The South African government is pushing to deepen its ties with Israel, in spite of persistent calls by its citizens to sever ties with the Jewish state.
At the heart of a new warm breeze from Pretoria is a growing trade imbalance, in which the two countries have gone from a parity situation in 2009 to one where Israel exports to South Africa almost four times as much as it imports, according to the South African Embassy.
“We are all serious about moving things forward,” South Africa’s Ambassador Sisa Ngombane told The Jerusalem Post.
He spoke in the aftermath of a visit to his country by Foreign Minister director-general Dore Gold. It was the first time in a decade that someone in his post had visited South Africa.
The two countries have diplomatic ties that stretch back to 1948, when South Africa was among the first nations to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
But the government that first brokered that relationship was the past apartheid regime. Post-apartheid South African governments have remained committed to those historic ties but have been unable to shake off the negative consequence of that history, particularly in light of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
The South African street sympathies with the Palestinians and as a result is antagonistic to Israel. In addition, the global pro-Palestinian rhetoric of the conflict has equated Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with apartheid’s racial segregation.
As a result, South Africa-Israel relations have been held hostage to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in a way that has made it impossible for the two countries to move beyond history and politics.
As he sat in his Tel Aviv office, Ngombane tried to explain the delicate dance his county is doing between history, diplomatic alliance and political sentiment.
The South African street might be strongly pro-Palestinian, but its calls against Israel have nothing to do with government policy, Ngombane said.
The South African street is vibrant when it comes to many issues, and demonstration are held frequently on all kinds of issues, he said. He recalled how he had seen a pro-Israel demonstration when he last visited Johannesburg.
Events in the Middle East, including the three Gaza wars and the 2010 naval raid on the Gaza flotilla in which nine Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara were killed, had created a tense decade-long period with South Africa, which President Jacob Zuma has recently tried to break.
“Zuma felt it was important to have some form of discussions going on [with Israel],” Ngombane said.
“We have had several attempts from the South African side to reach out, to see what can be done,” he said.
“We have an unfortunate thing that always crops up, that past [apartheid] South Africa is linked to Israel. It is like a monkey on our back for us, literally. There is nothing we can do about it, unfortunately,” Ngombane said.
The two countries have to figure out how to live with this history, he said.
“This is where we are and where we come from. We cannot transfer it and give it to someone [else] and say please take care of it, it is not from South Africa,” said Ngombane.
“It creates all these difficulties in terms of the relationship,” he said.
If South Africa were interested in settling an old grudge, it would not have a relationship with Israel.
“We have [a relationship] because we are not settling any scores with Israel. There is no attempt to come back and say you previously supported apartheid,” Ngombane said.
But the issues that “drag us off into this part of the world is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether we like it or not, we are brought into this matter, and strongly,” he said.
“No matter how much we try and say forget the past, we find ourselves referenced,” he said. “People globally reference the South African experience, and so we have to deal with that,” Ngombane said.
He dismissed the question of whether he himself saw a comparison between Israel in 2016 and apartheid South Africa.
That question, he said, is exactly the problem. “The problem is that people want us to answer the question,” Ngombane said.
“Why should we be made to answer the question in that way? This is the issue. If you want me to answer, it brings me to the problems that are manifesting itself here,” he said.
If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were resolved, he said, “it would multiply our engagement [with Israel] 100 times more,” Ngombane said.
In the absence of that resolution, it is important for the two governments to establish a pattern of meeting and talking so that they can find avenues of common ground outside the heated political arena.
Trade is one of those avenues, he said. There is a “big trade imbalance,” he said. "In the past the majority of South African exports to Israel has been coal and diamonds. That export list must be expanded."
South Africa also wants to improve cooperation in the areas of agriculture and water.
“At this moment we are just opening the space, creating the ground, for more discussions in all these area,” he said.
Overall, he spoke positively of Gold’s visit, in which the director-general stopped at some historic sites important to South Africa, including Nelson Mandela’s home and the Liliesleaf Farm.
It was important, Ngombane said, that he came and saw South Africa firsthand.
“South Africa is a work in progress. It is a live experiment. You see all these things happening because 20 years is nothing.
“When you get to South Africa, you see the ravages of separate development, you see the lack of infrastructure. The legacy and impact of all those years and centuries of deprivation are so stark and so painful, and he [Gold] was there to witness that,” Ngombane said.
But he noted that it was a mistake for Gold not to have visited the Apartheid Museum.
“When you go in there, no one needs to tell you what apartheid was; it is there. The puzzle of South African society is all collected under one roof,” Ngombane said.
“My regret is that [Gold] did not get there. It is like visiting Israel and not going to the Holocaust museum,” he said.
Israel is not Ngombane’s first post as a diplomat. He was an ambassador in Côte d’Ivoire, the Congo and Malaysia. He is in Israel with his wife and 14-year-old daughter.
Their time here has been marred by violence – first the Gaza war in the summer of 2014 and then the wave of Palestinian attacks in the last half-year.
The air raid sirens “were a shock to our systems,” Ngombane said. “When you wake up in Israel,” he said, “something says you should be happy, but something says, not so fast. You do not know what will happen.
“The sky is blue, the sun is shining and this is fine, and then the air raid strikes,” he said.
Similarly, now, when he hears ambulance sirens, he does not know if that means an attack has occurred.
“The wave of violence has also been difficult. It sits with you in the back of your mind all the time. Your mind tries to rationalize things. At the same time, you have a problem that a shooting [or] a stabbing [has occurred],” he said.
The knowledge he has gained from his professional life and family has taught him more about Israel but has not helped simplify for him its conflict with the Palestinians. The more he knows, he said, the more confused he has become.
Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa Arthur Lenk said he was glad to hear of Ngombane’s statements about increasing trade. More trade delegations are needed, he said.
But work is already under way to improve ties. This year his embassy is foregoing its annual Independence Day celebration and using that budget to bring representatives from Israel’s best water management companies to South Africa to meet with private and public sector decision-makers to talk with them about ways to combat the drought the country is undergoing.
Israeli expertise can also serve South Africa’s interests, he said.
“I am glad to hear that we are a good consumer market. The more they introduce Israelis to great things from South Africa, I am sure that it is good for them and good for us,” Lenk said.