Harry Potter and the apartheid state

When Nelson Mandela was released, the collapse of apartheid began working its way backward through history. It wasn’t simply that Western leaders changed their minds about a man most of them had previously condemned as a dangerous terrorist. Rather, it became impossible to find anyone, whether politician or punter, who’d ever backed the racist regime or failed to support the liberation struggle.

The American historian Alan Wald writes somewhere of what he calls ‘the politics of memory’, the process by which the past is adjusted to suit the political priorities of the present. South Africa provides a perfect example. By the early nineties, everyone opposed apartheid – and they always had.

Poster by the Federation of Conservative Students in the early 1980s
Poster put out by the Federation of Conservative Students in the early 1980s

It’s startling, then, to look back on documentation from the international freedom struggle, because it reveals just how controversial standing against apartheid was until comparatively late in the piece.

Take, for instance, the cultural boycott against South Africa. Today, it seems almost a no brainer. Of course, artists in the industrialised world should have refused to lend their talents to the racist regime. How could anyone think otherwise?

Unfortunately, the list of those who deliberately flouted the boycott makes for depressing reading. In December 1980, UN General Assembly Resolution 35/206E formalised the (already existing) campaign through the establishment of a ‘Register of Artists, Actors and Others who have performed in South Africa’. Over the next few years, that document grew to include Cher, the Beach Boys, Isaac Hayes, Ray Charles, Dame Kiri Janette Te Kanawa, Queen, Rod Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Curtis Mayfield, Tina Turner, Leo Sayer, Cliff Richard, Gloria Gaynor, Chicago, Rick Wakeman, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, George Benson, Shirley Bassey, Barry Manilow, David Essex, Black Sabbath and many, many more.

Some performers were up front about their rationales for playing in South Africa. ‘I am not a politician and I’m not going to mix my career with politics,’ said the entertainer Millie Jackson. ‘All I want is the money.’

Most, however, were not so forthright. By the early eighties, artists breaking the boycott usually felt obliged to insist they were motivated by higher principles. Thus Gerry Beckley, from the group America, explained his band’s tour as almost a form of solidarity. ‘We like to think,’ he said, ‘that our songs and our way of life – the fact that we’re Americans having a good time – might give them hope that there is an outside world where this stuff doesn’t happen.’


That grotesque rationalisation comes to mind in relation to JK Rowling’s stance on the cultural boycott of Israel.

Rowling’s was, of course, the most prominent signature on an open letter opposing an boycott call by progressive artists, put together by an outfit calling itself Culture for Coexistence (CFC). The document she signed argues that ‘cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory, and will not further peace’ and that ‘open dialogue and interaction promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance, and it is through such understanding and acceptance that movement can be made towards a resolution of the conflict.’

Now, Rowling is a beloved figure for many, not merely because of the Harry Potter universe but also because of her public stances against homophobia and sexism. Nonetheless, we should not mince words here: this campaign is a shabby, dishonest affair and Rowlings’ participation is shameful.

Like Gerry Beckley, Rowling presents her opposition to a cultural boycott as strategic. In a reply to aggrieved Potter fans, she acknowledges that ‘the Palestinian community has suffered untold injustice and brutality’. In fact, she accepts their comparison between the Israeli state and a Death Eater – and then insists that artistic dialogue (rather than a boycott) provides a more effective route to justice for Palestine.

There is, however, an obvious problem with claiming that CFC offers a strategy for ending Palestinian oppression: namely, it’s led by people who don’t believe that Palestinian oppression exists.

Symptomatically, the chair of the organisation is Loraine da Costa, who, until last year, sat on the executive board of Conservative Friends of Israel, a tremendously powerful group dedicated to ensuring the Tories march in lockstep with Likud. Peter Oborne notes that, when a previous Conservative leader described Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 as ‘disproportionate’, CFI successfully lobbied David Cameron to ensure that the term was never again used, even during the massacre of Gaza.

Demonstration in Brisbane against South African apartheid, 1971
Demonstration in Brisbane against South African apartheid, 1971

In any case, the open letter Rowling’s signed isn’t an argument for a different strategy against ‘untold injustice and brutality’. We know that because it so closely mirrors the case made in defence of apartheid South Africa, all those years ago.

Take the claim that ‘cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory’. This is a particularly stupid argument, since, taken literally, it would mean refusing to oppose any injustice whatsoever (why that particular oppression and not all the others?).

More importantly, it’s precisely the contention repeated again and again by supporters of Pretoria during the dying days of apartheid.

‘South Africa Shouldn’t be Singled Out,’ proclaimed Anne-Marie Kriek in a 1989 op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor. ‘Why is South Africa so harshly condemned while completely different standards apply to black Africa?’

In the light of history, how does Kriek’s piece look now?

Or think of the CFC article’s insistence on ‘a two-state solution so that the national self-determination of both peoples is realised, with the state of Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security.’

Again, almost identical slogans were raised on behalf of South African apartheid – and specifically in relation to the cultural boycott. As the racist regime became more isolated, it began staging musical and other performances not in Pretoria but in the Sun City holiday resort in Bophuthatswana, a supposedly independent nation. It was the purported ‘independence’ of Bophuthatswana that Frank Sinatra’s manager used to justify his client earning millions of dollars for a week’s performance. ‘We were entirely satisfied with the conditions of civil rights, integration and the like,’ he said.

Of course, the creation of ‘homelands’ for non-white people (Bophuthatswana but also Transkei, Ciskei and Venda) was entirely compatible with the ideology of a racially defined state, just as the rhetoric of ‘two states for two peoples’ legitimates the ethno-chauvinism of Israeli nationalism.

Regardless, the homelands remained puppet states, entirely dependent on and controlled by the apartheid regime.

What does the ongoing growth of Israeli settlements tell us about the status of Palestinians? Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has already declared that he will not allow Palestinian independence. What, then, does Rowling’s support for a ‘two state solution’ actually mean? What content does the slogan have, other than as a way of shouting down any real change?

Israel's 'security barrier'
Israel’s ‘security barrier’

The same question might be asked about Culture for Coexistence’s claim that ‘open dialogue and interaction promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance, and it is through such understanding and acceptance that movement can be made towards a resolution of the conflict.’

Would anyone now dare to say that black South Africans should have abandoned their struggle against apartheid so as to accept and understand their oppressors? The vast majority of Palestinian civil society has endorsed a cultural boycott – but Rowling, who accepts that Palestinians have endured ‘untold injustice and brutality’, has the gall to tell them to ‘accept’ those responsible for their suffering.

Frankly, it’s a grotesque argument, only possible because of the intense reification that surrounds cultural production, a mystification that allows artists (and writers in particular) to imagine that their work somehow floats above the crudities of politics, airily fostering peace and goodwill by force of its innate genius.

Again, the example of South Africa demonstrates something quite different. The apartheid regime recognised art’s role in fostering acceptance … of the regime, that is.

Colonial settler states like South Africa and Israel necessarily envisage themselves as outposts of civilisation surrounded by the barbarism of the colonised. For that reason, access to a shared ‘Western culture’ matters a great deal. In 1982, Richard Lapchick from the American Coordinating Committee for Equality in Sport and Society explained: ‘South Africa is able to tell their white constituency when these entertainers come, particularly the black entertainers, that the world doesn’t boycott South Africa, that the UN can pass resolution after resolution but when entertainers and athletes arrive, that they are the people of the world …’

That was why the cultural boycott hurt. As Dali Tambo put it: ‘White south Africans are desperate for things like European pop records which make them feel like their way of life is normal. Pop music and similar leisure products help keep the minority’s head in the sand. Don’t help them keep their morale up.’

Today, the ‘open dialogue’ Rowling champions operates in the same fashion, as the Israeli government knows full well. Indeed, as Haaretz explained in 2005, ‘heads of the regional departments and Israeli representatives abroad will be given optimal authority to decide when and how often the State of Israel will represent itself through a booklet explaining the need for the separation fence, and when and how often it will do so through, say, a play.’

Arye Mekel, the deputy director general for cultural affairs in the Israeli foreign ministry, put it like this: ‘We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theatre companies, exhibits. This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.’

Of course, the exchange operates both ways: every rock band that chooses to play Tel Aviv reassures Israelis of the normalcy of the Occupation and all that surrounds it.


Rowling’s key argument centres on the effect of a boycott on progressives within the Israeli artistic scene. ‘Severing contact with Israel’s cultural and academic community,’ means, she says, refusing to engage with some of the Israelis who are most pro-Palestinian, and most critical of Israel’s government. Those are voices I’d like to hear amplified, not silenced. A cultural boycott places immovable barriers between artists and academics who want to talk to each other, understand each other and work side-by-side for peace.

Again, it’s an old and familiar argument, one that was made (with considerably greater justification) about the cultural embargo on South Africa.

Though it’s scarcely remembered now, the boycott of the apartheid state was often quite a messy affair. The freedom movement was itself often fragmented, and the various factions didn’t always agree. Different groups interpreted the boycott call in different, and sometimes contradictory, ways.

Furthermore, the boycott did, without question, have negative consequences for black South Africans themselves. ‘It may be argued that non-white people will be the first to be hit by external boycotts,’ explained the ANC’s president Chief Albert Luthuli in 1959. ‘This may be so, but every organisation which commands … non-white support in South Africa is in favour of them. The alternative to the use of these weapons is the continuation of the status quo and the bleak prospect of unending discrimination.’

As you would expect, musicians were particularly hit by the cultural sanctions, with progressives, in particular, isolated from their musical peers around the world. But as the jazz guitarist Gary Rathbone said, most of them accepted that sacrifice.

‘Sure it was a shit deal for us,’ he said later. ‘But the bigger picture was much more worth it than any sort of problems that we might have had, like some people whining and saying, “Oh I lost my career because of it.” You say, well jeez some people, a lot of people, lost their lives and their families. Never mind your bloody career for God’s sakes.’

If the academics Rowling cites are really as progressive as she claims, they will arrive at a similar position.


Interestingly, literature seems to be more central to the cultural boycott of Israel than it was to the campaign against South Africa (which tended to focus on music). That may be connected to the massively increased popularity of writers’ festivals, events that have now added a performative aspect to literary life, with authors regularly hauled up on stage to hold forth on topics with which they may or may not be acquainted.

William Hazlitt offered a typically caustic anticipation of this conception of the writer as guru. ‘An author is bound to write – well or ill, wisely or foolishly; it is his trade. But I do not see that he is bound to talk, any more than he is bound to dance, or rise, or fence better than other people.’

It’s an argument Rowling’s involvement with Culture for Coexistence seems to confirm. There’s no particular reason to think penning a fantasy classic gives a writer any deeper insight than anyone else into Middle Eastern politics.

At the same time, the aggrieved responses to Rowling from Harry Potter fans around the world should be a cause for hope. The solidarity movement has put the question of Palestine squarely on the agenda. Even in Hogwarts, Palestine is still the issue – irrespective of what Rowling herself says.




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Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Seriously, Harry Potter! This is respected journal for adult readers, we don’t care about Rowling and Harry Potter. There was no need to add this to a piece on a serious topic, except that an inordinate number of twenty somethings think that Harry Potter books have an answer to everything in life. But this doesn’t make Rowling an expert in Middle Eastern politics and is likely to make missteps as many artist before and since have done when they venture beyond their sphere of expertise, not that I am dismissing activism by the arts community, which can be vital, and very powerful when done well, by thoughtful practitioners. Talk about the letter by all means, but ditch the Harry Potter!

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