Can South Africa's president-in-waiting fight apartheid in Israel?

Can South Africa's president-in-waiting fight apartheid in Israel?
Comment: Cyril Ramaphosa is on the brink of taking South Africa's presidency. Janet Smith asks if he will succeed in following through on his party's support for Palestine.
8 min read
14 Feb, 2018
Ramaphosa was Nelson Mandela's choice for president [Nhlanhla Phillips]
The next president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, is a potentially pivotal global ally to the Palestinian struggle. 

And as the powerful former trade union boss and multi-millionaire readies to assume the highest office in the wake of the disgraced Jacob Zuma, it's expected pressure will escalate on him to downgrade the country's embassy in Tel Aviv.

This is after his party, the African National Congress (ANC), took a non-reversible policy decision at its key national conference in December to subdue its mission to a liaison office.

Their decision came not long after the United States' declaration, that it intended to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Ramaphosa was the head of the ANC's team at negotiations to end apartheid between 1991 and 1993. He has exercised a mighty, if controversial and enigmatic force within the South African liberation movement and its post-democracy outlook for 40 years. 

Elected president of the ANC in late December, the 65-year-old is one of the wealthiest individuals on the African continent, with Forbes reporting his net worth at around $675-million. 

South Africa has experienced its greatest political crisis of the post-democratic era over the past few days, with Zuma stubbornly and then desperately clinging to office before he was dramatically recalled by his party on Tuesday.

Zuma will exit the presidency having survived a rape trial, but with a strong prospect of prosecution involving more than 700 counts of fraud, corruption, racketeering and money laundering.

Ramaphosa is expected to be sworn in as South Africa's fifth democratic president - following Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and Zuma - as soon as possible.

Once he is installed, he is likely give his first State of the Nation Address, a forum for South African presidents to express solidarity with international issues, especially Palestine

Once he is installed, he is likely give his first State of the Nation Address, an increasingly popular forum for South African presidents to express solidarity with international issues, especially Palestine.

It is therefore not surprising that weighty influencers like Nelson Mandela's eldest grandson, Nkosi (Chief) Mandla Zwelivelile Mandela, are already reminding Ramaphosa of his obligation to fight for Palestinians' freedom when he assumes a global stage.

Mandla Mandela is an ANC MP with a burgeoning political base who has become a vital voice against the occupation.

The 44-year-old is married to Rabia Clarke, a Muslim woman born in Cape Town. Pictures of their wedding ceremony were published in February 2016 following reports that Mandela had converted to Islam in late 2015.

The grandson of the Nobel Peace Prize winner this week, for instance, urged Ramaphosa to use his influence "(to) bring about the necessary change for the release of Ahed Tamimi". 

There have been widespread calls in South Africa for Tamimi's release, just as there was a backlash towards Israel's decision to blacklist BDS South Africa earlier this year.

The presidential incumbent's 15 years as a top businessman have introduced him to the most cogent forces within South African capital - an arena in which pro-Israel enterprise has been well-represented.

Since Ramaphosa - who qualified as a lawyer in the 1970s - was appointed deputy president of South Africa in 2014, the former activist has taken more of a public position that Israel practises apartheid. 

He joined a number of South African government ministers and others in a fast in solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners last and won support when he said Israel's war on Palestine is "gross apartheid, and we cannot countenance a situation that a duplicates or is a replica of what we (South Africans) went through. That, we are not going to do".

"The ANC is not apologetic on its policy towards Palestine. It's not apologising to anyone," Ramaphosa told the South African Muslim Network (SAMN), a civil liberties organisation, on that occasion. 

"We know where we stand. We've always stood by the side of the Palestinian struggle - as they stood by our side. That is not negotiable, it's not even up for discussion. It's there, cast in stone.

"For as long as that struggle persists, we will be on the side of the Palestinians... on the right side."

Read more: Deja vu for a South African in Palestine

Ramaphosa, who spent months in detention during white supremacist rule, told the SAMN that the main reason why the ANC is antagonistic towards Israel is "because we know what's happening there".

His first engagement as a South African intermediary in Palestinian issues came in 2002 when he was invited to participate in a UN Human Rights Commission fact-finding mission into Israeli state violence.

The ANC, which came into power with Nelson Mandela as the first president of a democratic South Africa in 1994, has not wavered in its policy to oppose Israel's occupation of Palestine.

Indeed its MPs use all available platforms to express solidarity with Palestinians, even in the chambers of government, and regularly entrench the party's antipathy towards Israel, but government has broadly refused to act against it.

It failed, for example, to expel Israel's diplomats even during the al-Aqsa Intifada of 2002, and the 2014 Gaza War. 

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), a liberal party, would support that contradiction as it is a vocal protagonist of Israel. DA leader Mmusi Maimane drew condemnation when he visited Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in January last year, against the wishes of Zuma, who had spoken out against travel to the regime in the same month.

The 65-year-old is one of the wealthiest individuals on the African continent

Young revolutionary party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) - a tenacious vanguard of former ANC youth league members - was among the DA's most scathing critics of that tour. The EFF's national spokesman, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, was previously spokesman for BDS South Africa.

Zuma may be on his way out of office, but he has been a vociferous proponent of Palestinian freedom through his nine years in power. 

He marked the 50th year of Israeli occupation of Palestine in his annual address to South Africa's parliament last February. That was shortly after he used the occasion of the ANC's 105th anniversary to discourage South Africans from visiting Israel.

In the same week that the ANC made its intention to downgrade its embassy in Tel Aviv clear, the UN General Assembly held its rare special session at the request of Arab and Muslim states during which 128 members voted for a resolution demanding the US rescind its declaration. South Africa, which also has a representative office in Ramallah, was one of those.

Pro-Israel groups in South Africa did not take the ruling party's decision around a diplomatic downgrade in Tel Aviv lightly.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies commissioned a report from local firm Tutwa Consulting which described a "substantial" loss in value-added trade, investment and tourism from Israel, while admitting that these were "small", "relative to South Africa's global footprint".

The report said that since 2000, South Africa's exports to Israel had ranged between a high of 2,21 percent of its total exports in 2002, to a low of 0.44 percent in 2016.

However, Tutwa Consulting advised that South Africa enjoyed a trade surplus with Israel and that a downgrade would have "serious implications for tourism" as there is an average of 2,500 Israeli visitors to the country every month.

This, it said, represents the highest number of tourists and business travellers from the Middle East.

As the next president of South Africa, Ramaphosa will be taking the battle against Israeli apartheid and showing solidarity when it comes to issues affecting Muslims.

At a Ramadan event in Johannesburg attended by the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and representatives from Palestine embassy, he last year described Islam as "a faith that is founded on compassion, justice and universal brotherhood". 

Ramaphosa will, for instance, be expected to reaffirm the ANC's and the South African government's support for the rights of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination. The ANC has clashed with Morocco over its withdrawal from a UN-led negotiations process. 

But the Tel Aviv downgrade will surely remain uppermost, and for the growing number of activists in South Africa supporting Palestinian liberation, there will be no reprieve for Ramaphosa as he grapples with taking over Zuma's administration.

The activists will not have forgotten his statement in the South African Parliament's National Council of Provinces in 2014, that "maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel allows our country to continue to engage".

Ramaphosa was at the time reflecting on Zuma's decision to send special envoys, former Minister Zola Skweyiya and Deputy Minister Aziz Pahad, to the Middle East to participate in discussions with Tel Aviv and Ramallah.

He told the council that, "this we would not have been able to do if we had curtailed diplomatic relations with the state of Israel", saying "it is often best when you want to solve problems... so that you can have some leverage", adopting the position that "a negotiated settlement" could provide a resolution.

Four years later, Ramaphosa will be compelled not only to heed especially the developing world's zeitgeist against the Israeli occupation, but primarily to enact the policy decision of his party made in December. For the former liberation movement, its policy decisions are inviolate. 

Janet Smith is a South African journalist and author whose work includes 'The Black Consciousness Reader', 'A Life Too Short: A Biography of Chris Hani' and 'The Coming Revolution: Julius Malema and Fight for Economic Freedom'.

Follow her on Twitter: @xasperate

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.