A delegation of five MKs visited South Africa recently in a bid to meet with government officials, improve ties with the country and connect with the 70,000-strong Jewish community.
The delegation led by the Zionist Union’s Nachman Shai also included Amir Ohana and Nurit Koren from the Likud, and Zouheir Bahloul and Michal Biran from the Zionist Union.
The visit was a joint initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Knesset and the Foreign Ministry with the aim of improving ties between South Africa and Israel and gaining a better understanding of communities in the Diaspora.
However, the MKs were snubbed in Cape Town by the country’s Parliament, where the ruling African National Congress holds the majority. A large contingent of South African parliamentarians openly rejected the delegation’s visit.
Shai, speaking with The Jerusalem Post
on Wednesday, said “it was wrong” that the South African parliamentarians refused to meet with the delegation and “made an issue out of it.
“We asked to see them and they refused...Israel-South Africa relations are not hateful – there is no animosity. We have a long history with South Africa.
“Israel’s security and military relations with the Apartheid government is not a secret – although Israel never supported Apartheid – but for the ANC and many South Africans, it [this relationship] is not forgotten,” he said.
“Since the beginning of the new government [under Nelson Mandela in 1994], Israel has had some difficulties connecting with South Africa – BDS there is very strong – the [2001 anti-Israel] Durban conference and the very fact that they [Parliament] put out a press release that they don’t want to meet with us, is wrong,” Shai continued.
Shai said the August 14-22 visit “could have been a turning point” in relations between the countries as Israel has much to offer South Africa in terms of technology, human resources, health and education.
“I believe we should talk about the future – the past will not get us anywhere. We should have been received by the government and our fellow [South African] parliamentary colleagues – it could have worked very well,” Shai told the Post.
Although shunned by Parliament, Shai and the delegation still met with several senior ANC members including former-interim president Kgalema Motlanthe and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – a presidential candidate, as well as leaders of the opposition parties and the mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba.
Asked about the discussion with Dlamini- Zuma, Shai said she listened more than she spoke, which was good because Israel doesn’t always have access to South Africa.
“We spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli-South Africa relations,” he said.
The delegation members, who returned home on Tuesday, said they were not deterred from continuing to improve ties between the countries and to connect with South Africa’s “warm and welcoming” Jewish community.
“We wanted to talk to them [Jewish community] and hear from them, and they are very eager to hear about what’s going on in Israel,” Shai said.
For Shai, such meetings were the highlight of the trip. “We were warmly received by the Johannesburg and Cape Town [Jewish] communities. I was impressed by the [Jewish] education system – how Judaism and Israel are integrated together... I will remember for the rest of my life the conversations and questions we had with the students from Herzlia and King David schools,” he said.
“Being able to see South Africa and the many different aspects of the country, the Jewish community and the people was fascinating – it was a very successful trip,” he said.
“South Africa’s community is quite small but it has strong foundations and is strongly Zionist... Just to visit the Jewish community here without political meetings is extremely important – sometimes home is very far away and sometimes it’s close and Israel is the Jewish people’s home – the point of these visits is to see what way Israel can help and what way Israel can give to Jewish communities,” Shai explained.
Asked if there would be more MK visits to South Africa, Shai said he could not see it happening soon as it takes a lot of effort to organize.
“I hope maybe in one or two years this will happen again, maybe if my fellow colleagues here [in Israel], hear our stories, they will want to go as well,” he concluded.
The previous official visit by a delegation of MKs to visit South Africa was in 2004, when a group from the Likud met with then-president Thabo Mbeki. He welcomed them as “friends” – a fairly different way from how they were received by the country’s ruling party this time around. The 2004 visit was the first time the Likud held talks with the South African government about Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Israeli Embassy in South Africa said the recent delegation was the result of cooperation between the Knesset, the Foreign Ministry and the Jewish Agency.
“They have also had positive engagements with the key figures of the Christian and business communities,” the embassy said.
“The delegation proves that dialogue is key in increasing understanding of the challenges and opportunities between our great nations,” Ambassador Lior Keinan said.
The delegation reiterated its commitment to sharing Israel’s expertise in agriculture, water and hi-tech.
“The embassy continues to explore a plethora of avenues for cooperation between Israel and South Africa, and this delegation is a great step toward that goal,” it said.