Israel, South Africa: Relations stuck in a time warp - opinion

South Africa’s boycott of Israel prevents the sort of fruitful cooperation seen in Israel’s relations across Africa.

 SOUTH AFRICAN President Cyril Ramaphosa smiles as he receives the credentials of new Israeli ambassador Eliav Belotsercovsky in January. (photo credit: Israel Embassy-South Africa/South African Dept. of International Relations and Cooperation/Twitter)
SOUTH AFRICAN President Cyril Ramaphosa smiles as he receives the credentials of new Israeli ambassador Eliav Belotsercovsky in January.
(photo credit: Israel Embassy-South Africa/South African Dept. of International Relations and Cooperation/Twitter)

The institution committed to unity in Africa has been decidedly disunited on Israel. The African Union (AU) has been split over granting Israel official observer status, exposing serious fault lines regarding the Jewish state in the organization that brings together the continent’s 55 countries.

On one side, there is the growing list of African states that have positive ties with Israel and support Israel becoming an AU observer. On the other, there are countries adamantly opposed to upgrading Israel’s status.

Among Israel’s AU friends are states from across sub-Saharan Africa: Cameroon, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia, to name but a few. With some of these countries, Israel’s ties date back decades.

As foreign minister from 1956 to 1966, Golda Meir pioneered Israel’s African outreach. Meir’s passion to strengthen Israel’s international standing was matched only by her genuinely held belief that Israel’s own development could be a valuable example to the newly independent countries of the continent.

The woman who went on to become Israel’s fourth prime minister firmly believed that Israel could be Africa’s role model: “Like them, we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land, increase the yields of our crops, irrigate, raise poultry, live together and defend ourselves.”

 NELSON MANDELA’S eldest grandson, Mandla Mandela, speaks during a protest by Palestinian supporters earlier this month in Johannesburg, calling for Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane to withdraw from the Miss Universe pageant in Israel.  (credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS) NELSON MANDELA’S eldest grandson, Mandla Mandela, speaks during a protest by Palestinian supporters earlier this month in Johannesburg, calling for Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane to withdraw from the Miss Universe pageant in Israel. (credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS)

Over half a century later, Israel’s ninth prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, followed in Meir’s footsteps in prioritizing relations with the continent, declaring that “Israel is coming back to Africa and Africa is coming back to Israel.”

In 2016, Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Africa in decades, his trip including Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. In 2017 he became the first ever non-African to address the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) leaders’ summit in Monrovia, during which he met with 10 African presidents.

In the current debate over Israel in the AU, the organization’s Chair, Chad’s Moussa Faki, has supported Israel’s acceptance as an observer. In a speech in February, Faki alluded to Israel’s extensive connections across the continent, pointing to the 44 African states that maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, as opposed to 11 states, only one fifth of the AU membership, that refuse to do so.

Those against upgrading Israel’s status received support from Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, who flew to Addis Ababa to demand the AU not reward Israel “for the apartheid regime it does impose on the Palestinian people.”

Inside the AU, spearheading the effort against Israel are Algeria and South Africa.

The People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria has a revolutionary Arab nationalist tradition dating back to the struggle for independence from France. Algeria is not one of the increasing number of Arab League states that have moved to normalize or liberalize ties with Israel – far from it. Even in the heyday of Oslo, unlike its immediate Arab neighbors Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria refused to allow Israel to open an interest office.

The case of South Africa is more complex. South Africa is both a democracy and, because of its own unique historic experience, espouses a special commitment to combating racism. However, South Africa does not evince any natural affinity with the Middle East’s singular democracy, nor does its sensitivity to racism encompass understanding of antisemitism or appreciation of the Jews’ desire for national freedom and security. Despite the formal diplomatic ties, South Africa’s aversion towards Israel is institutional and ubiquitous.

LAST YEAR, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Dr Naledi Pandor, addressed Chatham House on her country’s foreign policy agenda. Before discussing a series of international issues, Pandor first stressed South Africa’s special commitment to the Palestinian people. Only after this obligatory opening, was it possible for the minister to delve into other matters.

Indeed, the Palestinian cause has become the holy grail of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), the litmus test for commitment to the ideology of national liberation. Public figures who challenge the prevailing anti-Israel dogma can see their careers suffer.

One example: In 2021 South Africa’s chief justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, was forced to apologize for expressing support for Israel, having to resign from his position as chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, ultimately leaving his post as chief justice, as well. Mogoeng’s lapse: He had said in a webinar hosted by this newspaper that “I’m under an obligation as a Christian to love Israel, to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

In a similar vein, last November the South African government publicly rebuked Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, over her decision to participate in the Miss Universe pageant in Eilat, releasing a statement that “the atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians are well documented and government, as the legitimate representative of the people of South Africa, cannot in good conscience associate itself with such.”

Earlier this year, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was himself chided for being photographed smiling during the ceremony where he received the credentials of Israel’s new ambassador Eliav Belotsercovsky. As the criticism came from influential elements inside the African National Congress (ANC) and its tripartite alliance partners, the government immediately released a sharp anti-Israel statement reiterating devotion to the Palestinian cause. Apparently, the ANC orthodoxy demands the head of state frown when meeting Israelis.

All this is highly counterproductive. South Africa’s boycott of Israel prevents the sort of fruitful cooperation seen in Israel’s relations across Africa, which, according to AU Chair Faki, encompass “fields as varied and sensitive as: education/training, defense, security, intelligence, nuclear cooperation, agriculture, technological innovations, health, economy and finance.”

Of late, because of its professed commitment to an ethical foreign policy prioritizing freedom and human rights, South Africa’s government drew accusations of hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy for repeatedly refusing to join the majority at the UN in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Critics charge that South Africa’s leadership is stuck in a time warp, that many in the ANC view the world as if it was still the Cold War of the 1980s when the Communist East wholeheartedly supported the anti-apartheid struggle, while the West (including Israel) was too cozy with the racist white minority regime.

If the current Ukraine crisis drives Pretoria to rethink some warn-out foreign policy axioms, one can only hope that any possible glasnost will also involve looking afresh at South Africa’s reigning self-defeating anti-Israel obsession.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS at Tel Aviv University. Follow him at @MarkRegev on Twitter.