11 things I learned in South Africa

Israel, for many African countries, is an easier model than far-off European or Asian countries.

PINS DEPICTING former South African President Nelson Mandela are displayed for sale at a memorial service held by the African National Congress (photo credit: REUTERS)
PINS DEPICTING former South African President Nelson Mandela are displayed for sale at a memorial service held by the African National Congress
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As I approach the end of four wonderful years as Israel’s ambassador in South Africa, I have been reflecting on many lessons learned here which will be even more valuable to take back home to Israel than the souvenirs I have collected.
Here are 11.
1. Africa and Israel have so much in common and to share with each other. The concerns of so many people: food security independence, successful water management and government capacity to protect us from the dangers of uncertain, often dangerous neighborhoods, have all brought Israel and Africa closer in recent years.
Israel, for many African countries, is an easier model than far-off European or Asian countries. Twice over the past year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Africa to share a message that if Israel can achieve many of these goals, African states can, too.
2. South Africa’s liberation story still has resonance with and inspires so many of us around the world. South Africa’s peaceful resolution, as imperfect as it may seem in 2017, offers hope to people where conflicts seemingly have no solutions. Just as you had great leaders who understood that change comes via compromise, negotiation and rejecting of violence, many lessons can be applied to other conflicts.
Of course, blanket solidarity and blind support for literally anything the Palestinians suggest (denying Jewish ties to Jerusalem at UNESCO; rejecting all nation-specific human rights resolutions at the Human Rights Council, except for against Israel; abstaining on Israeli-initiated resolutions on agricultural technology) does not build international or regional credibility.
3. Transformation can only come from being forward-looking. Both Israel and South Africa were born from great tragedy.
Although Israel was born a mere three years after the end of the Holocaust, its leaders immediately focused on development of our people and our society. Such a worldview allowed Israel to transform from a tiny, besieged, agricultural-based country to today’s developed, creativity rich “Start- Up Nation.” To be fair, Israel has had significantly longer – we celebrated our 69th anniversary earlier this year. South Africa, after only 23 years, is right to remember and honor its heroes, but its foreign policy, economic leadership and priorities need to more truly focus on the future.
4. Despite solidarity and real empathy with other national freedom movements, in the main, South Africa’s struggle movements clearly rejected terrorism. Despite an intimate connection with various Palestinian liberation groups, it pointedly did not hijack airplanes, deploy suicide bombers or target civilians.
5. I am astoundingly privileged on a personal level. The South African conversation on responsibility, privilege and transformation has been a meaningful learning experience when it is respectful and builds bridges instead of abused for political score-keeping, recrimination and laying blame. The Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, repairing the world, is an important response to this conversation.
Mashav, Israel’s Agency for International Development Co-operation, concentrates on skills development and knowledge transfer programs, and government-to-government cooperation. Amazing civil society programs such as Project Ten (“Ten” means “give” in Hebrew) send young Israeli volunteers to do grassroots community work in Ghana, Uganda and in South Africa’s KZN province. Innovation: Africa has provided one million rural Africans access to vaccines, light and water via Israeli solar and water technologies.
6. My Jewish brothers and sisters have played a key role in South Africa over the years. Despite comprising less than one fifth of 1% of the population of this country, they have had an outsized impact on its economic and social development. Today, members of the community lead inspirational NGOs such as Afrika Tikkun that run community centers of excellence for child and youth development in places like Alexandra and Diepsloot and the job-creating Oranjezicht City Farm Market in Cape Town. The Moshal Scholarship Program provides bursaries to hundreds of young people from challenged backgrounds to attend top universities. Jews are intertwined in South Africa’s fabric and are focused on being positive factors in this country’s future. They are, of course, a natural bridge between South Africa and Israel.
7. Surprisingly perhaps, South Africa’s Jews and Muslims have much in common. Both are very small minorities with long histories of social and political activism here while building proud, traditional communities.
Both have deeply integrated into life over generations with similar interests, voting patterns and concerns. I was moved, last month, to co-host, together with Cape Town’s Jewish community, a Ramadan iftar dinner to encourage interfaith dialogue.
8. Despite radically one-sided media coverage (one prominent media company literally has a daily item on its international page dedicated to demonizing Israel) and despite limited engagement by the ANC, a majority of South Africans, of all backgrounds, are friendly to Israel and to constructive partnerships. A Facebook page for “South African Friends of Israel” has over 102,000 followers and I have more Twitter followers than any other current ambassador in South Africa. A wide variety of Christian churches are deeply connected to Israel and thousands go on pilgrimages to visit the Holy Land.
A fascinating recent survey by the University of Cape Town of black South Africans found that a vast majority of those asked have not even heard of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among those who have, a large majority support both sides or neither. It also found that despite the huge efforts of a loud and aggressive anti-Israel lobby, only 4% (!) knew they even exist.
9. The Palestinian lobby in South Africa scares lots of people. Its members have violently broken up a classical music recital, put a pig’s head in a supermarket, chanted “Shoot the Jew” at a protest and regularly berate top-level public figures such as the former public protector and the leader of the opposition party, who wouldn’t follow their hateful diktats. But they offer South Africans nothing – not jobs, exports or technology, or even bring support of actual voters for any political party. They don’t even really offer solidarity for Palestinians (they are abjectly silent about thousands of Palestinians killed in Syria or the total lack of rights of Palestinian journalists, women or Christians in Gaza).
10. The lazy use of the word “apartheid” with regard to Israel is insulting to South African history and factually wrong. While there are no actual parallels, as people of all faiths, race and ethnicities take part in all parts of public life in Israel, the word is bandied about as an epithet for political expediency and to sow hatred.
“Apartheid” is never used in reference to Lebanon, where Palestinians still have no civil or social rights, or Saudi Arabia, where women and non-Muslims are second-class citizens, or Qatar, where foreigner workers are still indentured servants. Just like Jews are justifiably defensive about abuse and watering down of the loaded word “Holocaust,” so too, South Africans should forcefully reject an attempted hijacking of “apartheid.”
11. Israelis and South Africans are already working together.
Bilateral trade is significant and has room to grow because of complimentary focuses.
Over the past few years, Israeli exports to SA have increased despite the economic slowdown here as our embassy has prioritized trade relations. With a similar effort, South Africa could increase its market share in Israel’s booming economy. More South Africans visited Israel last year than from any other country in Africa. In parallel, more Israelis were tourists to SA than from any other Middle Eastern country. We have deep cooperation in agribusiness, telecommunications and cybersecurity.
As I pack up to head home, I am grateful for the opportunity to have learned so much and discover so many friends in South Africa.
It is abundantly clear that despite the often frustrating noise, South Africa and Israel have a wide range of shared interests and synergies that practically serve vital interests of both sides. There are important partnerships and opportunities that propel both our countries forward and offer tangible benefits for our people and for our regions.
The author is the outgoing ambassador to South Africa. This article originally appeared in the Daily Maverick.