Desperate to find a restroom after a nearly nine-hour flight from Johannesburg, South African university student Klaas Mokgomole grabbed his carry-on and hurried off the plane.
Urgently searching out a gate agent at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport and praying that the man understood English, Mokgomole asked, sincerely, “Can you please show me to the blacks only restroom?”
The agent’s eyes widened in disbelief. He told Mokgomole in no uncertain terms that he never heard of such a thing and pointed him to a nearby bathroom.
That’s when it was Mokgomole’s turn to be confused.
Mokgomole — then a South African university student and outspoken youth leader of the anti-Israel, Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement — stood in the busy airport restroom dumbfounded as Jews and Arabs went in and out. They would have been oblivious to the transformation taking place as they stepped around him on that day in July 2015.
Recalling that seminal moment, Mokgomole explained to the Tazpit Press Service during a recent visit to Jerusalem, “I was taught very emphatically, racism in Israel runs so deep, that the Jews do not even share their toilets with blacks or Arabs.”
“To see within the first few moments after landing in Israel that this clearly is not the case marked a turning point for me,” he told TPS.
His curiosity sparked, Mokgomole began what would become a transformational journey from virulent anti-Israel activist to passionate peacemaker and bridge-builder between Israel and the rest of the world.
‘We Didn’t Know the Difference’
As a student at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg,where he was a star player on the school’s volleyball and netball teams, Klaas Mokgomole’s willingness to speak out against injustice or on behalf of people he felt were being marginalized made him a young, rising leader within the African National Congress (ANC), the black liberation movement which eventually became the country’s ruling party.
It was while advocating for the rights of those less fortunate than him, where Mokgomole first found himself taking sides in the Israeli-PA Arab conflict, specifically as part of the anti-Israel BDS movement which was sweeping South African college campuses at the time.
“The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction organization came to us and made a presentation complete with PowerPoint and videos showing babies dying to explain why Israel was an apartheid state. And as a South African, being black, it sort of touched me,” Mokgomole told TPS.
He said that he and his fellow members of the student government immediately passed a resolution banning anything connected to Israel from their campus, including the Jewish Student Union, Israeli academics, sports teams, and artists.
“We really believed these guys pushing BDS to us,” said Mokgomole, explaining why he and so many students accepted what he now describes as “half-truths and even outright lies” about Israel.
“We sort of felt like these are our friends and we can trust them. They told us Arabs are not allowed into Israeli universities, not allowed to share buses, beaches, or hospitals with Jews, essentially that the Jews set up a replica to the apartheid system that caused so much suffering here in South Africa. We didn’t authenticate the information, we just felt like it must be true and we have to fight it,” he explained.
“They weren’t just preaching anti-Zionism, they were preaching antisemitism and we didn’t really know the difference.”
Mokgomole said that the steady stream of lies he was fed led him to lash out at anyone or anything connected to Judaism and Israel. This included placing a severed pig’s head inside the kosher section of a local supermarket, storming the stage of an Israeli pianist’s recital on campus which ruined the performance and nearly got Mokgomole expelled.
Mokgomole told TPS that while his fate at the university hung in the balance, he began asking himself questions about BDS which he had trouble answering. That led him to visit Israel, to witness Israel’s racist policies first hand and justify the battle he was waging back home.
The turning point came as soon as Mokgomole got off the plane and found the restroom.
Sincere Conversations Overcome Barriers
His deeply held beliefs about Israel having crumbled, Mokgomole returned to South Africa eager to share his experiences. Unafraid to speak out about anything, Mokgomole approached the people he was closest to inside BDS and told them the shocking news about his recent trip and how it directly debunked the lies that they’ve all been fed.
But those conversations didn’t go well, Mokgomole recalled.
“It was so unusual that anyone would want to go to Israel because it is such a taboo. I committed a sin in their eyes and they didn’t want to associate with me any longer” he explained to TPS. The up-and-coming leader within the BDS movement was labelled a sellout and spy, even putting his life in danger.
“This was before we had the term cancel-culture, but that is exactly what they tried to do to me. Friends abandoned me and some of those who I was closest with, warned me to look out for a ‘necklace,’” Mokgomole said. “Necklacing” was a method of executing blacks suspected of collaborating with the apartheid regime. A tire doused in gasoline was placed around the victim and set on fire.
But Mokgomole said no amount of death threats or intimidation from his former BDS colleagues could persuade him. Gradually, he used his charm and persuasion to chip away at his friends’ defenses.
Repeatedly telling people not to take his word for it, he started encouraging friends to visit Israel and see the country for themselves, even offering to join them.
“They started giving me their ear. Many of my friends started taking trips to Israel to see what I was talking about.” Mokgomole said, adding that the impact was immediate and dramatic. “One guy who used to publicly profess his love of Hitler made the trip and when he returned, he walked over to the campus Jewish committee and apologized to them.”
Mokgomole now heads a new organization called Africans for Peace, a collective of students, scholars, and activists, with the ambitious goal of healing the ravages of global conflict by opening up honest dialogue. The organization has been taking South African university students to the Holocaust Center in Johannesburg, so that students bombarded with hateful BDS messages can learn how atrocities afflicted on the Jews were sparked by similar hate speech.
An activist at heart, Mokgomole, says he was energized by how effectively seemingly insurmountable barriers between people could be overcome by sincere conversations and keeping an open mind.
Mokgomole says he remains keenly aware of how vulnerable college students can be to BDS groups who target young, idealistic individuals. Four years ago, Mokgomole and his team from Africans for Peace began annual visits to lecture at universities in the US, including Stanford, University of California-Berkeley and New York University. Africans for Peace also brings its message to British campuses.
Mokgomole now regularly appears on South African national television spreading his message and has earned the attention of several Israeli based organizations, including the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, which brought Mokgomole back to Israel this month for a week of videocasts and workshops.
Dan Diker, who is helping oversee the JCPA’s “Africa, Black America, Israel Initiative” combating the Palestinian Authority’s own apartheid propaganda campaign, told TPS that Mokgomole is the ideal person to educate the world about dishonesty of the Israel apartheid libel.
Said Diker, “Klaas understands that the PLO apartheid narrative has robbed him and millions of other South Africans of the legitimacy of their own experience of real apartheid by trying to recreate in a false way apartheid in Israel and he sees right through that lie.”