Israel-South Africa: No impunity for apartheid against the Palestinians

Zeenat Adam

Middle East Eye  /  March 28, 2023

South Africa’s historic vote to downgrade diplomatic ties with Israel comes at a time when several countries in Africa and Middle East are normalizing relations with the settler-colonial state.

On 7 March, the South African Parliament passed a resolution to downgrade the country’s diplomatic representation in Israel from an embassy to a liaison office.

The motion, proposed by a minuscule party, the National Freedom Party (NFP), garnered support from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and other parliamentarians, finding favour with 208 votes, while 94 opposed. 

Opposition to the resolution came from parties with either close ties to the pro-Israel community in South Africa or that maintain a religious connection to the State of Israel. For example, the African Christian Democratic Party, argued against the motion on religious grounds, citing pilgrimages undertaken by Christian Zionists and emphasized the religious recognition of Israel’s right to exist.

The vote was hailed as a historic moment amidst rising violence and a pogrom by settler colonialists in the West Bank, reinforcing the notion that Israel’s brutal occupation is rooted in apartheid policies that seek to eradicate, marginalize and dehumanize Palestinians. 

Celebrating the resolution as a victory, NFP Member of Parliament, Ahmed Munzoor Shaik Emam, stated that the resolution “demands accountability from Israel. It is a courageous move that demonstrates our commitment as a country to justice, human rights, and freedom. The state of Israel was built through the displacement, murder, and maiming of Palestinians. And to maintain their grip on power, they have instituted apartheid to control and manage Palestinians”.

Roshan Dadoo, Coordinator of the South African Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (SABDS) Coalition, stated that the resolution “is only the start of what South Africa should be doing in support of the struggle. The current extreme right-wing Israeli government’s policies of settler-colonialism and apartheid and its cruel oppression has been unmasked”.

Dadoo further suggested that South Africa should declare the Israeli ambassador to South Africa “persona non grata”, as it would be impossible to continue normal diplomatic relations with a fascist settler-colonial state that is “de jure” (by law) annexing Palestinian land. 

Long overdue

The concept of downgrading the South African embassy in Israel is not new. At the 2017 ANC Elective Conference, a party resolution was passed to downgrade the embassy to a liaison office.

This was followed by an announcement in May 2018 by then South African Minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) Lindiwe Sisulu to recall Sisa Ngombane, the South African Ambassador to Israel. It took place at the height of the targeted killings by Israel of Palestinian protesters during Gaza’s Great March of Return.

Sisulu clarified that the liaison office would not have a political, trade or development cooperation mandate and would only remain operational for consular services.

For many in the Palestine solidarity community in South Africa, the decision to recall the ambassador was overdue. In a 2016 press conference, Ngombane placed the blame on Palestinians in the West Bank for Israel’s aggression during the 2014 war on Gaza, in which the military massacred more than 2000 Palestinians.

Shabnam Mayet, a member of the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, noted: “The ambassador had come to the end of his term in 2018, and it was convenient for the South African government to publicize his return as a recall. He scuttled back to Israel a few months later, for what he termed ‘personal reasons’. DIRCO simply did not appoint a new ambassador thereafter”. The embassy in Tel Aviv has since been at the level of chargé d’affaires. 

The statements by the former Minister Sisulu garnered immense criticism from the Jewish and pro-Israel community in South Africa and were followed by a cabinet reshuffle, in which the incumbent Minister Naledi Pandor was appointed.

Minister Sisulu, who was also seen as a rival presidential candidate to President Cyril Ramaphosa, decried her demotion to the tourism minister, implying that the controversial implementation of the ANC policy rendered her isolated by her own political party.

By July 2022, an ANC policy discussion document on international relations inferred a review of the 2017 decision, exposing the divisions within the ruling party over the foreign policy question. The ANC Elective Conference in January 2023, however, reaffirmed the original 2017 resolution. 

Minister Pandor, has been much more radical than her predecessors in her vehement condemnation of the Israeli apartheid policies, drawing stark parallels to South Africa’s history while campaigning at the UN and AU to declare Israel an apartheid state, referencing the recent reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, and that of the UN special rapporteur. 

Pandor’s firm stance was successful in opposing the unilateral decision by the AU Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, in July 2021, when he granted Israel observer status to the continental body. South Africa led the objections, prompting the AU to appoint a seven-member committee to investigate the accreditation, rendering Israel suspended until a decision was finalized.

The matter came to a head last month when South Africa and Algeria vociferously campaigned to oust Israeli delegates from the AU Summit.  

Normalisation deals

On a bilateral basis, many African countries have normalized relations with Israel, especially in the defence and intelligence spheres, purchasing weapons and spyware, often suspected to be used as tools to quell opposition in their own countries. Lucrative contracts securing the sale of technology, arms and agricultural equipment have tethered many African states to Israel, in contrast to their collective positions in Addis Ababa.

These states have become lobbyists for Israel within the Union – counteracting South Africa’s efforts – in order to persuade committee members to thwart any possible decision on Israel’s observer status.

Saleh Hijazi, the former head of Amnesty International’s Jerusalem office and co-author of Amnesty International’s report on Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians, commented:

“South Africa is showing leadership in ensuring that it is not complicit in Israel’s apartheid and settler-colonialism against Palestinians. We hope that other African nations follow suit. There are countries that are going in the opposite direction, responding positively to Israel’s push to establish and develop relations with African nations; this despite the role Israel plays in Africa fueling conflict and corruption, pillaging natural resources, spreading disinformation and fear by selling and promoting weapons and technologies developed through the dispossession, oppression, and deprivation of the Palestinian people”.

He added that South Africa’s position at the AU and the parliamentary resolution sends a message that “South Africa will not accept impunity for apartheid Israel”.

Israel has benefited from its relations with African countries and has drawn on the argument that most countries are seeking normalization of relations, while South Africa remains obstinate in heeding the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign’s calls to cut ties. 

Responding to the parliamentary resolution, Israel’s foreign ministry stated

“Even as a symbolic resolution, it does not contribute in the least to the promotion of any viable solution in the Middle East. At a time when many African and Muslim countries are strengthening and deepening ties with the State of Israel for the benefit of everyone’s common interests, it is unfortunate that South Africa continues to adhere to anachronism and the deterioration of relations, a move that will only harm South Africa itself and its standing”.

Israel’s supporters view this resolution as detrimental to diplomatic discourse. The South African Zionist Federation Chairman, Rowan Polovin, dismissed the resolution as “symbolic” while indicating that “All it will achieve is to undermine South Africa’s own international credibility. Israel is building warmer ties to the Middle East and Africa, and South Africa is increasingly positioning itself as an antagonist to peace and normalization”.

Legal implications

The Gaza-based scholar, Haidar Eid, told this writer that Palestinians have welcomed the resolution and consider it a positive one, but added: “It needs to be completed by severing all diplomatic ties with apartheid Israel the same way South Africans expected the international community to boycott the apartheid regime, divest from it and from companies benefiting from its oppression of the South African people, and impose sanctions on it until it complied with international law”. 

While the resolution appears to be ground-breaking, it remains non-binding until and unless the South African government officially adopts it as a policy and informs the Israeli government.

This is a contentious matter, as direct implementation of the resolution would confer powers on parliament beyond its ambit. This would mean that DIRCO, the responsible government department for foreign policy, would have to carefully consider the legal and legislative implications of a decision to effect the full downgrade of the Mission in Tel Aviv.

Should the downgrade be officiated, it may have an adverse effect on South Africa’s relations with Palestine, as the South African mission in Ramallah can only be accredited through Tel Aviv and Israel could frustrate the free passage of South African diplomats to Ramallah, should Israel seek to imperil relations with South Africa. 

Trade between South Africa and Israel reached its peak in 2012 at $1.2bn, but this number has more than halved due to the hard-line approach that South Africa has taken in its relations with Israel.

After the ANC government decided to endorse BDS, new regulations were introduced in 2012 by the South African Department of Trade which required all products from either Israel or Occupied Palestine to be clearly labelled as such. The Israelis were extremely upset by this, arguing that it was a plot against Israel. 

South Africa has been criticized for its imbalanced immigration policies which allow Israeli citizens visas on arrival, while Palestinians are subjected to stringent immigration processes. Several Jewish South Africans hold dual citizenship and have become settlers, displacing Palestinians without consequences or threat of losing their South African citizenship.

It has previously been reported that a number of South Africans have served in the Israeli army, in contravention of South African anti-mercenary legislation. 

Should South Africa proceed with the downgrade, based on its moral and ethical foundations, it may likely find itself increasingly isolated in the international community, as more countries relent to Israeli overtures.  

Zeenat Adam is a former diplomat and an independent international relations strategist based in Johannesburg, South Africa