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ANC placates Joburg conference with Palestinian ambassador

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Though South Africa has many concerns for the African National Congress (ANC) to focus on, it chose the Palestinian ambassador to South Africa to give the opening address at its Greater Johannesburg Regional Conference on Friday, 3 June.

“This is another example of the ANC trying to find issues on which its own membership is more united than divided,” says political analyst Daniel Silke about Ambassador Hanan Jarrar addressing the 15th regional conference. “There’s such fragmentation, contestation for power, personality clashes, and policy clashes within the ANC that perhaps the one area it can agree on is the issue of Israel/Palestine. It curries sympathy, there’s a revolutionary empathy, it ticks all the boxes for the ANC at a time when the party is extremely divided and at each other’s throats.”

A regional conference allows the party to elect regional leaders. However, most of these conferences have descended into chaos. In Ekurhuleni the previous weekend, delegates attacked each other with bricks and chairs, leading ANC provincial chairperson in Gauteng, David Makhura, to describe that conference as “a war zone”. At the greater Johannesburg conference, Makhura said, “This conference is to prepare for war, the battle of the 2024 elections. There’s no time to fight among ourselves. We have to prioritise. The issues on the ground are critical.”

Instead, the party focused on the Israeli-Palestinian issue with Jarrar.

“This is almost a rallying cry for the ANC internally, to give plenty of airtime to the Palestinian question,” Silke says. “It’s a ‘safe’ issue for the ANC – a foreign policy issue and fundamentally, most of the ANC factions agree with the importance given to it. It prevents the party, to some degree, from looking inwards. It can rather look outwards to something its members agree upon.”

Asked if he thought the ANC would ever invite both Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors to address the party for a more balanced discussion, Silke says, “Never say never!” However, he notes that if South Africa continues to isolate Israel, the country itself will “increasingly be isolated in this stance, both in Africa and on the global stage”.

Local political analyst Steven Gruzd says inviting both ambassadors would be highly unlikely for the ANC. “Inviting the Palestinian ambassador isn’t a surprise, but it smacks a bit of desperation to try to win votes and popularise the Palestinian cause when so much else is going wrong in South Africa – corruption, low-growth economy, and scandals. There is, of course, a long-standing affinity with the Palestinian struggle, but this just seems a bit out of place and quite absurd. Of all the speakers that they could have got, it’s interesting that they chose the Palestinian ambassador. In a context of so much else going wrong, it seems like a distraction.”

A third local political analyst, Ralph Mathekga, says, “I would imagine for an embattled party such as the ANC, and taking into consideration the troubled Gauteng region, showing solidarity with Palestine gets the party to look resolute in confronting what it considers an unfair system. Yet the reality is that the party is receding from power and there isn’t much left, except for a great history.”

The Palestinian ambassador equated South Africa and the ANC with the Palestinians. “A strong ANC is a strong South Africa, and a strong South Africa is a strong Palestine,” she said.

Jarrar said she looked forward to the city of Johannesburg one day being back in the hands of the ANC. “The ANC has called for renaming Sandton Drive after Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). We hope to see this coming into reality soon,” she said.

Khaled played a role in the hijacking of two civilian airlines in 1969 and 1970. In 1997, the PFLP was designated a terrorist organisation by the United States department of state, which cites the group as having carried out “large-scale international attacks in the 1960s and 1970s, including airline hijackings that killed more than 20 US citizens”. The PFLP is also responsible for numerous terror attacks against Israeli civilians. In recent interviews, Khaled continues to promote the view that the Palestinian national movement should use armed struggle to achieve its goals.

Chris Vondo, the head of the ANC political school and former member of the mayoral committee in Johannesburg, encouraged the ambassador to “mobilise the international community in finding solutions for Palestine to win its struggle for self-determination”.

Dada Morero, the outgoing treasurer of the greater Johannesburg region, said that Israel was “more extreme than the South African apartheid experience” and “the people of Palestine have been denied their rights to exist in their own land. It must be noted that the struggle of the people of Palestine isn’t a struggle against Jews, but a struggle for a peaceful and just existence and coexistence.”

But South African Jewish Board of Deputies national director, Wendy Kahn, notes, “If the ANC Johannesburg branch truly wanted peace, it would have engaged with the Palestinian and Israeli ambassadors. As South African-born professor emeritus of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University, Professor Asher Susser, says, ‘You can’t clap with one hand.’”

South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin says, “It’s unfortunate that the ANC has allowed its foreign policy to be dictated by Palestinian extremists. The ANC’s decision to invite Palestinian Ambassador Hanan Jarrar to its regional conference shows that its politics are misaligned with reality and the needs of the voting public. The result of these antics will lead to further internal chaos in a party that continues to lose power.

“The Johannesburg region, for the ANC in particular, has been a hotbed of anti-Israel activity. Instead of deplorable projects like attempting to rename Sandton Drive ‘Leila Khaled Drive’, the party should focus on improving service delivery and quality of life for the residents of Johannesburg.”

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