South Africa downgrades Israeli embassy over ongoing apartheid (and they should know)

Juan Cole

Informed Comment  /  March 8, 2023

Ann Arbor – The Middle East Eye reports that the South African parliament has voted to downgrade the Israeli embassy in Pretoria to liaison status. The resolution was introduced by the tiny center-left National Freedom Party, which has only two seats in parliament. Its passage was assured, however, when the African National Congress supported it. With 230 seats, the ANC holds 57.5% of the seats in the South African parliament.

Kouthar Sambo at South Africa’s Radio 91.3 quoted NFP member Ahmed Munzoor Shaik Emam as saying in late February, “As a country that has experienced the devastating effects of Apartheid, we cannot turn a blind eye to the gross human rights violations being committed against Palestinians. It is imperative for South Africa to take a stand and speak out against these atrocities. We therefore, call upon all political parties to support this resolution to downgrade South Africa’s embassy in Israel.”

Lehlohonolo Mashigo wrote at The Star that “The NFP highlighted that, during the apartheid era, downgrading diplomatic relations with South Africa was a powerful tool for the international community to exert pressure on the apartheid government to end its discriminatory policies.” He then quoted the NFP Party statement:

“By downgrading our embassy in Israel, we will send a strong message that South Africa will not tolerate or condone any country that practises racial segregation and apartheid-like policies. This action will put diplomatic pressure on Israel to end its discriminatory policies.”

Emam is quoted as asserting,

“The attempts to reduce the Palestinian Struggle for liberation to merely a religious conflict is a reductionist approach that ignores the complex and varied nature of the oppression and human rights violations being committed against Palestinians by the State of Israel . . . We urge all MPs to stand for freedom, justice and human rights by supporting this resolution.”

South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, the leader of the African National Congress, has been pressured on this issue since soon after he came into office in 2018. As far back as January 2019 Ramaphosa said in response to a question on when the downgrade would happen,

“Government is in the process of giving effect to a resolution of the governing party that South Africa should downgrade its embassy in Israel.

Our approach is informed by our concern at the ongoing violation of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and the refusal of the government of Israel to enter into meaningful negotiations to find a just and peaceful resolution to this conflict.

We are also concerned about the resurgence of confrontation and conflict in the region and about the grave humanitarian cost of further intransigence.

Our approach is also informed by an appreciation of the constructive role South Africa is being called upon to play in the quest for peace in the Middle East.

We are clear on our support for the achievement of the Palestinian state, alongside the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security with its neighbours.

In implementing this conference resolution, we are mindful of South Africa’s responsibility to continue engaging with all parties to the conflict to see where we would be able to provide assistance.

As such, the South African government remains seized with the modalities of downgrading the South African Embassy in Israel, and we will communicate once Cabinet has fully finalised on this matter.”

It seems clear that this step was a long time coming, and also that the ANC has been dragging its feet on it.

My guess is that the ANC bit the bullet now because of the extremist character of the current Israeli government, some ministers of which have openly spoken about wiping out Palestinian villages or formally annexing Palestinian territory.

Older South Africans who remember the Apartheid government of the 1970s and 1980s and who have visited the Israeli-occupied West Bank have said that it brought bad memories flooding back into their minds and that the situation actually seemed to them worse than South Africa’s Apartheid had been. Apartheid is the Dutch word for racial segregation.

At a recent African Union meeting, the Israel delegate was asked to leave. Ramaphosa said he supported that decision.

Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment. He is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan; he is author of, among many other books, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam