Ask an older generation of white South Africans when they first felt the bite of anti-apartheid sanctions, and some point to the moment in 1968 when their prime minister, BJ Vorster, banned a tour by the England cricket team because it included a mixed-race player, Basil D’Oliveira.

After that, South Africa was excluded from international cricket until Nelson Mandela walked free from prison 22 years later. The D’Oliveira affair, as it became known, proved a watershed in drumming up popular support for the sporting boycott that eventually saw the country excluded from most international competition including rugby, the great passion of the white Afrikaners who were the base of the ruling Nationalist party and who bitterly resented being cast out.

For others, the moment of reckoning came years later, in 1985 when foreign banks called in South Africa’s loans. It was a clear sign that the country’s economy was going to pay an ever higher price for apartheid.

Neither of those events was decisive in bringing down South Africa’s regime. Far more credit lies with the black schoolchildren who took to the streets of Soweto in 1976 and kicked off years of unrest and civil disobedience that made the country increasingly ungovernable until changing global politics, and the collapse of communism, played its part.

But the rise of the popular anti-apartheid boycott over nearly 30 years made its mark on South Africans who were increasingly confronted by a repudiation of their system. Ordinary Europeans pressured supermarkets to stop selling South African products. British students forced Barclays Bank to pull out of the apartheid state. The refusal of a Dublin shop worker to ring up a Cape grapefruit led to a strike and then a total ban on South African imports by the Irish government.

By the mid-1980s, one in four Britons said they were boycotting South African goods – a testament to the reach of the anti-apartheid campaign. By then it was well entrenched in universities as one of the great left causes of the day, alongside the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The musicians union blocked South African artists from playing on the BBC, and the cultural boycott saw most performers refusing to play in the apartheid state, although some, including Elton John and Queen, infamously put on concerts at Sun City in the Bophuthatswana homeland.

A policeman watches anti-apartheid demonstrators outside the Waldorf Hotel in London where South African cricketers are staying in 1965.
A policeman watches anti-apartheid demonstrators outside the Waldorf Hotel in London where South African cricketers are staying in 1965. Photograph: Clive Limpkin/Getty Images

The US didn’t have the same sporting or cultural ties, and imported far fewer South African products, but the mobilisation against apartheid in universities, churches and through local coalitions in the 1980s was instrumental in forcing the hand of American politicians and big business in favour of financial sanctions and divestment.

By the time President FW de Klerk was ready to release Mandela and negotiate an end to apartheid, a big selling point for part of the white population was an end to boycotts and isolation.

Twenty-seven years after the end of white rule, some see the boycott campaign against South Africa as a guide to mobilising popular support against what is increasingly condemned as Israel’s own brand of apartheid.

As South Africa showed, building popular support for action takes years – and those who back the campaign face a far more effective opponent in the Israeli state. For all that, significant shifts in attitudes toward Israel, particularly in the US and within the Jewish diaspora, have presented campaigners with their best prospects to date for building a boycott and they are looking to the anti-apartheid movement as the example.

One of the most important changes is the breaking of the taboo on comparisons with South Africa’s racist system. Israel’s leading human rights group, B’Tselem, issued a report in January called: “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid”. Human Rights Watch in the US followed in April, accusing Israel of “crimes of apartheid”.

For years, Israel and its supporters have dismissed claims of similarities as antisemitic on the grounds they imply that the Jewish state is a racist enterprise.

Israel continues to claim to the outside world that the occupation is temporary, even as it entrenches control ever more deeply, and that the Palestinians only have themselves to blame for failing to negotiate their way to an independent state.
But the increasing focus on campaigns for racial justice in the US has contributed to a shift in focus from arguments about two states to abuses of individual human rights.

The anti-apartheid boycott movement had credibility in good part because it was called for by South Africans even if it never had universal support among the country’s black population, in part over fear of loss of jobs.

The African National Congress president, Albert Luthuli, made the call in 1958. The following year the Boycott Movement, later renamed the Anti-Apartheid Movement, was launched in London. Among the speakers was Julius Nyerere, future president of newly independent Tanzania.

“We are not asking you, the British people, for anything special. We are just asking you to withdraw your support from apartheid by not buying South African goods,” he said.

“The South African government is fighting against history and they are bound to lose. We know that the liberation struggle will triumph in South Africa. If you have confidence then we are going to win!”

Nyerere was right. But it took another 30 years.

Palestinians walk next to a giant statue of Nelson Mandela in the West Bank city of Ramallah in March.
Palestinians walk next to a giant statue of Nelson Mandela in the West Bank city of Ramallah in March. Photograph: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images

The Palestinian campaign, the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement, is not led by political leaders but civil society, which does not have the same standing in the kind of international forums where the ANC had leverage.

On the face of it, that is a weakness. But the absence of the ageing and compromised Palestinian Authority leadership has opened the way for a younger generation usually much better at communicating how the Palestinian experience fits with growing global demands for racial justice. Add to that the wave of protests by a new generation of Palestinians inside Israel and the occupied territories, united by anger at two systems built on discrimination.

White South Africa’s apologists, who included conservative politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, cast the ANC as a violent anti-democratic movement and a front for the Soviet Union. Britain’s rightwing tabloids looked around other parts of the African continent and asked why South Africa was being picked on when Idi Amin’s Uganda was so much worse.

But millions of ordinary people saw through that for what apartheid was – a crime against the humanity of every South African subjected to its racist laws and practices.
Israel has worked hard to keep the focus on Hamas and it routinely disparages critics by asking why they are “singling out” the Jewish state when its Arab neighbours are less democratic and more oppressive. But the events of recent weeks have shown the extent to which that tactic is increasingly ineffective, particularly amid international criticism of the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes to make way for Jews in East Jerusalem.

By the 1980s anti-apartheid was one of the great left causes of the day alongside the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
By the 1980s anti-apartheid was one of the great left causes of the day alongside the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, as seen at this rally in Trafalgar Square. Photograph: David O’neill/Associated New/Rex

And while Israel claims the BDS movement has no credibility and little support, its actions suggest it believes something else.

Pro-Israel groups have worked hard to persuade US states to pass anti-boycott laws and to codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, with its ambiguous examples of when criticism of Israel is unacceptable.

The long and terrible history of boycotts of Jews, particularly in Europe, adds a dimension to the campaign that South Africans did not have to consider. But it is no longer enough in itself to dismiss sanctions outright as too reminiscent of the 1930s.
A group of more than 200 Holocaust scholars around the world has pushed back with with the Jerusalem Declaration which said that comparisons between Israel and apartheid, and calls for a boycott, are not in themselves antisemitic.

Netanyahu has not helped himself by allying with Donald Trump or the far right in Europe such as the Hungarian president, Viktor Orbán, who has long trafficked in antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Still, the challenges for the boycott movement are clear. Fifa – world soccer’s governing body – rejected demands for action over six Israeli league teams based in Jewish settlements on the grounds that the issue was too “political” . Which points to popular action leading the way, as happened against South African apartheid.

PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-FBL-ARGENTINA-CONFLICTA picture taken on June 5, 2018, shows a poster erected on a main street in the West Bank town of Hebron, denouncing the upcoming friendly football match between Argentina and Israel and calling Argentina’s star Lionel Messi (portrait) to boycott the match. Palestinian football boss Jibril Rajoub, on June 3, called on Barcelona star Lionel Messi not to play in the Argentina-Israel game that is scheduled to take place in Jerusalem on June 9 and urged fans to burn their shirts if he does. / AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADERHAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images
A poster erected on a main street in the West Bank town of Hebron denounces the upcoming friendly football match between Argentina and Israel in June 2018. Argentina’s players voted to boycott the game. Photograph: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

In echoes of the cultural boycott of South Africa, actors and film-makers have refused to play in Israel. Some called for the Eurovision Song Contest to be withdrawn from Tel Aviv in 2019. The New Zealand singer Lorde cancelled a concert in the city three years ago after fans urged her to join the artistic boycott of Israel. A pro-Israel group placed an advert in the Washington Post calling her a “bigot”.

Three years ago Argentina cancelled a World Cup warm-up match with Israel after the players voted to boycott the game. The appearance of Palestinian flags at English Premier League and FA Cup matches in recent days suggests there is support for such action.

It is an even larger challenge to persuade big business to show its disapproval of Israeli policies. Yet even in the face of pressure from Trump, parts of the American private sector stood against further restrictions on voting rights in the US and pulled funding for Republicans who backed the mob that stormed the Capitol in January.

The movement also has important friends, among them black South Africans who were at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid. On Wednesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa, a trade union leader who led the ANC’s negotiations with the white regime, said the forced removal of Palestinians to make way for Israeli settlers and the destruction of homes in Gaza “brings back very terrible memories of our own history and apartheid”.

“This, for us, is very close to our own suffering under apartheid. When we see those images, we can’t but help to side with the Palestinians,” he said.

Chris McGreal was the Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent from 2002 for four years after being based in Johannesburg since 1990