South Africa's 'business as usual' approach to Israel betrays its own liberation struggle

South Africa's 'business as usual' approach to Israel betrays its own liberation struggle
Comment: The reluctance to downgrade diplomatic relations with Israel defies the legacy of the international anti-Apartheid movement, writes Suraya Dadoo.
6 min read
27 Sep, 2018
Pro-Palestine sentiment runs high in South Africa [AFP]

On July 5, South Africa's minister of international relations, Lindiwe Sisulu, announced Pretoria's envoy to Tel Aviv, Sisa Ngombane, would not be sent back to Israel after he had been recalled two months previously over Israel's massacre of Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip. 

Significantly, Sisulu also declared that the government had no intention of appointing a new ambassador to Tel Aviv.

The announcement came six months after the ruling African National Congress (ANC) passed a resolution at its elective conference that called on the South African government to downgrade its embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office.

South Africans were shocked, then, to read Israeli media report last week that South Africa had "quietly returned its ambassador to Israel". Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Emmanuel Nahshon, even confirmed that Ngombane had returned to Tel Aviv "a few days ago".

Israel had latched on to a widely circulated diplomatic note issued by the South African embassy in Israel dated September 20. The note "presents its compliments" to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and to all diplomatic missions accredited to the Jewish state, and "[had] the honour to inform" that Ngombane "has returned to Tel Aviv". The South African embassy "avails itself of the opportunity to renew" to Israel "the assurances of its highest consideration".

The diplomatic note essentially suggested that relations between South Africa and Israel were back to normal.

The Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) and the ANC's silence on the matter only heightened speculation, and allowed Israel's spin-doctors to exploit the rumour that Pretoria had restored relations with Tel Aviv.

Palestinians, and those in the Palestine solidarity movement, saw the ambassador's alleged return as an act of betrayal, sparking widespread condemnation.

ANC parliamentarian Mandla Mandela called Ngombane's alleged return an insult to his grandfather's legacy.

The Economic Freedom Fighers' Mbuyiseni Ndlozi accused the ANC of abandoning international solidarity through boycotts - an important legacy that made South Africa's own freedom possible.

Then on Monday, September 24, DIRCO clarified Ngombane's "return". South Africa's diplomatic relations with Israel have not been restored. Ngombane had returned to Tel Aviv to deal with urgent family and personal issues - not to resume his diplomatic duties. DIRCO confirmed: "The South African ambassador is still recalled for consultations and has not resumed his duties as an ambassador for South Africa in Israel."

DIRCO also stated that the conditions that prompted Ngombane's recall had not changed.

So, what was the diplomatic note about?

According to Na'eem Jeenah, director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, Ngombane had no mandate to issue the note. "Ngombane was allowed to return to Tel Aviv last week in order to sort out personal matters in preparation for his return to South Africa. He was not mandated to act in an official ambassadorial capacity nor to resume his previous duties," explained Jeenah.

"South Africa has no ambassadorial representation in Israel. The ANC and South African government policy stands. The diplomatic note issued by Ngombane through our embassy in Tel Aviv does not change that policy," Jeenah explained.

Has Ngombane gone rogue?

Former Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils thinks so. Now a spokesperson for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Kasrils says that if the diplomatic note was not sanctioned by the ANC and the government, then it means that Ngombane is acting only on his own behalf.

"We expect both his boss, Minister Sisulu, as well as his party, to discipline him in the strongest manner possible. Not only will he have brought the ANC into disrepute, he will also have embarrassed and shamed the South African government and the South African people. His actions are intolerable," said Kasrils.

Since his tenure in Tel Aviv began in 2013, Sisa Ngombane's actions have shown that he is no friend of the Palestinian people. At a press conference in 2016, Ngombane blamed Palestinians for Israel's attacks on Gaza that left more than 2,100 civilians dead. He has also undermined South African and ANC policy by encouraging official visits and a strengthening of trade relations with Israel.

"He has shown that he is willing to be a puppet of the apartheid state of Israel, even if it means undermining the position of our government and of his own party," said Kasrils. "We expect nothing less than the strongest sanction against him; we expect him to be removed from Israel and to be dismissed from his position in DIRCO with immediate effect. Anything less will mean that the South African government and the ANC are complicit in his pandering to Israeli interests."

Jeenah concurs. "The issuing of the note was highly embarrassing for the ANC and for the government. It is difficult to see how the South African government can allow an employee to undermine its foreign policy in this way without there being any consequences for it."

Delays in the ANC's downgrade resolution

The ANC's resolution to downgrade the embassy in Israel to a liaison office is a practical expression of its solidarity with the Palestinian people. However, the challenge is to ensure that this resolution is translated into South African government policy by DIRCO. Nine months after the decision, the resolution has still not been implemented.

"Some officials and ANC deployees are failing - possibly refusing - to carry out the party's internationalism, mandate and resolutions," says Kwara Kekana of the South African branch of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.

"There is a clear failure to implement the ruling party's own un-ambiguous decision. It would seem that certain forces have elevated themselves above, and are bent on subverting the will of, the highest authority of the ANC - its national conference."

According to Kekana, South African civil society groups have been stonewalled when they tried to meet directly with DIRCO to discuss the downgrading of relations. "The delays are insulting and the good faith between civil society, the electorate and government is disintegrating," she warned.

Na'eem Jeenah, however, believes the downgrade process has already begun. Sisulu's July 5 announcement that the government would not be sending Ngombane back, or appointing a new ambassador to Tel Aviv, is the first step in that downgrade process. "In effect, she announced that South Africa would downgrade its embassy so that it would be headed in future by a charge d'affaire," explained Jeenah.

If this is the case, then the ANC and the South African government is finally moving beyond symbolic gestures and statements in its support of the Palestinian liberation struggle.
But should the ANC-led government in South Africa not back up words and resolutions with action, then it is simply indicating to Israel that it may continue with its occupation, colonialism and apartheid.

In doing so, it is betraying the values of its own liberation struggle.

Suraya Dadoo is a researcher with Media Review Network in Johannesburg, South Africa. Find 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.