The Dynamics of Power in South Africa and Palestine
Length: 1148 words (3.3 double-spaced pages)
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For over a hundred years, whites consolidated their power in predominantly black South Africa. In the last fifty years, Israelis have played a major hand in dispersing and oppressing the Palestinian people. Edward Said believes that “The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (Orientalism 133). Though the geographic reference of this quotation seems less applicable to South Africa, Said’s intuition into the complexity of race relations between oppressors and the oppressed still rings true. Nadine Gordimer’s two short stories, “Once Upon a Time” and “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off,” and Edward Said’s work “After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives” describe the power structures in South Africa and Palestine, respectively. Both authors clearly depict situations in which one group wields disproportionate authority in its relationship with another group. This parallel confusedly meets the oblique disparities between black/white and Jew/non-Jew interaction. In the exclusive context of Gordimer’s two short stories and Said’s piece, the hegemonies in South Africa and in Palestine are maintained in similar fashion, but with greatly differing results.
Both black South Africans and Palestinians are forced to live in segregated, poor communities and are subject to dehumanizing legislation. Gordimer’s story, “Once Upon a Time,” speaks of economic and racial segregation explicitly: “There were riots, but they were outside the city, where a people of another color were quartered” (Gordimer 25).
The classism and condescension of the white residents is clear as they recall with contempt those black robbers who snagged stores of fine alcohol: “the thieves wouldn’t even have been able to appreciate what it was they were drinking” (27). Moreover, they speak disdainfully of the unemployed blacks who spoiled “a beautiful suburb” (27) “only by their presence” (27). As Said painfully depicts, Palestinians find themselves in a very similar position in a system of “virtual apartheid” (Said 142). He describes the process through which Palestinians are “herded into new camps” (19) and their “identity is confined to frightened little islands in an inhospitable environment of superior military force” (19). Said paints a sad picture of the poor and destitute nature of life in the Palestinian refugee camps. Physical and economic segregation leaves both black South Africans and Palestinians on the outside, looking in.
A critical difference between the power hierarchies in these two countries lies in the level of integration and the nature of the interaction between oppressors and the oppressed.
The two responses to terror in Palestine as described by Said and by Gordimer in “Once Upon a Time” illustrate this difference. Said laments the violent rejection and removal of Palestinian identity by the Israelis. He uses the image of an “ancient wall” (149) to describe the barriers the Israelis have erected to keep the Palestinians severed from their memories and from the Israeli communities. The defensive reaction of white South Africans proves less divisive along ethnic lines. The fictional white family described in Gordimer’s dreamy tale makes every effort to ward off potential black thieves. They deliberately chose the most elaborate, effective security system: “there would be no way of climbing over it and no way through its tunnel without getting entangled in its fangs” (Gordimer 29). In this respect, white South Africans show themselves to be just as eager as the Israelis to keep out potential threats from a destitute, desperate community of a different ethnicity. The distinction arises, however, when the reader discovers that the black employees of the white family remain on the same side of the fence as their employers. As disaster strikes and the white child struggles in the clutches of the serrated wire surrounding the property “the trusted housemaid… came running, the first to see and to scream with him” (30). The ethnic division is not as clean and tidy as it is in Palestine. White South Africans and their “trustworthy” or “highly recommended” workers share a living space and even seem to have an intimate connection, albeit one permeated with racism. Both groups find a comfort zone within the racially charged atmosphere: “These people were not allowed into the suburb except as reliable housemaids and gardeners, so there was nothing to fear” (25). In Palestine, genuine relationships between the two ethnic groups are few and far between.
Said and Gordimer’s accounts demonstrate a large disparity between the reactions and resistance of the oppressed. Said’s account reveals a strong current of Palestinian resistance against Israeli domination, while the short stories based in South Africa reveal a broken spirit among the disenfranchised. “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” demonstrates the exploitation of a poor, young black woman at the hands of a wealthy white landowner, Mr. Van der Vyver. The story describes the accidental death of Lucas, the landowner’s illegitimate, mulatto son. Lucas’ mother was in her early teens when Van der Vyver impregnated her. At her son’s funeral, she finds herself incapable of resisting power structure which constrains her: “The parents hold her as if she were a prisoner or a crazy woman to be restrained. But she says nothing, does nothing. She does not look up; she does not look at Van der Vyver... His wife, Alida, is beside him” (116). The racist superstructure had become too grandiose for individuals to feel capable of altering it. The Palestinians, as described by Said, adopt a totally different approach to oppression. Quite simply, they reject it. Said praises a Palestinian spirit which has often prevailed even when under siege. He uses the dialogue from an interrogation of a young Palestinian to investigate this sentiment. In a radio broadcast, Israeli propaganda sought to demonize a young Palestinian “terrorist.” However, the young man cleverly concedes to his guilt all too willingly, aptly using hyperbole as means of resistance: “My mission was terrorism… in other words, we would enter villages and just terrorize” (Said 65). Said admires his flippant resistance, his “odd bravado, not meant to be a joke” (56). Said vividly and reverently describes the Palestinian rejection of the imposed power structure, while Gordimer describes a more reticent, cowed people.
The last ten years have witnessed a massive divergence in the paths these two racially charged atmospheres. The apartheid system collapsed while the situation in Palestine/Israel progressively worsens. International pressure has had much to do with this. South Africa crumbled under economic sanctions and embargoes, while Israel continues to receive massive American aid. Both Gordimer’s short stories and Said’s work were written before these new developments. They sought to spread understanding about the poor race relations tearing their countries apart. Said chose passionate non-fiction which rejected objectivity, while Gordimer resorted to fiction laced with irony. I would hope that both these authors can sleep peacefully at night. I would think, however, that one of them finds no solace because of the nightmare of an ongoing occupation.