South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the State of the Nation address in January..
(photo credit: RODGER BOSCH/REUTERS)
The African National Congress retained its control of parliament in South Africa’s elections on May 8, garnering almost 60% of the vote in what was essentially a referendum on the party that has ruled the country since the end of apartheid in 1994.
“Our people have spoken – and they have done so clearly and emphatically,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said. “We can declare with certainty that democracy has emerged victorious.”
Now that he has won a vote of confidence from his people, it’s time for Ramaphosa to do the right thing regarding Israel: restore full diplomatic relations.
South Africa’s International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu announced in April that the country’s embassy in Tel Aviv had been downgraded and that the ambassador to Israel would not be replaced after he was recalled last year following violence on the Israel-Gaza border.
“We are in the process of following the downgrade resolution of the ruling party, and stage one has been completed,” Sisulu told the South African Institute of International Affairs. “The office will remain at the level of a liaison and that is how it will operate.”
The South African government first decided to downgrade its Israeli embassy to a liaison office in 2018, in line with a resolution taken by the ANC during its 2017 national conference.
But its move in April triggered unprecedented outrage in Israel, South Africa’s Jewish community (estimated at 60,000 of the country’s 57 million people) and among many of its Christian citizens, who comprise 80% of the population.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies noted that when Ramaphosa addressed its Gauteng conference last October, he assured the Jewish community that his government sought to “play a constructive role that will bring all parties together so that we find a solution to a problem that seems intractable in the Middle East.”
The embassy downgrade, though, achieves the exact opposite. It does not help advance Middle East peace – and as the board said, the ANC government needs “to find ways to reengage in the region through maintaining open channels of communication with all parties.”
More than 100,000 people signed a petition initiated by the South African Friends of Israel.
“Our petition for the reinstatement of the South African Ambassador to Israel, and the rejection of the proposed downgrade, is growing daily,” it said.
South African Jewish broadcaster Howard Feldman wrote an impassioned letter to Sisulu, calling on her to reverse the decision. “Strangely, this is not even about Israel,” he said. “That small young democracy has become a powerful force in almost every area, despite the odds. Many African countries are seeing huge benefits from embracing its technology and aid, and Israel is making great strides across the continent. So too have countries in the Middle East, who recognize not only the value that Israel brings but also the resistance of Hamas and the PA [Palestinian Authority] to make peace with their enemy. Frankly, you are anachronistically out of step with the rest of the world.”
Feldman pointed out that Israel buys 10% of South Africa’s diamonds and coal, valued at two billion rand ($140 million). South African farmers purchase fertilizer and chemicals from Israel as well as medical and electronic equipment, he added, arguing that “cooperation could undoubtedly solve so many of our problems if we allowed it to.”
Two of the most pressing challenges facing South Africa are its water shortage (especially in the Cape) and its constant electricity outages. These are two areas in which Israel is a world leader, and South Africa could certainly use the game-changing desalination and solar energy techniques developed in the Jewish state.
But ultimately, this is not about economics or even South Africa’s Jewish community, which punches above its weight and contributes so much to the country.
It is really about right and wrong. It is time for Ramaphosa to take Nelson Mandela’s lead and make the right moral decision even if it is not popular with his party.
While being a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, Mandela squarely backed Israel’s right to exist and its right to security.
“I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing [from Palestinian areas] if Arab states do not recognize Israel, within secure borders,” Mandela said when he visited Israel in 1999. We urge Ramaphosa to listen.