South Africa must move beyond symbolic support for Palestine

South Africa must move beyond symbolic support for Palestine
Comment: If the ANC is to have meaningful solidarity with Palestine, it must leave 'dialogue' aside, and isolate Israeli apartheid, writes Suraya Dadoo.
7 min read
27 Dec, 2017
Protesters in South Africa express their solidarity with Palestinians [AFP]
On 20 December 2017, South Africa's ruling party and Africa's oldest liberation movement - the African National Congress (ANC) - adopted a resolution at its 54th elective conference, directing the South African government to "immediately and unconditionally downgrade the South African embassy in Israel to a liaison office".

The conference elects new leadership and finalises policies which guides the ANC in the future.

Delivering the conference's final declaration, the newly-elected Secretary-General, Ace Magashule, announced  that this was "a practical expression of support to the oppressed people of Palestine".

Predictably, South Africa's pro-Israel lobby - led by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) - went into hysterical over-drive following the announcement, and condemned the ANC's resolution, claiming that it is a "discriminatory" decision that would prevent South Africa from playing any role in the peace process.

The simple truth, however, is that there is no peace process.

South Africa's role in the peace process

Writing in the Daily Maverick ahead of the conference on 29 November - a day that is commemorated as UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People - the ANC's Deputy Secretary-General, Jessie Duarte stated plainly:

"South Africa has pleaded with Israelis and worked with them, together with local groups, to ensure that injustices do not continue. Yet these have gone on unabated and Palestinians are continually denied the right to return and to declare a state with East Jerusalem as its capital."

Gilad Erdan, Israel's Minister of Public Security, Strategic Affairs and Information, has been honest about the Israel's true intentions. "I think all the members of the cabinet oppose a Palestinian state," he said in February, "and the prime minister [is] first among them."

Israeli leaders currently in office, from Benjamin Netanyahu down, are skipping the lip-service to "dialogue" and "negotiations". So, too, should the SAJBD, SAZF and other apologists for the Israeli government. Instead, they "warn" that the downgrade resolution would limit South Africa's imaginary role in a mythical peace process.

According to Na'eem Jeenah and Matshidiso Motsoeneng of the Afro Middle-East Centre, South Africa has had no previous role whatsoever in the peace process, and will have no role in the future.

"Israel is immensely satisfied with the role of the United States, and cares nothing for other players. This 'warning' about South Africa's 'role' has repeatedly been used by Israeli lobbyists for more than a decade in an attempt to prevent criticism of Israel," explains Jeenah and Motsoeneng.

'This will do nothing for the Palestinians'

In an act of supreme colonial arrogance, South African apologists for the Israeli occupiers are now speaking on behalf of the occupied Palestinians, claiming that the downgrade "will do nothing for the Palestinian people".

While the resolution was introduced by the Western Cape branch at the ANC's policy conference in June, and subsequently championed by other branches of the ANC, the call for the downgrade came from the Palestinian people themselves.

All Palestinian political groups including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Hamas, and the PLO unanimously supported the downgrade, and any other boycott measures to pressure Israel to end its occupation.

Nabil Shaath, the chief political advisor to PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, has also supported the move. The Palestinian civil society-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) also supported and welcomed the ANC's decision to downgrade ties with Israel.

Activists are determined to translate this ANC resolution into government action that will see the downgrading of ties with Israel

Support for the downgrade also came from progressive Israelis working for a just peace. Ahead of the ANC's National Policy Conference in July, the Boycott From Within group wrote:

"After many years of trying to change our society from within, we have come to the conclusion that an international campaign, such as the boycott against apartheid South Africa, is necessary to change the situation here.

"Governments, including the South African government, should be downgrading diplomatic relations and their embassies in Israel, to send a clear message to Israel that its violations of international law are unacceptable."

The Israel lobby's claims that the ANC resolution is anti-Semitic were shattered by the statement of South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP). "This is one of the most practical things that South Africa can do to contribute towards a just peace in Palestine-Israel. To boycott Israel today is not anti-Semitic, it is an affirmation of the principles of freedom, dignity and full human rights of all," wrote SAJFP soon after the decision was made by the ANC.

Spiritually and economically poor?

Some of the fearmongering being peddled by those opposing the downgrade resolution centres on South Africans' ability to travel to the Holy Land.

Indeed, their access holy sites in occupied Palestine is being restricted, but not by any downgrade. It is the Israeli government that denies South African Christians and Muslims entry to their holy sites in occupied Palestine. South African Christian volunteers from the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme have been interrogated, detained and denied entry to the Holy Land because of their principled stance and opposition to the occupation.

Although claiming that downgrading ties with Israel would be "costly", the pro-Israel lobby itself admits that trade between South Africa and Israel is "small". According to consultant, Peter Draper, Israel's investment in SA amounts to just 0.15 percent of all foreign direct investment.

Israeli exports into South Africa account for less than 0.3 percent, while imports are even less at 0.26 percent. Israeli tourists made up 0.25 percent of total tourist arrivals last year.

Beyond words and resolutions

The ANC's resolution is a practical expression of its solidarity with the Palestinian people. But the challenge now, is to ensure that this resolution is translated into South African government policy by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO).

At its elective conference in Mangaung in 2012, the ANC had approved a policy to boycott Israel, but it was never implemented by the South African government

Chairperson of the National Coalition for Palestine (NC4P), Edwin Arrison, "noted the urgency of the language of the resolution and hopes that it precludes the possibility of DIRCO officials ignoring the political direction that they have been given. In this regard, we trust that there are timelines attached to this action, so that the hope that has now been raised with this resolution will not be deferred indefinitely".  NC4P is a coalition of South African civil society groups working towards a just peace in Palestine/Israel.  

DIRCO spokesperson, Nelson Kgwete, told South African media that it was "difficult" to put timelines on the process. "This is a political decision and we will now be guided by Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane on the way forward."

Read more: Call it what you wish, it amounts to Apartheid

Nkoana-Mashabane's political adviser on the Middle East, Mohamed Dangor, characterised the decision by the ANC as symbolic, but said the important issue lies in its implementation and the way forward. "This is a clear indication that Israel now needs to come to its senses to create a peaceful resolution to the problem."

Activists are determined to translate this ANC resolution into government action that will see the downgrading of ties with Israel.

At its elective conference in Mangaung in 2012, the ANC had approved a policy to boycott Israel, but it was never implemented by the South African government, which continues to pay lip-service to "constructive engagement" and "dialogue".

Words that are not backed up by action simply indicate to Israel that it may continue with its occupation, colonialism and apartheid

During our liberation struggle, we denounced "dialogue" with the South African apartheid government. Our enemies, including the Reagans and Thatchers of the world - along with Bantustan leaders - played the "constructive engagement" game to prolong the apartheid system in South Africa. This is the same card that the pro-Israel lobby, together with DIRCO, is now playing.

The ANC's resolution alone, will not win Palestinians their freedom. It must be translated into action by DIRCO. Words that are not backed up by action simply indicate to Israel that it may continue with its occupation, colonialism and apartheid.

If the ANC is to have meaningful solidarity with Palestine, then the movement must move beyond its previous symbolic gestures and translate its resolution into action.

"Constructive engagement" has no place in this solidarity. South Africa must support Palestinian resistance by isolating Israeli apartheid.  

Suraya Dadoo is a researcher with Media Review Network in Johannesburg, and the co-author of Why Israel? The Anatomy of Zionist Apartheid: A South African Perspective.

Follow her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo

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.