South Africa's perplexing relationship with Israel

South Africa - Palestine demo AFP
6 min read
11 December, 2023

At a glance, South Africa’s position on Israel makes its leadership appear sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle.

South Africa was one of the first countries to call for Israel to be officially classified as an apartheid state and has referred Israel to the International Criminal Court to be investigated for war crimes for its actions in Gaza over the last two months, during which time the Israeli army has killed almost 18,000 Palestinians.

The South African government has called Israel’s actions in Gaza a “genocide” and a “holocaust”, and at COP28, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa noted in his address that "South Africa is appalled by the cruel tragedy that is underway in Gaza. The war against the innocent people of Palestine is a war crime that must be ended now”.

Yet a deeper look shows that South Africa also maintains strong relations in some areas with Israel. In 2021, trade between South Africa and Israel was valued at $285 million, one-third of Israel’s total trade with Sub-Saharan Africa, and Pretoria has refused to cut economic ties regardless of civil society pressure.

Even though in November the parliament voted overwhelmingly to expel the Israeli ambassador, the president has refused to do so.

"For a period of nearly 20 years Apartheid Pretoria and Tel Aviv were significant partners. This ranged from commercial ties to nuclear weapons collaboration"

Without knowing the history of the two countries’ relations, South Africa’s seemingly contradictory approach may appear senseless. South Africa’s history, both pre- and post-apartheid has been strongly connected to Palestine and Israel, but on extreme ends of the political spectrum.

While South African Apartheid Prime Minister P.W. Botha was continuing his close allyship with then-Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon in the early 1980s, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was an increasingly strong supporter of the resistance group, the African National Congress (ANC) and its leader Nelson Mandela.

Upon Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, one of the first leaders he met with was his close friend and confidante, PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Zambia, who Mandela referred to as his ‘comrade in arms’ and who he consulted with prior to the Oslo agreements. Mandela is a treasure trove of quotes about Palestine, with the most famous being “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”, which adorns posters around the world.

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Not so long before, things had been very different. During the 1970s and 1980s South Africa was a proxy for European countries to sell weapons to Israel in an exclusive and complex system.

“For a period of nearly 20 years Apartheid Pretoria and Tel Aviv were significant partners. This ranged from commercial ties to nuclear weapons collaboration. It included joint efforts to develop and test sophisticated weapon systems including long-range missiles,” Hennie van Vuuren, author of Apartheid Guns and Money, told The New Arab.

“South Africa and Israel were firm allies, bound together by common ideological and economic interests.”

In his book, he names similarities between South Africa and Israel during that time - they were both isolated from their neighbours, highly militarised and based their segregation systems on biblical texts - which made them “firm friends”. The South African and Israeli apartheid systems were even modelled on each other’s, even though Israel insisted internationally that it was against apartheid in South Africa.

There have been large protests in South Africa against Israel's war on Gaza. [Getty]

In 1961, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, also known as the ‘architect of apartheid’ said, “Israel is not consistent in its new anti-apartheid attitude. They took Israel away from the Arabs after the Arabs lived there for a thousand years… Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state”.

Today, both the pro-Israel lobby and pro-Palestine movements in South Africa are significantly large, with pro-Palestine marches bringing together up to 200,000 people. The groups are openly hostile towards each other, even more so since 7 October, when protestors have come up against each other at heated protests.

The South African Jewish community is largely pro-Israel, which Jo Bluen attributes to the post-World War Two relationship between Jews and the Apartheid government. Bluen is the Palestine solidarity and media liaison organiser at South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP), a group that regularly receives death threats from hardline supporters of Israel and ‘community safety’ organisations.

“Most Jews in South Africa came through the Holocaust, or were escapees from Eastern Europe, and now they had come into another genocidal fascist state and I am enraged that you could have come through that and not be pro-Palestine,” Bluen told TNA.

"South Africa and Israel's relationship, both historically and at present, is clearly a complex one, with the South African government see-sawing from chastising Israel to turning a blind eye to its actions"

“When they came to South Africa, after having liminal whiteness in Europe, the apartheid government regarded Jews as ‘white’, so most Jews aligned with that and hence the apartheid government’s pro-Israel stance.”

According to Bluen, the pro-Israel Jewish community is growing increasingly militant.

“Jewish Schools like King David in Johannesburg and Herzlia in Cape Town are Zionist academies,” says Bluen. “Herzlia is actively recruiting for the IDF, you sing the Israeli national anthem, and for your Bar Mitzvah you give money to the Jewish National Fund. You are educated into joining a death cult.”

South Africa has also made big concessions to Israel on some sensitive bilateral issues.

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South Africans have been serving in the Israeli military for many years, which is illegal under South African law. In fact, one fifth of graduates from Herzlia enlist in the Israeli army straight after graduation. Complainants have filed lawsuits about this for the last 15 years trying to get the state to prosecute them, but none have been opened.

In 2009, South African investigative television show, Carte Blanche, exposed the scandal of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, officials operating and detaining passengers at South African airports. Israeli security personnel are also sometimes present at Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions.

So why is South Africa’s political stance on Israel so different to its other actions?

South African flag - getty
South Africa accounts for around one-third of all Israeli trade in Sub-Saharan Africa. [Getty]

Martin Jansen, chairperson of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, attributes this to a number of things. One is that South Africa wants to play the role of mediator between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, something it has done since its own internal mediation experience which led to its first democratic elections in 1994.

Another is that the ruling party, the ANC, has been moving further to the right and that there are important business and economic ties, including the mining industry, which stop the South African government from applying more concrete measures against Israel.

“If South Africa were to adopt BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) measures against Israel it will be a big move politically,” says Jansen.

"If South Africa were to adopt BDS measures against Israel it will be a big move politically"

“Because of South Africa’s well-known history all over the world, it could lead by example, first in Africa at the African Union and then at the United Nations. This is where South Africa’s strength lies, beyond economic and political power. So hopefully we can force government to do exactly that, and hopefully it will have a domino effect.”

South Africa and Israel’s relationship, both historically and at present, is clearly a complex one, with the South African government see-sawing from chastising Israel to turning a blind eye to its actions.

Perhaps the ongoing Gaza war will be the tipping point for South Africa to decide where it stands with regards to Israel, and whether its legacy of Palestinian solidarity overrides its desire to balance other interests.

Ilham Rawoot is a freelance writer based in Cape Town. She has previously written for the New Internationalist, Al Jazeera, and Africa is a Country and focuses on climate justice and the extractive industry, Palestine, and decolonial struggles

Follow her on Twitter: @ilhamsta