Cyril remains shtum on embassy downgrade
Celebrating the 106th anniversary of the founding of the ANC on January 8 1912, the January 8 Statement has become an annual opportunity for the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to celebrate, honour its stalwarts and emphasise the party’s policy priorities.
How would Ramaphosa perform and what would he say about foreign policy, especially the ANC’s December resolution calling for the downgrading of South Africa’s Tel Aviv embassy to a liaison office to signal disapproval of Israeli policies?
On the Israel matter, the written copy doesn’t mince words: “We are of the firm view that downgrading the South African embassy in Israel to a liaison office would help send a strong signal.” Except, he never actually said this.
In fact, he skipped foreign policy altogether, save for briefly mentioning BRICS (the acronym for the five emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and cementing ties with Kenya, with President Uhuru Kenyatta in attendance.
Journalist and author Carien du Plessis, who braved the Buffalo City heat to attend the celebrations, says: “It’s hard to tell whether he left out the foreign policy stuff because of time (his speech was about 75 minutes long; it was hot and people were getting bored), or whether it was a strategic move.
“Activists from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement said this omission didn’t alarm them, as Ramaphosa had previously expressed his support for the people of Palestine.”
Aditi Lalbahadur, an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs and a speech writer for former president Thabo Mbeki, said: “It’s interesting he didn’t say it. It speaks to the disjuncture between ANC policies decided at conference and how they are implemented at government level.” Frustrated ANC officials have questioned who actually makes South Africa’s foreign policy.
Political analyst Ebrahim Fakir concurs. “You’ll notice that, unlike other January 8 statements, he said nothing about ‘our wholehearted support for the Palestinians’, and didn’t restate the two-state solution. He had limited time and focused on other, domestic, important things.
“I think they realise that going into a hasty downgrade, without putting in place any alternative measures to keep trade, diplomatic and other relations going, will be economically detrimental in the short term. If you have other arrangements in place, then you can downgrade for symbolic reasons.”
According to Fakir, “it was a ‘holding’ speech”.
“Remember, it’s a statement of the NEC… Given the divisions in the ANC, Cyril was able to put his personal imprint on the speech despite the constraints.”
Examining January 8 statements over the past decade is like a bad curry repeating on you; many turgid pages waffle on about party unity, ideology, organisational renewal, anniversaries, policy achievements and fallen comrades. On foreign policy, they perennially pledge solidarity with Cuba and Western Sahara, and call for peace in Africa’s many conflicts. But the shifting rhetoric on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict speaks volumes.
Anti-Zionist language progressively ratchets up. From 2010 came this call: “[The ANC] calls for finding lasting, just and humane solutions to the Israel-Palestine question. We firmly believe in a two-state solution.” In 2013, the NEC said: “We remain unequivocal in supporting the Palestinian people in their struggle for self-determination” while still punting two states.
In 2015, the NEC said it “pledges its ongoing solidarity for the people of Palestine” and that the ANC would “play a constructive role in finding a lasting resolution to the conflict”.
The party’s tone alters in 2016: “We support the isolation of businesses on the UN List that operate in the occupied territories in Palestine. We reiterate that we discourage travel to Israel for ANC leaders, members and representatives for business and leisure purposes.”
Last year’s statement continues along those lines: “The people of Palestine continue to suffer in their rightful quest for self-determination, and the ANC pledges its ongoing solidarity and support for their just cause. We reiterate that we firmly discourage travel to Israel not related to fostering peace in the region.”
Say what you like; the ANC sure does support its friends.
Du Plessis isn’t convinced this round is a win for Israel supporters “unless we know for sure why Ramaphosa didn’t say the actual words in his speech, and why he didn’t mention the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, etc. by name too. I’m sure [Israel supporters] were happy the words didn’t pass his lips, but the resolution is still in the statement and is the ANC’s policy intent. So, in that sense, they’re still losing.”
According to Fakir, BDS has a Pyrrhic victory; its supporters have the resolution of 5 000 ANC delegates, but have never translated party resolutions into government policy for more than a decade.
Which means there’s wiggle room. After all, the controversial Protection of State Information Bill still sits on Zuma’s desk, unsigned into law.
Nu. The struggle continues.