Cynics may call it politicking to garner Muslim votes for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) on the eve of South Africa’s crucial May 2019 elections. Others, especially from Israel’s local pressure groups, may suggest that the ANC has caved in to partisan politics without any regard for Jewish interests. Some within these Zionist formations may even adopt an extremely narrow stance by suggesting that the Ramaphosa presidency is anti-Semitic.
Whatever may be the perceptions of diverse groups including opposition parties, the fact is that the ANC-led government has finally taken the leap to give practical effect to its conference resolution to downgrade relations with Zionist Israel. It is 16 months (since December 2017) when the ANC unanimously resolved “to immediately and unconditionally downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel to a Liaison Office.”
Far from being partisan or having any hint of anti-Jewish bias, the move is in line with South Africa’s human rights driven foreign policy ethos. This was the gist of the announcement by South Africa’s International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, that downgrade of ties with Israel is running full steam ahead.
According to Sisulu, the immediate effect of this is that South Africa’s ambassador has been permanently withdrawn from Tel Aviv. She was quoted as follows, “We are in the process of following the downgrade resolution of the ruling party and stage one has been completed.
“Our ambassador is back in South Africa and we will not be replacing him. Our liaison office in Tel Aviv will have no political mandate, no trade mandate, and no development co-operation mandate.”
Sisulu’s comments reflect a strong commitment by the ANC to demonstrate its solidarity with Palestine’s freedom struggle.
To date many South African human rights and foreign-based activists have accused the ANC-led government of talking left but walking right. The critique goes back to the presidency of Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid government in South Africa. It continued throughout the administrations of his successors Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. None of them had given effect to long standing ANC policy-positions on Palestinian solidarity despite being opposed to Israeli colonialism.
Their defensive arguments in justification of maintaining ties with Israel had always been that the ANC is guided by the Palestinian Administration (PA). Since Fatah is the dominant player in the PA, and given the ANC’s historic alliance with Fatah when both liberation movements shared trenches during their freedom struggles, it was “explained” as realpolitik.
The other explanation, again leaning on Fatah, has been to allow itself to play a meaningful role as a mediator between Palestine and Israel. The government in Pretoria had to have diplomatic relations with the Zionist regime to do so.
Sisulu’s announcement has not only demonstrated that notwithstanding close relations with Fatah, it also recognizes the role and colossal impact Hamas has had in reshaping Palestinian resistance. Implicit in her message is that articulating support for Palestinian rights requires bold moves. As she explained, downgrading is merely “stage one.” More is to follow.
Informed observers were quick to point out that Pretoria’s move would ultimately result in the Israeli ambassador packing up and leaving. This is what Israel radio announced on April 7. Stung by Pretoria’s rebuke for its atrocious conduct, the station reported that Israeli embassy in South Africa will be downgraded to a representative office that would deal with consulate affairs only.
The significance of South Africa’s decision cannot be downplayed. Especially because it goes into effect at a time when Fatah’s leadership is exposed as collaborating with Israel’s notorious security forces and the Zionist siege of Gaza has caused and continues to cause immense suffering to the Palestinian people. Autocratic Arabian regimes are “normalizing” ties with the colonizer; Netanyahu has confirmed Israel’s apartheid status and dismissed any “hope” of an independent Palestinian state; and Trump has played roughshod with International Conventions and UN Resolutions.
South Africa’s decision may not have an immediate or dramatic impact on Palestinian lives given the fascism associated with Netanyahu’s bloody violence, it marks a significant escalation for the global campaign to isolate Israel via the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
It displays the moral values of a majority of South Africans and the integrity of the decision to downgrade sets a new standard for the African continent.