What is transnational solidarity, and who gets to decide?
A solidarity action with activists from around the world taught me how deeply power relations are embedded even in our movements.
This article is part of the Radical Activism in Africa special series, guest edited by Stella Nyanzi.
In September 2016, I accepted an invitation to join 12 other female activists on a boat that would attempt to reach the shores of occupied Gaza. I have participated in protests in support of Palestine since I was a young child, and I was open to the idea of joining another demonstration against neo-colonialism and injustice. The idea behind the Women’s Boat to Gaza (WBG) was to break the devastating blockade of Gaza by taking a message of international solidarity.
That is not to say I didn’t have questions about the mission’s politics. I was particularly concerned that an all-female protest might be construed as a mission of “womanly peace” in opposition to Israel’s “masculine militarism”. However, I stepped onto the boat imagining that the 13 of us would have animated discussions around these questions of power, gender, feminism, peace, resistance and, above all, solidarity. We were all involved in various struggles in our home countries – and some in international ones – and came from different social and political positions.
Overall, the mission was a remarkable political education for me. It allowed me to experience an extraordinary transnational mission and learn about struggles from Aotearoa to Algeria. But it also taught me how deeply power relations are embedded even in our movements, and how much more attention we need to pay to how we come together and how we move together.
On the boat: The face of feminist solidarity
Having flown from Johannesburg to Italy a few days earlier, we set sail on the morning of 27 September 2016 and began our nine-day journey to Gaza.
There were many highlights as the 13 of us got to know about each other and our activism. I realised that there are so many ongoing battles across the world. As we went further across the Mediterranean, we were also in satellite communication with people in Gaza who were preparing to meet us. As we counted down the miles, we started believing that we would make it. We were a small boat and had made it known to the Israeli Occupied Forces (IOF) that we carried no supplies, weapons or materials other than our own sparse food and clothing.
In the last few days of our voyage, our boat captain and boat leader gathered us together to discuss two matters. The first was what to do if we were boarded to prevent us breaking the blockade. We all quickly agreed that, if this happened, we would cede our voices to the captain and leader, who were most experienced in such matters. They would respond to the soldiers and present our message of peace and non-violence, clarifying that we had no weapons or materials on board.
The second discussion, about what to do if we actually made it to the Gaza coast, was not nearly as easy. The conversation started to heat up when it was proposed that the nature of our mission was one of spreading peace. I was uncomfortable with the idea that we would speak only one message. How could we get off the boat and all declare to the women we met that we were there in the name of non-violent resistance? Would this not be patronising to the Palestinian resistance movement? How would they react to us taking a predetermined position that peace and non-violence was the only legitimate form of struggle?
I urged for engagement not from a singular position of supporting non-violent action, but from a dialogue about how we might be able to engage the ongoing struggles for Palestinian freedom. I wanted to ask critical questions about the relevance of different forms of struggle against extremely violent forms of oppression. Ours, I argued, was not a mission to convince Gazans of the merits of non-violent resistance but to show solidarity with their experiences and political priorities.
The conversation broke down quickly. The two elders on the boat were international peace activists, one having spent years working in the military and seeing the devastating effects of military violence, the other a pacifist and (I later discovered) an anti-abortion advocate. But others of us had lived through historical struggles for freedom that involved the strategic use of violence and were not convinced that violence against an illegitimate regime was inherently unprincipled. The question of non-violence as universally applicable caused a lot of friction and was not at all settled.
We all spoke from our personal experiences, but our capacity to listen to each other’s views was strained and ragged. What became problematic from my perspective was not the diversity of positions, but the rigidity of the stance that some adopted, which had the effect of silencing others. The conversation played out along familiar lines: the more privileged women were advocates of non-violence, while those of us from the Global South did not hold such a straightforward position. I observed that the mostly white women from the Global North were unwilling to recognise how the context of a deeply unequal (and structurally violent) world, in terms of raced, classed, geographic, and gendered inequality and exploitation, might require a shifting reading of strategy in relation to the forms that resistance might take.
The breakdown of the conversation made me realise that the solidarity we were practising was not one that pushed us to understand one another’s positions and grapple with the discomfort. When very real differences between us surfaced, we as a group did not exercise political rigour to deal with them. Nor did we think about differences in relation to the particular needs of Palestinian women. Rather, the conversation ended with perhaps the most powerful woman from the Global North criticising our lack of “team spirit”. She implied we had embarked on the mission under false pretences and that the insistence on contending with diverse views was not politically productive or necessary, but in fact destructive to the mission. It was made clear that being a good member of the transnational collective meant conforming to a single view – defined by the boat’s most privileged members – of what protest should entail.
Perhaps it was too much to ask us to have these kinds of weighty political discussions on a small boat far from land, pushing through storms and broken rigging. Perhaps the only version of solidarity that could be practised was one that conceded to a clear premise and held a single line. But it was difficult not to feel the power dynamics on the boat and the creeping sense that something was wrong, and that an opportunity had been missed.
This feeling was only deepened by what happened next.
Prison: The myth of universal experiences
The day before we were set to reach Gaza, our boat was intercepted by Israeli soldiers. Two of us – journalists for Al Jazeera – were immediately deported. The remaining eleven of us were processed by navy, military, prison service and police officers; questioned by immigration; and subjected to numerous strip-searches, before being taken to Givon Prison.
The next morning, we were taken from our cells and put in an open courtyard. However, we were not all afforded the same privileges. Eight of us – including all the white and Northern women – could sit on wooden benches or walk around in the open air. But the other three of us – all broadly defined as black, two in a hijab, two from Africa – were locked in a cage at one end of the yard.
It’s hard to know exactly why we were arranged like this. It might have simply been because we three had no one coming to visit us during the scheduled consular visit as our governments did not have cosy relationships with Israel. But we sat in a four-by-four-metre holding cell, I was shocked at being separated and treated differently from my comrades. Inequalities are always present between nationalities and races, but the experience of being confined to this hierarchy against my most fervent aspirations during a solidarity mission was disappointing. While we’d shared the same boat and sea conditions, it was clear that our collective of a dozen women from a dozen countries were not, in fact, on the same mission. As in our difficult discussion on the boat, I saw how racial and national distinctions mattered in how decisions were made, how conversations unfolded, and how care circulated. Being prevented from reaching Gaza and being treated like terrorists paled in comparison to being forgotten or not held in consciousness and care by our comrades.
One or two of the uncaged women came over to see us. It seemed they felt uncomfortable about the situation, though not enough to insist our confinement end. The possibility of joining us in the cage did not seem to enter their minds. And yet it seemed, from inside the cage, that the very least condition for a collective mission was to hold the tension between having one vision and voice while also agreeing on how to work together across difference.
Questions on solidarity
The question of how to express critical solidarity with Palestine took shape for me in the context of the two key incidents I’ve discussed. These experiences led me to a series of questions.
Who decides strategy when planning an action across contexts? Who sets the terms for an act of solidarity? What constitutes a solidaristic effort? During the mission, would there have been less difficulty if we’d had similar experiences or were socially positioned more closely to each other? Also, what is the relationship between solidarity and self-interest? Is it solidarity if you are marching with fellow workers for your own benefit, or does solidarity have to involve some sort of act of sacrifice?
Solidarity seems to be premised on the capacity to move beyond oneself, and to think about working for others’ interests. Perhaps the more distant your own experience is from those for whom solidarity is expressed, the more translation work has to be done. Perhaps the more distant your experience, especially in terms of privilege, the more critically aware you have to be about how you do the work of moving beyond your own experience. Solidarity imagined like this would require the development of a practice of moving oneself into another position, not with appropriation or force, but to decentre the self and find technologies for correspondence across difference. If this careful practice is not at the centre of solidarity work, then it can devolve into something else quite quickly.
What this reveals for me is that there is a relationship between proximity and distance that enables solidarity. There is something about the hook of experience as well as the importance of difference that makes solidarity so necessary and yet so difficult. Because if you are just in the experience, then you can’t express real solidarity because you don’t do it beyond yourself. Solidarity implies distance and the transcendence of one’s own experience in order to be with other people.
The simplest way for me to keep thinking through solidarity is to continue to act in solidarity with those who have a different and less privileged position from mine and therefore different life experiences. In this way I practise a form of auto-critique, and in so doing contribute to a more complex practice of fighting oppressive power, while at the same time fighting it internally in our resistance processes and movements. I do this not alone but with other comrades of collectives, movements, organisations and campaigns.
This article is an abridged version of a longer chapter published in Surfacing: On being black and feminist in South Africa (Wits University Press, 2021).
Radical Activism in Africa is a special series about how people across the continent are responding to injustice, imagining alternative futures, and mobilising in transformative ways. The series brings together leading writers, activists and thinkers from across the continent. It is guest-edited by Stella Nyanzi with James Wan.