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South Africa’s change of course towards Israel: from acceptance of the Mandela era to allegations of ‘genocide’

By publicly calling Israel’s actions in Gaza a “genocide” this month, the South African government has moved beyond all its past criticism of the Jewish state.

“But not a lot,” according to Benji Shulman, director of public policy for the South African Zionist Federation, the country’s oldest Jewish organization.

Shulman is referring to the South African government’s gradual change towards Israel over the past 15 years. Once one of Israel’s most important partners on the continent, South Africa has gradually become one of its most vocal critics, calling Israel an “apartheid state” and accusing it of ” ethnic cleansing” and now, finally, also genocide.

The genocide allegation traveled through the ranks of government, beginning on November 2 with Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, a relatively junior minister, and then being voiced on November 17 by none other than President Cyril Ramaphosa. Gaza, he told reporters during a state visit to Qatar, “is now transformed into a concentration camp where genocide is taking place.”

This shift regarding Israel, longtime observers of the relationship say, is part of a broader ideological and geopolitical realignment by South Africa, which is deepening its alliance with developing countries at the expense of its ties. with the West, even as its economy and national infrastructure shrink. .

Yet South Africa remains largely hospitable to Jews, who are more concerned about the country’s gradual descent into a failed state than about its erratic foreign policy.

Nazi hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff. (Courtesy)

Efraim Zuroff, a prominent Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called the genocide allegations “scandalous, false” and indicative of ignorance. “The South African government should be ashamed of itself,” he said.

But Ramaphosa did more than fume. South Africa recalled its diplomats from Israel and on November 16 joined other countries in referring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes linked to Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Explosions spread along the underground complex as the IDF detonates a network of tunnels in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, in footage released on November 19, 2023. (Screenshot from Kan TV, used in accordance with the § 27a of the Copyright Act)

On Tuesday, South Africa’s parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to close the Israeli embassy in Pretoria until Israel agrees to a UN-brokered ceasefire with Hamas. The resolution, which also describes Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as “apartheid”, is not binding on the government.

Israel launched a massive military operation in Gaza last month against Hamas following the massacre carried out by some 3,000 Hamas terrorists in Israel on October 7, in which they murdered some 1,200 people and kidnapped 240 others. , among other war crimes and atrocities. Authorities in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip say Israeli strikes against Hamas have killed 13,300 people. They did not provide any information on the number of victims among the terrorists.

Ramaphosa said South Africa “does not condone the actions taken by Hamas”, but its language and actions towards Israel were much harsher. The country’s ruling party, the African National Congress, or ANC, said it would support a draft resolution calling for the indefinite closure of the Israeli embassy.

On Monday, Israel announced that it was recalling its ambassador from South Africa.

The late South African industrialist Mendel Kaplan with former President Nelson Mandela, who opened the South African Jewish Museum in 2000. (Photo credit: Shawn Benjamin/Ark)

It’s the lowest point in a relationship that has survived some inherent challenges, largely thanks to the leadership of Nelson Mandela, who in 1994 became South Africa’s first post-apartheid president.

Mandela supported Israeli territorial concessions and was close to the Palestinian cause, “but he was also very supportive of Israel, where he visited and received an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University,” said Shulman of the Zionist Federation. “His view was that Israel had a right to exist. »

Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, continued this line, but, Shulman said, it began to change under Jacob Zuma, who served from 2009 to 2018.

South African President and chairman of the African National Congress (ANC), Jacob Zuma, delivers a speech during the official launch of the party’s municipal elections program in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, April 16, 2016. (AFP/Michael Sheehan)

Not an ideologue himself, Zuma, who faced multiple corruption scandals that ultimately forced him to resign in 2018, agreed to hand foreign policy to radicals “as long as they don’t get in the way out of his way,” Shulman said. Zuma, more than any Mandela successor, allowed the ANC’s labor partners and Communist Party to shape foreign policy, according to Shulman.

“So we started to see a shift toward Iran, for example, and toward Hamas,” Shulman said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 17, 2023. (Ramil Sitdikov/Photo Host Agency RIA Novosti via AP)

It’s the economy, stupid

This political shift also emerged after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. South Africa took a nominally neutral stance towards Russia, which many interpreted as approval because the party has not reprimanded any of the prominent ANC members and cadres who have openly sided with Russia.

This had negative consequences for South Africa’s relations with the United States. who reportedly considered punishing Ramaphosa by moving an aid summit meeting that the United States had chosen South Africa to host, the African Growth and Opportunity Act summit. South Africa finally hosted the summit this month.

From left, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pose for a group photo of the BRICS during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Center in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 23, 2023. (Gianluigi Guercia/Pool via AP)

But moving away from the policies of the United States, the West and Israel could be a calculated move. It is an approach driven by ideology and driven by an economic vision, according to Michael Kransdorff, a Johannesburg-based international finance and tax specialist who is Jewish.

“South Africa is very involved in BRICS,” he said of this trade bloc whose other members are Brazil, Russia, India and China, and which is considered a economic rival of the United States and the European Union. “There is a very anti-Western and anti-American movement among the ANC political elites. It’s all to do with that. I think that’s what fuels all of this,” Kransdorff said.

Soweto residents shout a slogan in front of the Maponya shopping center in Soweto, July 14, 2021. (LUCA SOLA / AFP)

The oldest scapegoat in history

There could be additional incentives for South Africa to get tough on Israel.

The ANC is grappling with a record level of public approval ahead of the 2024 general election, born of anger over South Africa’s violent crime epidemic and fears the country could become a state bankrupt as its infrastructure collapses. Frequent power shortages and an unreliable public transport system are the result of a lack of “integrated and functional public logistics infrastructure, with roads, railways and ports all in disarray”, wrote William Gumede from the University of the Witwatersrand School of Governance. in an editorial last year.

The ANC’s radically socialist economic policies are widely seen as exacerbating the popularity of more free-market-oriented opposition parties, some of which have pro-Western foreign policies.

If the ANC can eliminate Muslim voters – many of whom are in above-average income brackets – by speaking out about Israel, “then that’s just one more reason to do it,” he said. Shulman said. (He doubted this tactic would prove effective.)

File: South Africans demonstrate against Israeli actions in Gaza, outside Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

For many of South Africa’s Jews, numbering an estimated 50,000, the government’s anti-Israel sentiment is a secondary nuisance compared to the country’s apparent collapse of infrastructure, high crime and economic malaise. , Kransdorff said. He works as a financial consultant for many clients who emigrate, some of whom are Jews immigrating to Israel.

Aliyah is on the rise, from an average of 210 new South African arrivals to Israel in the years 2012 to 2016 to almost double that in the following six years. Hundreds more emigrate elsewhere on passports from Lithuania, an EU member state, from where a large majority of South Africa’s Jews have family roots.

Michael Kransdorff. (Courtesy)

But many Jews remain in vibrant, strong communities, Kransdorff told The Times of Israel by telephone.

“Many of us still have a comfortable life here,” he said, adding that he would not be afraid to wear a yarmulke on the streets of Johannesburg.

“It’s nothing like what you might see in any western capital in the world, in Australia, or anything like that. We have not had any physical incidents of violence,” Shulman said of the levels of anti-Semitism in South Africa.

The upcoming elections in summer 2024 offer the promise of positive change for both the economy and bilateral relations with Israel, Shulman added. They can be restored, he said.

However, he added: “I just don’t think they can be restored with the ANC at the helm. »

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