ANC’s blindness when terror victims are Jews
Understandably, the South African Jewish population is absorbing the horrifying events in Israel on 7 October and the unresolved and unfinished consequences with great shock. Not least the responses, and tellingly non-responses of the African National Congress (ANC) government to the unfolding events.
A perspective from afar was offered by General David Petraeus, the former commander of United States wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and ex-director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He commented that the slaughter of 1 400 Israelis and kidnapping of 222 hostages by Hamas on 7 October was “far worse than 9/11”.
He was referencing the Hamas attacks and abductions to the infamous Twin Towers and Pentagon carnage in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.
As he explained, the attacks on the Israeli targets, all within the borders of the Israeli state demarcated by the United Nations in 1947, killed a “a greater proportion of Israel’s much smaller population. This is the equivalent of the United States having experienced 40 000 losses rather than the 3 000 terrible losses we sustained,” Petraeus said.
When the world was shocked and shaken by the events of 9/11 22 years ago, there were two responses from the ANC in South Africa.
One of the first statements was offered by ANC premier of the Eastern Cape, Makhenkesi Stofile. He told an interviewer that the 9/11 attacks “weren’t cowardly acts” and that “America had to look to itself” for the cause of the attacks.
However, President Thabo Mbeki was having no truck with this opinion, and his office issued a statement expressing outrage at the attack and support for the victims of it in forthright and unambiguous terms.
The statement read, “On behalf of the people and government of South Africa, the president condemns these dastardly deeds. The South African government joins the world in unreservedly denouncing these senseless and horrific attacks. The government calls on the international community to unite against global terrorism.”
Stofile was forced by the ANC to retract his statement, and spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama, today South Africa’s ambassador to Japan, said, “He accepted that his views weren’t in line with the party’s position.”
Well, the party line has now changed dramatically along with changes in the presidency.
The “dastardly deeds” perpetrated by the Hamas terrorists at 20 different sites inside Israel on 7 October, in terms of their savagery – from beheaded babies to people being burnt to death in safe rooms inside kibbutzes, and music festival attendees being shot and raped – were, even in a violence-soaked world, in a league of their own.
However, in terms of the Hamas’ charter, there was a grim consistency to it. As two of Britain’s most eminent jurists, Lords MacDonald and Pannik wrote last Friday, 20 October, “Hamas has signalled its intention to destroy Israel and all Jews living within its borders. This is the horrifying context.”
Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC response to this carnage was in sharp contrast to Mbeki’s ANC reaction to 9/11.
Nothing has essentially changed in its latter iterations from the party’s first response to the events in Israel on 7 October.
On 8 October, ANC National Spokesperson Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri announced that the events the day before “were unsurprising”. She stated that this was “a decision by Palestinians to respond to the brutality of the settler Israeli apartheid regime”. No word of condolence; no condemnation of the regime of terror unleashed against entirely innocent civilians; no notice that the attacks were not in “occupied Palestine”. In other words, the Jews had it coming to them, and the victims of these atrocities were somehow responsible for the horrors perpetrated on them.
It’s worth a side bar to note that the sites of the carnage were for the most part places where the inhabitants were, as members of socialist leaning kibbutzes and attendees at a rave music festival – prime sites for much of the slaughter – for the most part keen supporters of the peace process and opponents of the extremist government of Israel headed by Binyamin Netanyahu. But in line with the Hamas view that all Jews and Israelis are justifiable targets, it made no difference.
Ramaphosa maintained his silence for nine days until he offered an equivocal, difference splitting, temporising remark that “the killing of civilians in Israel by Hamas just over a week ago and the ongoing killing of civilians in Gaza by Israeli forces goes against the tenets of international law”.
Doubtless, he waited until Israel had begun its right to self defence against Hamas which did, inevitably and sadly, entail civilian deaths, until he felt emboldened to say anything at all, truly terrified that any word of support hitherto could be conceived as diluting his government’s pro-Palestinian credentials.
That’s one explanation, and here’s another.
In his book Jews Don’t Count, English comedian and author David Baddiel notes how the minority status of Jews is viewed differently from other forms of racism. He refers to this as “second-class racism”, or the antisemitism which aligns Jews with wealth and power and thus part of the oppressor group which allows discrimination – or in the case of the Hamas murder spree, killing them – to be overlooked, or as per Bhengu-Motsiri, essentially justified.
Doubtless, Ramaphosa, forever looking over his shoulder, is still haunted by the January 2017 City Press front-page story on the “ANC’s dirty war” in the run-up to the ANC conference, in which he narrowly won the party presidency. It quoted a major supporter of Jacob Zuma expressing concern that “Ramaphosa would be a liability because of his closeness to the Jews”.
Perhaps I feel this keenly as a secular Jewish South African, just as likely International Relations and Cooperation Minister Dr Naledi Pandor, a converted Muslim, feels the need to comport with Hamas in telephone diplomacy. But what’s inescapable is that far from supporting “a two-state solution” rather like a blinded Samson in Gaza, South Africa is entirely sightless on balance and on one side of a heavily contested terrain. But there’s a big difference between Hamas and all Palestinians, a line the ANC keeps blurring. It’s entirely appropriate to contest the borders of Israel vigorously, but Hamas and its supporters question Israel’s very existence.
But Ramaphosa need have no fear about his perceived proximity to the Jews. The chief rabbi of South Africa, Dr Warren Goldstein, last week took the unprecedented step of rewriting the prayer for South Africa to exclude reference to the government of South Africa.
Noting that the prayer will now be for the people and country of South Africa, Goldstein asked, “How can we pray for a government which supports an organisation responsible for the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust?”
How, indeed, is the question; and likely asked by many, not just the Jews.
- Tony Leon is the founding leader of the Democratic Alliance; the longest serving leader of the official opposition in Parliament since the advent of democracy; and a former ambassador. He is the chairperson of a communications company.