JOHANNESBURG, Aug. 6 (JTA) — With criticism mounting against the upcoming World Conference Against Racism, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has come out strongly against what it called attempts to dictate the meeting’s agenda.
The statement by party spokesman Smuts Ngonyama, following a meeting of the party leadership Sunday, referred to U.S. opposition to the inclusion of two issues on the conference agenda — the equation of Zionism with racism and reparations for slavery.
The weeklong conference is slated to be held in Durban, South Africa, beginning Aug. 31.
Later Sunday, the main TV news show featured a debate between the president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Marlene Bethlehem, and the head of the South African Center to Combat Racism, Rev. Basil Manning, who has been asked by the government to follow up after the conference on racism in South Africa.
Manning termed Zionism racist, “not as a liberation movement, but in the State of Israel, which leads to the systemic and systematic marginalization, subjugation of people, the denial of opportunities, resources, services, and especially their dignity and self-respect.”
He sees parallels between Israel and apartheid South Africa, Manning said, “in terms of the exploitation, like maiming of children, the pushing of people off their land.
“I want to distinguish between Zionism and Judaism,” he said. “Given the history of Jews and what they experienced in the Holocaust, I cannot believe that they could be doing similar things to the Palestinians.”
Bethlehem told JTA that Manning “has some preconceived ideas.”
Bethlehem defended Zionism as the national liberation ideology of the Jewish people, who are entitled to their own homeland.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat missed a great opportunity for peace at Camp David last year, she said, and pointed out that Israel’s 1 million Arabs have full rights as citizens.
“Even the women have the vote, and that is very unusual in the Arab world,” she noted.
Arab countries have been pressing to have the Durban conference revive the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution that was on U.N. books from 1975 until 1991.
“A resolution of this nature is very divisive,” Bethlehem said, and the Board of Deputies is working to improve relations between Jews and others in South Africa, not divide them.