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In May, pro-Palestine activists set up an encampment known as the “Liberated Zone” on the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) campus in Johannesburg, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and divestment from Israel-linked companies. The university supported a ceasefire but resisted calls to sever ties with Israel. Similar protests were held at the University of Cape Town (UCT), calling for financial and academic boycotts of Israel. South African universities have been urged to take a stronger stance on the Palestinian cause by government officials.

Wits University students, inspired by protests in the US, demanded full disclosure of the university’s ties with Israeli institutions and organizations. The protest escalated when demands were not met, and security officials removed the encampment. Wits University has not commented on the dismantling of the encampment. UCT students, erecting their own encampment, called for academic boycotts and financial transparency regarding ties with Israel. While universities like UCT have taken steps like calling for ceasefires, the full academic boycott has not been implemented.

South African universities have a history of taking a stand on global issues, such as the University of Johannesburg ending a relationship with an Israeli university in 2011. The student activists at Wits University and UCT are inspired by the success of past boycotts in South Africa. At UCT, despite protests and calls for action, the university council has yet to make the call for a ceasefire. The University of Fort Hare has taken a stronger stance by committing to not pursuing any relationships with Israeli institutions.

Government officials in South Africa have emphasized the importance of universities not remaining neutral on the Palestinian cause, drawing parallels to the anti-apartheid era. Deputy Higher Education Minister Buti Manamela urged universities to follow the example of boycotting apartheid and not remain neutral in the face of the situation in Palestine. International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor praised students for their efforts in supporting Palestine and called on universities to provide moral and political leadership in the fight for justice.

The protests have highlighted the support for Palestine among South African students and the government’s call for universities to take a stronger stance. While universities like Wits University and UCT have supported ceasefires, calls for a full academic boycott, financial transparency, and severing ties with Israeli institutions continue. The protests reflect a broader global movement in solidarity with Palestine and draw on the lessons of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggles. The push for change and accountability from universities in South Africa exemplifies the ongoing fight for justice and solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

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