Cyril Ramaphosa, the Jews and Israel

How will the new ANC leader’s election affect South African Jewry and ties with the Jewish state?

ANC 54th national conference opens in Johannesburg, December 17, 2017 (Reuters)
ON DECEMBER 18, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), elected a new leader at its National Conference, which is held every five years.
The 65-year-old Cyril Ramaphosa narrowly beat Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former wife of South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, in what was a heated race.
If the ANC wins the country’s 2019 elections, Ramaphosa will become the country’s new president. However, he could take the reins even sooner if Jacob Zuma is indicted for corruption and forced to step down.
Born in November 1952, in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, Ramaphosa pursued a career in law and politics at the former University of the North – now known as the University of Limpopo.
At university, he got involved in politics and served as the branch leader of the South African Students’ Association. He later became an active member of the National Union of Mineworkers, serving as its general secretary for nine years.
As apartheid was nearing its end, Ramaphosa campaigned alongside Nelson Mandela in 1991 and played a major role in negotiating the talks that led to a peaceful transition into a democratic South Africa in 1994.
Then-president Mandela primed Ramaphosa to become his deputy president but infighting within the ANC and pressure from anti-apartheid veterans ousted him in favor of Thabo Mbeki, who became the country’s president in 1999.
During the latter part of the 1990s, Ramaphosa left politics to pursue business ventures within the private sector and focus on “Black Economic Empowerment” in business, mining and farming, leading him to become one of the wealthiest people in South Africa. But he remained connected to the ANC until his return to the political sphere in 2012 ,when he was voted in as the ruling party’s deputy president at its National Conference.
In 2014, Zuma named him deputy president of South Africa – a position he still holds today in conjunction with his newly elected ANC presidency.
So what does this all mean for South Africa’s Jewry and Israel?
During a press briefing in 2014, Ramaphosa defended South Africa’s ties with Israel, reasoning that South Africa would lose its leverage to mediate in the Middle East if it heeds calls to sever ties with Israel.
“Maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel allows our country to continue to engage with Israel on issues of mutual interest, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said at the time.
In January 2017, at the height of the ANC presidential succession race, Ramaphosa’s opponents accused him of being “in the pocket of the Jews.”
Most notably, during December’s conference, where Ramaphosa was elected ANC president, the ruling party also resolved to downgrade South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv.
A source close to Ramaphosa, who asked to remain anonymous, tells The Jerusalem Report that there are several things to consider when it comes to Ramaphosa and his relations with the country’s Jewry and Israel.
“I think it is important to note upfront that the ANC resolution [to downgrade the embassy in Israel] is merely a party resolution and not a government resolution. Cyril has attained the leadership of the ANC with the backing of both the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in a very tightly fought race – where his victory was not overwhelming – both of whom are part of the anti-Israel lobby,” the source explained.
The source stresses that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Middle East and the issue of downgrading the South African Embassy are not on Ramaphosa's radar at present because he has four major hurdles to overcome as the new president of the ANC.
“This includes the management of the top six of the party, which is split between Zuma supporters and Ramaphosa supporters on a 50/50 basis, as well as the NEC [National Executive Committee], which needs to be reined in and controlled by Ramaphosa; the recall of Jacob Zuma as president of the country is his No. 1 priority [due to the major corruption scandals he has been involved in]; managing the expectations of the land reform Resolution passed by the Conference; and the appointment of a Judicial Commission to investigate the State capture as ordered by the High Court,” he says.
The source also points out that Ramaphosa is a political pragmatist.
“However, he has to navigate with extreme caution within the ANC, and albeit a small South African Jewish community, a powerful business lobby, of which he is extremely conscious, and will have to balance his decisions carefully, which I am sure he will, in the Jewish community’s favor.”
Delving deeper into the matter, the source says Ramaphosa would be perceived as a mediator, together with former South African defense minister and businessman Roelf Meyer – who worked closely with Ramaphosa in 1993 during the negotiation period prior to the end of apartheid – in seeing a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involving a two-state solution.
“In actual fact, when Ambassador Gideon Behar, Africa Desk head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, was in South Africa in early December, Ramaphosa sent his legal adviser to a meeting which was arranged with Christian leaders, and his legal adviser asked a question, directed to both Israeli Ambassador Lior Keinan and Behar, if they would be prepared to meet with both Ramaphosa and Meyer,” the source says. “The answer from both ambassadors was, ‘Absolutely,’ but this was before the ANC conference. Their attitude now might be somewhat different.”
The source says that given the above, “not only Jews in South Africa, but the relationship with Israel under the ANC presidency of Ramaphosa, would be very balanced – despite the 'uninformed' views of the broader Jewish and Christian communities that this [the embassy downgrade] is a ‘done deal’ and is far from the way it will play out,” he says. “If South Africa believes it can play a role in some form, as a mediator, even if only sitting at the table, then this resolution will be sitting as a resolution and not as an action for the extended period of Ramaphosa’s tenure, which is at least the next 10 years.”
The source advises that one factor needs to be considered when dealing with the ANC’s resolution to downgrade the Tel Aviv embassy: How will Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu respond?
“Whether it will be a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction or a more pragmatic approach, which includes merely issuing a demarche order to South African Ambassador Sisa Ngombane, or he takes more drastic action, is yet to be seen,” he says.
A prominent member of South Africa’s Jewish community, Reeva Forman, says she believes the appointment of Ramaphosa bodes well for the future of all South Africans, including its Jewish community.
“Cyril’s record speaks for itself. During apartheid, he founded the National Union for Mineworkers, he was then the ANC’s chief Negotiator during South Africa’s transition into democracy and today one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen,” she says. “There is not a hint of corruption. These achievements should impact positively towards, once more, creating a government based on a universal value of integrity and accountability.”
Forman emphasizes that South Africa’s greatest achievement was the negotiated settlement in a country that the world predicted would be mired in a bloody civil war between whites and blacks.
“Against all predictions, Nelson Mandela and the ANC achieved what no leader has done before or since: an end to conflict without senseless loss of lives on both sides. This is South Africa’s greatest heritage and gift to the world,” she says. “The ANC with President Ramaphosa can redeem this heritage. South Africa can again play that role on the world stage in helping negotiate a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, for the good of both.”
She adds that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, with its policy of hatred and vilification of one side – Israel – is the very antithesis of everything Mandela, the ANC and South Africa stood for.
“A man of Cyril’s character, negotiating skills and love of our country has the integrity to truly be that honest broker for peace in our hallowed Jewish tradition:‘When you save one life, you save the world,’ be that life Palestinian or Jewish,” Forman continues. “I have faith in the two countries I love [South Africa and Israel], which are both based on democratic values and respect for the individual. These identical values are enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution and Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”