Israel and the ANC: new dawn or old yawn?
Every year on the anniversary of its founding in 1912, the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress (ANC) issues its “January 8th Statement”. In a marathon speech, the ANC president assesses the state of the ruling party and the country and provides a formal view of the path forward. Israel always gets a passing mention. So, what did President Cyril Ramaphosa say – and not say – about the Middle East this year? And does it signify anything new?
In a speech running to scores of paragraphs, there’s a short section on international relations from the ANC’s perspective. It usually covers the ANC’s solidarity with regimes like Cuba, and support for the self-determination of the Western Sahara (under Moroccan occupation). It routinely calls for reform of the United Nations Security Council and for conflicts on the African continent to end. This year’s speech in Limpopo had all these regular ingredients.
There were two paragraphs on the Middle East, quoted here in full: “We recall the principled solidarity with the people of Palestine demonstrated by our recently departed Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. The archbishop was at the forefront of highlighting the similarities between the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people and the brutality of the apartheid regime.
“The ANC repeats our condemnation of the ongoing illegal settlements, state-sponsored settler violence against Palestinians, and threats of illegally annexing more Palestinian land, including the Golan Heights. We will intensify our work around the world and with Palestinian and Israeli representatives, for the achievement of Palestinian self-determination.”
However, according to a video of the speech on YouTube, the president’s delivery differed from his script. He omitted the entire emotive paragraph about Archbishop Tutu, as well as the line about working with peacemakers on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Now, there’s no way to tell whether these sections were pre-deleted from the presidential iPad or left out as the speech was running long and the audience was losing interest after hours of orations. We may never know if the omission was ideological, pragmatic, or just a matter of timing.
The reality is that the spoken remarks were less harsh in their criticism of Israel than they might have been, while still making it clear which side the ANC is on in this conflict.
Does the mention of working with Palestinian and Israeli representatives signal a slightly softer approach now that Benjamin Netanyahu is out of power? Does it perhaps signal a revival of real peace-driven dialogue? It’s a pity it wasn’t mentioned in the spoken version. Or is this just me clutching at straws?
Make no mistake, the speech was still a swipe against Israel, which the ANC continues to cast as the villain. Sadly, South Africans are used to this. We still haven’t had an ambassador in Israel since May 2018. Our government joined in the bullying of Miss South Africa not to participate in the Miss Universe pageant because it was held in Eilat, a campaign that failed. Senior ANC officials support sanctions and boycotts against Israel. The list is long.
Parsing what was said this time, the focus was on settlements and land. The mention of the Golan Heights is an interesting one. Israel captured this high-lying land from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, and formally annexed it in 1981. The only other country to recognise this annexation is the United States, under President Donald Trump in 2019. The ANC seems to want this land returned to Syria, or to form part of a putative Palestinian state. Israel is unlikely to consider either in a hurry.
While the emphasis may have been different, this speech echoes the long-standing ANC positions on the conflict. Not much has moved in the last year.
Are we as Jewish South Africans hyper-sensitive when anyone says anything about Israel? Do we have our own obsession with the ANC’s obsession with Israel? Or should we counter each and every bit of comment, criticism, vitriol, and disinformation? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
As Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
- Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs. He writes in his personal capacity.