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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.
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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.