with the suffering people of Palestine by refusing to offload this ship. We have also committed ourselves not to touch any ship from Israel. Remember that Satawu is not the only union that organises in the harbour, there are other unions like the Retusa [Revolutionary Transport Union of South Africa] and others, who unfortunately didn’t heed our call and allowed their members to join contract workers in unloading this ship. 

“We will engage these sister unions so that they will understand why we have taken this stance and join us in the future in refusing to service cargo ships from Israel or accept any goods from that country.”

Not a ‘simplistic issue’

In the latest Israeli air strikes, which went on for two weeks, more than 230 Palestinians, including more than 70 children and 40 women, were killed in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Most of the victims died owing to Israel’s heavy shelling of targets in densely populated areas. Israel reported that 12 of its citizens died, including two children, mainly because of Palestinian factions rocketing targets inside Israeli towns in retaliation for the attacks Palestine was under.

A ceasefire came into effect at midnight on 20 May, but did not stop Israeli forces from using stun grenades and rubber bullets on Palestinians who were attending Friday prayers at Al Aqsa mosque on 21 May. 

While that was happening in Jerusalem, marchers converged on the Durban Esplanade and Durban port. They were vociferous in their condemnation of Israel and its military, accusing them of attacking densely populated civilian areas.

21 May 2021: Pro-Palestine protesters in front of the Zim Shanghai at the Durban harbour. The Israeli- registered container ship was carrying Israeli goods.

The protesters carried placards and sang slogans denouncing Israel and calling for Palestine’s people to be freed from Israel’s bondage. The marchers included members of shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, environmental organisation the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, trade union federation Cosatu and its rival, the South African Federation of Trade Unions, organisations allied with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in South Africa and religious organisations sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Shabir Omar, a Durban-based academic and Palestine solidarity activist, took part in the dockside march and picket. “The Palestinian issue is not a localised or a simplistic issue. Here is a humanitarian issue and it is about the plight of the people of Palestine,” he said. 

“The dock workers have taken a stand that they are not going to offload the cargo carried by an Israeli ship. We admire the courage of dockside workers, we admire their stand, we thank them because they are prepared to sacrifice so that people in other parts of the world can be freed.”

Union orders

Abahlali baseMjondolo general secretary Thapelo Mohapi said his organisation feels that the struggle of the Palestinians is similar to theirs because they are often at the receiving end of the brutality of the eThekwini municipality during forced evictions. “We resonate with what is happening in Palestine because we are also facing persecution.

We believe in international solidarity. We want to put to the end of the brutality that is happening in Palestine, we want the murder that is happening in Palestine must come to an end. The blood of Palestine is our blood,” he said.

Cosatu KwaZulu-Natal secretary Edwin Mkhize said the federation wants to put pressure on Transnet and the South African government to stop allowing Israeli goods and ships into the country. “We have instructed our union members not to offload the cargo from Israel,” he said. 

“We want to impose the same sanctions against Israel so that it will not continue with its apartheid policies against the people of Palestine. We want to force the Transnet not to allow Israel cargo vessels into our harbour. We want to tell our government not to only condemn Israeli aggressive actions against the defenceless people of Palestine. They must take action.”

21 May 2021: More than 10 000 people take part in a pro-Palestine march along the Durban promenade.

Na’eem Jeenah is the head of the BDS Coalition of South Africa, an affiliate of the Palestinian BDS Committee. He welcomed the solidarity shown by progressive organisations in support of the people of Palestine.

“It is not only about what has been happening in the past few weeks … It is an ongoing campaign and we are hoping that workers will succeed in the future not to offload cargo from Israel,” he said. 

“As South Africans, we know apartheid when we see it. When we look at what is happening in Palestine now, it reminds us of what happened during our apartheid past. Apartheid is an apartheid state. The reality is that anyone that talks about a two-state solution today is talking about a sovereign state of Israel and a Bantustan called the State of Palestine. There is no possibility of a viable Palestinian State. The only solution is a single democratic state that will accommodate both the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

Officials of the Democratised Transport Logistics and Allied Workers’ Union, a union affiliated with the South African Federation of Trade Unions, said they have instructed their members not to load or transport cargo from any Israeli-registered ship. 

A history of dock strikes

This is not the first time Durban’s dockside workers have flexed their muscle in solidarity with the struggle of people from other parts of the world. David Hemson, a leading scholar on dock workers’ struggles and veteran organiser of their union, said dockers, as dockside workers are informally known, have used their influence from as early as the 1900s. However, the intensity of their strikes was felt in the 1930s and 1940s. Dock workers refused to load meat destined for Ethiopia in protest after the Italian fascist regime invaded and colonised the country.

After that, dock workers went on strike five times in 11 years: 1949, 1954, 1956, 1958 and 1959. Many of these strikes were organised by the charismatic dock worker leader Zulu Phungula. But after he was arrested and banished, the strikes continued.

“The popular 1973 Durban general strike was triggered by a strike by dock workers in September 1972. There were to be many others during apartheid,” said Hemon. “Even after apartheid dock workers refused to offload cargo in solidarity with their counterparts in Australia and California, who were striking in protest of privatisation.”

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The pro-Palestinian march, which took place on the Durban promenade, was one of the biggest Covid-19-era gatherings in the city. Marchers carried Palestinian flags, placards and banners denouncing Israel’s air strikes, many describing these as genocide.

Ongoing attacks and Israel’s blockade in Palestinian territories forced Mohammed Seyam to leave Palestine with his family four years ago and seek employment in South Africa. “Gaza was always under siege. If it is not air strikes, it is the blockades. We often didn’t have food supplies, no fresh water or electricity. These are not the conditions that you can be able to raise children and live a normal life,” he said.

Seyam is a senior lecturer in the department of civil engineering and geomatics at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) and his wife, Ayesha, is completing her PhD in pharmacy. Ayesha was given a podium at the march to speak about the difficulties of the people of Palestine, especially in the occupied territories.

‘You go to school with a prayer’

Mohammed Seyam is in constant contact with family and friends in Palestine. He said more than 20 of his neighbours have died during the recent bombings. “It is very sad. We want to live in peace with the Jews but the Israel state is provoking us and then killing our people. Our hearts and souls are in Gaza and Palestine and we cannot leave it forever. We want to go back to our homeland.”

He doesn’t see a viable two-state solution because Israel wanted unfettered control and access to Palestinian areas, and only allowed Palestinians to have control of local areas, just as the apartheid state had Black-run Bantustans.

21 May 2021: Durban dockside workers refused to offload Israeli goods, according to union representatives, in solidarity with the Palestinians who are under siege from Israel.

Seyam’s 14-year-old son Ebrahim said it is difficult for children to grow up in the war zone of Gaza City. “You go to school with a prayer because you don’t know whether you will come back. There are many schools and madrasas [religious schools] that were bombed,” said Ebrahim.

March organisers said they would host another one after the Jummah midday prayer on Friday 28 May outside the Grey Street Mosque.

Transnet spokesperson Ayanda Somagaca acknowledged receiving the detailed questions sent to her but did not send Transnet’s media statement on the matter as promised.

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