‘For us, Hamas is a national liberation movement’

An interview with South African Ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane, who came at a difficult time in bilateral relationships between the 2 countries.

South African Ambassador Sisa Ngombane 521 (photo credit: South African Embassy)
South African Ambassador Sisa Ngombane 521
(photo credit: South African Embassy)
When Sisa Ngombane took up his post earlier this year as South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, he could not have come at a more difficult time in the bilateral relationship between the two countries.
For the past several years, a certain frostiness descended on ties between Pretoria and Jerusalem, as South Africa has been a vocal supporter of the Palestinians and a frequent critic of the Jewish state and its policies. A former ambassador to the Ivory Coast and the Congo, this is Ngombane’s first posting to the Middle East. Just four months after formally presenting his credentials, Ngombane sat down for a wide-ranging and very candid interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine.
The relations between Israel and South Africa have seen a number of ups and downs in recent years. Why do you think that is the case?
Clearly, this has been the case.
I think the issue of Israeli-South African relations goes back a few years, actually back to the existence of the State of Israel. South Africa was there and is one of the countries that voted for the State of Israel to exist. And therefore we’ve got a long history, and it’s natural that in a long history like that, there would be highs and lows, as you mentioned.
I think, of course, there was a moment when relations were closer.
In terms of our history, that period coincided with a moment when the apartheid regime was in charge and African people felt that they were excluded in running the country, and therefore challenged the existing order in South Africa by various means. Then there was the period of the end of apartheid and Nelson Mandela became president, and I think there was a genuine attempt to try and keep a very sound relationship going. I think evidence of this is that Mandela’s foreign minister was sent here immediately, to come and to have what is referred to as a binational commission that enables the two countries to discuss issues.
There were a lot of views about how we should go forward in this relationship. It was not a singular decision by the ruling party in South Africa and the government then – it was informed by deeper discussions with the PLO and Yasser Arafat himself. The question was put to him: “What should South Africa do to support you?” and he said, “Keep your embassy in Tel Aviv – we need that embassy. We need you to be there so that you are able to interpret Israel better for us and for our struggle.”
Arafat also told us, “We believe that since the African National Congress is a former liberation movement, your presence there will make a difference.”
So, this is how far we’ve come and yes, trade relations are still there. Of course they could be better. Yes, our political relations are still struggling – they are not the closest of relations politically, one has to say. But of course relations can be worked on and improved, and we do our best to do this.

Last year, South African Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim called on South Africans not to visit Israel. Doesn’t that harm the chances of greater understanding and cooperation between the two countries?
I think that one has to look at what informed the deputy minister to say so. I think the argument is that there is a feeling that there’s no movement in an attempt to achieve a better understanding between the Israeli state and the Palestinian Authority, and therefore no movement towards a situation where there would be a final resolution of this conflict.
So the deputy minister raised this matter strongly, but I think in a later interview he tried to explain what he was trying to say. We have the presence of a diaspora, if you want, of Jews that come from South Africa and that live here in Israel, who have their families in South Africa. And they do go back and forth. So it cannot be that we would say there will be no visits between the two countries. I think it would be infringing on their rights to visit their families. And therefore the sovereign government per se cannot say that they cannot visit.
The deputy minister raised an issue of continual importance, that yes there is a problem, and therefore we would rather not have many South Africans caught up in whatever dynamic that prevails at any given moment.
In recent months, there have been several incidents in which Palestinian terrorists have fired rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. What is your policy toward the Hamas regime in Gaza and do you condemn the rocket attacks?
Of course the rockets create a serious infringement of security for ordinary people, to start with. And we have no problem in condemning the rockets that appear to be shot randomly at every target in Israel, including civilian targets. The approach that was adopted by our own liberation movement in South Africa was that of course you cannot just use random violence – you need it to be more precise. If you said the security forces were your problem, you have to engage the security forces. For us, Hamas is an important player in this environment.
It has got its weaknesses, but we think that these are not beyond a situation where it cannot be modified.
And it is encouraging that even Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has been saying they are ready to look at every issue. I think that means that they are open to reform and the fear was that if we would ostracize anybody just like that, we absolutely drive them to a camp that is more negative and more radical. I’m saying that Gaza under Hamas is a work in progress and I’ve said we condemn violence.
Unfortunately, once you enter the space of violence, there’s going to be casualties. It is an issue that you cannot avoid. Once violence starts there is always collateral damage.
And of course then it involves human rights and the rights of ordinary people. But we think that the way forward is to convince them that if you use violence, what have you achieved? To drop a few rockets that fall in the field and then bring a reaction from Israel, for which they then feel they must have reprisals is just counterproductive. Therefore, when there was an announcement of a cease-fire, we welcomed that very much and said it is a beginning of a realization that violence cannot be the only way to talk, and that only a limited achievement can be made through violence.
Let me be blunt. Do you consider Hamas to be a national liberation movement or a terrorist organization?
To be honest, for us Hamas is actually a national liberation movement. We think that they have got legitimate grounds to exist and this to a certain extent was confirmed by their election.
But what about their use of violence and terror, the rocket attacks and suicide bombings against innocent Israelis?
In discussions with Hamas the issue of indiscriminate violence has been raised, of conducting terror – well, terror cannot be part of the liberation movement’s strategy. There is a problem there, but that problem is not beyond being repaired, since some people have managed to stay away from terrorism while conducting an armed struggle. So we think that the mere fact that terrorist activities can be linked to Hamas does not qualify the whole group as being terrorist. We think that they have committed some errors, serious errors of judgment, and we engage with them on these issues. It is an issue that is ongoing and I think at the moment we believe that they are not beyond redemption, so to speak.
Hamas can be convinced to change their direction, because they have got an important role to play.
Palestinian leaders including PA President Mahmoud Abbas have stated that if a Palestinian state were to arise, the Jews living in the area would not be allowed to reside there. Isn’t that a form of racial discrimination and apartheid?
Yes, roughly, this can be said to resemble racism if Jews are excluded for being Jews. Our starting point is that it is easier to allow each people – Jews and Arabs – to really manage their own affairs, have their own governments, allow religious freedoms and not infringe on others. And the same would apply for Israel, that it allows the Jews to express all freedoms, and for the Palestinians in their own state.
But the idea that you are more strengthened by excluding others – to us it is not a good notion. We think that it is important to say – and some countries have said so – that we have a dominant religion, but we also have other minorities who are able to practice their religions and therefore there’s no harm, there’s no reason, that we should be saying that they should not be part of this society and this community.

In December 2012, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, voted in favor of making boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel part of its official policy. The resolution stated that the ANC is “unapologetic in its view that the Palestinians are the victims and the oppressed in the conflict with Israel.” Does your government support sanctions against the Jewish state?
We’re not at that stage. I think the ANC took this position to express its unhappiness about the current policies of the Israeli government and to express support for the Palestinians. Of course, the BDS movement exists – and it’s not ANC. It exists by its own self, and of course ANC members will support it, the way they ought to support it.
But as the situation stands now, we have not reached a situation that this has become government policy. As I said, there are people who are traveling back and forth between Israel and South Africa, we have an embassy here, and this embassy is not here to say we are here to enforce a boycott of Israel – it is not about that. There are no sanctions against goods coming from Israel, all goods are allowed to come. The only thing is that if goods come from “occupied territories” then they’ve got to be marked as such.
Many Israelis believe that your government singles out Israel for special treatment. After all, there are countries in the region whose human rights records are truly awful. For example, Saudi Arabia openly discriminates against non-Muslims by not allowing them into the cities of Mecca and Medina, and even has “Muslim-only” roads. The Saudis also ban women from driving cars and legally classify them as the property of their male guardians. Why are there no calls from South Africa to boycott the Saudis?

We are unable to make this direct connection precisely because we think the Saudi state has its own origins. It is a monarchy and it doesn’t claim to be democratic, it never claimed that. And therefore they’ve got a system that they run, that is based on religion. So we have said, “Okay, it’s the system that they’ve chosen for themselves.”
Now, the issue that we have against Israel – and it is not singularly against Israel in this matter – the issue we have is one of a fundamental disagreement on policy. Sometimes it is the way the policies are implemented. Part of the issue that really is at the core of our understanding of the problem that exists here is that there is a population which says, “We have been disempowered by a government which is more powerful, it removes us at will.
We thought we would have a state – we don’t have a state. When we look at all these activities, they unfortunately resonate with and strike a very key nerve similar with our own past situation, because in the South African environment we had a situation where we blacks didn’t exist! The government of the day decided that “this is our land, only the white people will stay here.” And they thought it was a God-given right for them to say that.
Are you actually comparing Israel with apartheid South Africa? We have had the question of whether Israel is an apartheid state or not, and there are a lot of debates on this matter. And in all honesty, there is a big discussion about it. At the moment, it is clear that Israel is not an apartheid state but there are very strong signals that it is going down that route, that there will be discrimination, that because you are an Arab you won’t be allowed to live here and you won’t be able to buy property there. If that becomes a policy of the state, then it becomes a problem.
How can you say that? There are Israeli Arabs who serve in the Knesset, an Arab judge sits on Israel’s Supreme Court, and Arabs have filled senior positions in government and the diplomatic service.
So I’m saying that we are not now trying to draw a comparison with apartheid, but there are clear signs that the system that existed in South Africa can easily be replicated here. When you separate people and they must go to this bus, they must go this way, then it becomes really some of the things that we have lived through in South Africa, and we grew up there for all of our lives and we know that.
Iran is pressing forward with its efforts to cross the nuclear threshold in defiance of the international community, and its president speaks openly about wiping Israel off the map. If Israel were to decide that it had no choice but to employ military force to prevent the ayatollahs from getting the bomb, what would your government’s position be? South Africa will not support the use of force. We have had this painful experience about Iraq, and it happened when Mandela was president when Iraq was attacked.
And president Mandela called president George W. Bush and expressed his grave disagreement with the war. He thought the excuse of existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a pretext for the war.
South Africa lost more than 10 of its citizens in the World Trade Center attacks. And where is the truth now? The painful truth is that he was right, Mandela was right and Iraq is worse off than it was before.
Now, on Iran – South Africa has argued this case and said of course we don’t want Iran to have nuclear bombs.
We wouldn’t want that because it creates instability, it creates insecurity for everybody. These matters have been raised with Iran, and we said to them that the problem we have is that they are not open with their nuclear program. They want a nuclear program, so why don’t they be open? It must be remembered that South Africa is the only country to voluntarily give up her nuclear weapons program. And when we couldn’t make progress with them, of course South Africa supported sanctions. The South African government won’t agree to an attack.
Of course it’s a sensitive issue for Israel. I live here now so I know it’s almost like a daily issue. But we are hoping that the diplomatic actions will assist to achieve the necessary results from Iran.
South African Jewry remains the largest Jewish community in all of Africa, but nearly half have chosen to emigrate from the country over the past few decades. How do you feel about this?
There was a moment in South Africa when the system of apartheid was collapsing, where some people felt they needed to leave and make a better future for their children. And of course they emigrated, in large part to the United States, followed by another wave to Canada, and others to Australia – people who are not Jews, just ordinary white South Africans. And of course there are Jews who have come and settled here in Israel. And as you said, South Africa still has a large Jewish population.
In South Africa, we have over 70,000.
So the bulk is still in South Africa. And they are living happily, and they are doing their business, they are running for every office. We have had a prominent Jewish judge, the late justice Arthur Chaskalson as head of the Constitutional Court, the highest court in South Africa. And for that matter, I never even knew that he was a Jew, he was one of those sons of South Africa who stood up and was fighting for justice throughout South Africa.
There are many other leaders in their own right.
According to the South African Board of Jewish Deputies, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in South Africa rose by 15 percent in 2012, and there were at least three cases of violent assault directed against Jews. In May of last year, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a letter in which he suggested that the Jews benefited from the Holocaust, saying: “The Jewish Holocaust, engineered and implemented primarily by Europeans, gave some ideologues within the Jewish and Christian community an excuse to implement plans that were in the making for at least 50 years, under the rubric of exceptional Jewish security.” What is your government doing to combat anti-Semitism?
The Holocaust happened. It was a catastrophe for humanity and a catastrophe for the Jewish population, of course. But how do you deal with this going forward, that’s been an issue in South Africa. People do refer to slavery and point out that we also have incidences, maybe not at the same scale, where gross injustices have been committed against populations. But how do you deal with this in a manner that allows you to look beyond? Looking beyond of course is to do what Israel has done, to make sure you’ve got a home for the Jews, strongly able to defend themselves, so that nobody can create another Holocaust. I think that’s acceptable.
But the problem is when any action that is taken and people say, “We suffered a Holocaust, therefore don’t criticize us.”
You see, that’s when people find that the Holocaust is being used unfairly. South Africans, especially Tutu, say, “No, we think there’s a problem with this approach. If you are doing something wrong, people have to be able to say this is wrong. And we argue how to correct it.
I think in the South African context, as I said, sometimes there is an exaggeration of the anti-Jewish sentiment. I’m saying you have incidents that have been unfortunately orchestrated. There was an attack on a pianist who was invited to play at a university. So we’ve had a few incidents, which are deplorable to be honest, but sometimes they are taken out of context. They are not defining the existence of the Jewish community in South Africa at all.
In July of last year, the nonprofit group Genocide Watch concluded that a coordinated campaign of genocide is being conducted against white farmers, or Boers, in South Africa. “The farm murders, we have become convinced, are not accidental,” said Dr. Gregory Stanton, head of the group. What is your response?
No, I think the truth is that white farmers have suffered violent crime. Under the old system, white farmers were integrated as reserves in a military organization, so they were a part of the security forces, the police, the army, which in a way ensured them their security. But of course when democracy came, that was dismantled and it left them vulnerable.
Critically, there’s been another element that has come into the South African situation: as you know South Africa still attracts a lot of immigrants. Some of them look for jobs on the farms and they have not been happy, feeling they were being underpaid, and it results in crimes. So you could say there is still some resentment that is there regarding some white farmers being in certain parts of the country, because of the lingering land claims.
So it is a cocktail, an unhealthy cocktail. And we have been working with the South African farmers’ association to solve the problem. Because the truth of the matter is we’ve had a situation where crime is starting to go to areas where it never was a big problem before.
Do you think South Africa will ever have a white president?
Yes, actually, yes. One of the people who raised the issue was the late Chris Hani, leader of the African National Congress and head of the South African Communist Party. And he said unfortunately, at this current moment, the South African population is not ready to accept a white president – but if they were, he would have been ready to nominate the late Joe Slovo, also a leader of the ANC who served as a minister. So I think the possibility is there.
Within the ANC, the South Africans had very distinguished white leaders who have shown themselves as able to serve the people and they have been recognized for such. It’s not just Joe Slovo, there are others. Looking at the ANC, which is the power base, the prospective white leaders have a better chance that they could rise and get to the position of the president of the country.
There is a tribe in South Africa known as the Lemba, many of whom believe they are descendants of a lost tribe of Israel. What do you think of this?
Yes, I know of the Lemba and they come from a northern province. Of course they see themselves as Jews and we have no problem with it, actually. In that part of the country, we have our oldest artifacts that show there was an ancient civilization in that area.
South Africa’s embassy in Israel is in Tel Aviv, even though Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Why won’t South Africa move its embassy to Jerusalem?
South Africa has had relations with Israel since its establishment in 1948 and the embassy was opened in 1975. When there was a decision by the Israeli government to move the capital to Jerusalem, South Africa was not able to move. Of course, the overriding factor was that we still thought there should be an agreement in terms of the international status of Jerusalem. This is the understanding we have. And we thought, let’s not do anything that will prejudge this kind of situation, let’s wait that it should be resolved.