Palestine solidarity: Will South Africa's Ramaphosa downgrade Tel Aviv embassy?

Palestine solidarity: Will South Africa's Ramaphosa downgrade Tel Aviv embassy?
Comment: The time has come for Ramaphosa to enact ANC policy, and downgrade the status of South Africa's embassy in Israel, writes Janet Smith.
7 min read
22 Feb, 2018
Cyril Ramaphosa, newly sworn-in South African president addresses South Africa's parliament, 20 February 2018 [AFP]
Israel's ambassador to South Africa was a few weeks in to his posting to Pretoria when he disingenuously asked, "Should South Africa be more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves?"

This was in September in response to website, which probed Lior Keinan for a response to what was then only a proposal to downgrade the South African embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office. 

That proposal, based on Israel's continuing policy of apartheid, became ruling African National Congress (ANC) policy in December, and this week, that policy was communicated to the world by minister of science and technology Naledi Pandor.

Political pundits believe Pandor - who converted to Islam after she met her husband, Sharif, in exile in Botswana - could be new president Cyril Ramaphosa's deputy when he announces a cabinet reshuffle. The reshuffle could happen as early as this weekend.

Ramaphosa - who is also the president of the ANC, having won that seat at the party's national conference in December where the downgrade was made policy - also had Israel in his sights this week.

He reminded parliamentarians during a debate after his earlier State of the Nation Address "of the responsibility we have as South Africans to people around the world who continue to suffer occupation, discrimination and oppression". 

Ramaphosa went on to express the "deepest concern for the imprisonment of Palestinian children in Israeli jails", and after loud applause continued: "We reiterate our call to the Israeli government to engage in meaningful dialogue with Palestinian leaders to find a resolution that affirms the equal rights of both people to self-determination, freedom and security."

Ramaphosa reminded parliamentarians 'of the responsibility we have as South Africans to people around the world who continue to suffer occupation, discrimination and oppression'

The president was not as direct on the subject of effectively abandoning Israel as Pandor, who on Monday confirmed to Parliament that "the majority party (the ANC) has agreed that government must cut diplomatic ties with Israel, given the absence of genuine initiatives by Israel to secure lasting peace and a viable two-state solution that includes full freedom and democracy for the Palestinian people."

This was after parliament's conservative minnow, the African Christian Democratic Party, had its leader, the Reverend Kenneth Meshoe confront government for failing to accept offers of assistance by Israeli companies to the massive water crisis which South Africa - and Cape Town, in particular - is facing. The southern-most city is expected to face so-called Day Zero, when taps will run dry, within the next few months.

Israeli companies, Israeli trade representatives and Keinan have done the utmost to present especially the ANC as recalcitrant in its "duty" to its people by not exploring the drought relief Israel purports to deliver. Meshoe, an MP, has been a staunch supporter of Israel for many years, ignoring the ruling party's entreaties against travel to the apartheid regime.

@ParliamentofRSA, the official Twitter feed for that part of government which passes laws, oversees executive action and facilitates public participation in South Africa, wasted no time in posting Pandor's statements, which received a predominantly positive response.

Ramaphosa's position on Palestinian children and dialogue was also widely retweeted.

Although Keinan began his time as ambassador to South Africa so apparently virulent on Palestine, he has significantly quietened down over the past four months. Hence, it was not surprising that he did not take a public platform to reflect on the momentous events in South Africa's House this week.

Unlike previous ambassador Arthur Lenk, who openly engaged with activists, journalists and civil society on issues related to Palestine and Israeli apartheid, Keinan keeps a low profile. As comment on Pandor and Ramaphosa's statements swirled around him, the ambassador chose to post about a charitable campaign to donate wheelchairs to disabled South African children. 

His Twitter counterparts, diplomatic feeds @IsraelinSA and @IsraelTradeSA are, like @LiorKeinan­­­­_, awash with hashtags #Cybersecurity, #water, #energy, #renewable, #drought and #cooperation.

These are the campaigns which Israel has used to derive certain diplomatic favour in other African countries.
None of those Israeli government feeds reflected on Pandor or Ramaphosa's words this week.

@IsraelinSA used to be the site of much acrimony when Lenk was in Pretoria. The closest Keinan has come to that febrile atmosphere was to post a picture of an old telephone with a warning that "the new iPhones are so full of Israeli tech, that those who want to boycott Israel will have to go back to using these...".  

South Africa has had diplomatic relations with the State of Palestine since 1995

He tagged @BDSsouthafrica  which is, of course, blacklisted from entering Israel.

This week, Israel's diplomats posted instead about hiking spots, agriculture technology, Israel's Waterline podcast and animal husbandry. 

This abstraction from current affairs is not common practice for Israeli diplomacy, whose representatives even managed to praise Guatemala for moving its embassy to Jerusalem on Christmas Day.

But Keinan is not enjoying the warmest of South Africa's world-famous political hospitality. He earned, by his own description, "a short dialogue" with former South African President Jacob Zuma when he presented his credentials in August last year, and he has had interaction with pro-Israel opposition party, the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA). 

Khaled Meshaal (R) met with former South African president
Jacob Zuma in 2015 [ANC]

Beyond that, Keinan's most effusive welcome seems to have been as a guest at an early December "church" service outside Johannesburg conducted by self-acclaimed Pentecostal "prophet" Paseka "Mboro" Motsoeneng. 

"Mboro" is a disgrace in South Africa after the death of a toddler during an "everyday miracles" event at his Incredible Happenings Ministry.

He was already infamous in poor communities for his flashy $800 000 black BMW i8, and his claims that he went to heaven and took pictures of it on his Samsung Galaxy which he reportedly sold to economically-vulnerable congregants for $450 per image.

This is all so different to the embrace the ANC and leading officials in government have extended to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Indeed, Hamas Politburo members Mohamed Nazzal and Maher Obeid joined delegates at the ANC's national conference in what was the first time the ruling party had hosted the movement out of Gaza at such a gathering. 
Fatah was also customarily represented. 
Keinan's objections to Hamas being invited went completely ignored.

This abstraction from current affairs is not common practice for Israeli diplomacy

Hamas leadership is increasingly strengthening its relationships at a more diplomatic, rather than just fraternal level with the ANC. When Hamas' then political leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal and a delegation visited South Africa in 2015, they were openly welcomed by the ruling party at high-level functions and meetings.

Nazzal said  at the ANC's meeting in December that "the adoption of the resolution (to downgrade the embassy) will take the struggle of the Palestinians to a new level, and will establish South Africa at the forefront of the solidarity effort".

Hamas is likely to see Pandor and Ramaphosa's statements as part of broader solidarity initiatives to foster a global coalition between Palestinians and South Africans. This is in the interests of isolating Israeli apartheid on the international stage.

South Africa has had diplomatic relations with the State of Palestine since 1995 when its first representative to the PA took office in Ramallah, and the first Palestinian ambassador to South Africa was accredited. This was the year after Nelson Mandela became president and the first democratic elections took place.

South Africa's then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, the late Alfred Nzo, signed an agreement on the establishment of a Joint Commission of Co-operation with Palestine not long after that, and PLO President Yasser Arafat soon made a state visit to South Africa, followed by another three visits in which he developed trade and political ties.

Mahmoud Abbas of the PA has visited South Africa twice. This week's words from the most powerful politicians in South Africa have given courage to those activists who expressed some doubt that Ramaphosa would have the appetite to withdraw support for Israel.

It now seems this could, at last, gain the kind of traction Keinan may deeply fear.

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.