Israel boycott lobby has captured foreign policy of the ANC and the state
Much has been made this past year of the term ‘state capture’, which is defined as the comprehensive control of the policy-making powers of government’s executive branch by wealthy private individuals, who collude with public servants and politicians to engineer, and benefit from, preferential contracts with state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
In South Africa, it takes the form of the notorious Gupta family, who are alleged to control almost every aspect of decision-making by the executive branch and, consequently, have dominion over SOEs such as Eskom.
However, another more subtle form of state capture has manifested in our country. It is not driven by corruption but by a knowledge deficit in government. This as populist rhetoric and policies become open to varying interpretations, hampering government policy implementation.
This form of capture enables those pulling the strings to elicit power and control over state entities. As a result, the government ends up delegating policy decisions to a specific entity – usually an interest group, a pressure group or a “consultant”. The benefits may be political in nature, but sometimes these benefits include profiteering. The process relies on public servants and politicians to be the enablers of these policies. Usually, they are unaware of the capture.
This is evident by the ANC announcing in December that it would seek to downgrade the South African embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel. On the face of it, the decision was not unexpected – since 1994, the governing party has had a fractious but stable relationship with Israel. However, on close examination, there are traces of capture, as evidenced by policy-making being delegated to an entity – in this case, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) lobby group against Israel.
BDS has found fertile ground in South Africa. The country’s apartheid history makes its people naturally supportive of oppressed groups around the world, particularly those whose suffering is the result of perceived Western imperialism. Additionally, Israel’s insistence is on not only a two-state solution, but two states for two different peoples.
Some South Africans, not least those in the ANC and black South Africans, fundamentally reject the notion that differences can exist between two peoples, to the extent that a separate state is needed to accommodate them. For them, not only can several ethnic groups exist in one state, but also white, Indian and coloured groups can coexist with the majority black population.
Why the Israelis and Palestinians cannot have one state with guaranteed sociopolitical rights is a question increasingly being asked by South Africans. The outcome is that the majority black population is almost by default pro-Palestinian – if not anti-Israel – with Israel often cast as the sole culprit of the decades-long conflict.
Despite this, successive administrations of the ANC chose a more pragmatic path and elected to maintain full relations with Israel. The relationship, although challenging, was largely incident-free until the global BDS movement saw South Africa as a target for its increased anti-Israel activity.
Although there existed a tiny pro-Palestine – and, at times, anti-Israel – formal grouping, it was comprised largely of loose groupings of mostly Muslim South Africans. In 2009, the then newly formed BDS working group sought to expand its appeal beyond Muslim groups to influence the ANC and its trade union allies, as well as the student movement, churches and civil society.
Donations from the Muslim population, from the Palestinian embassy in South Africa and from a few other Sunni Muslim countries were poured into the BDS working group. The group would later rename itself BDS South Africato increase its appeal to all citizens. The intention was to eventually alter South Africa’s foreign policy towards Israel – with the severing of ties between South Africa and Israel to “send a message” being the ultimate goal.
Such a message was sent on December 20, when the ANC resolved to call for a downgrade of the relationship between South Africa and Israel.
BDS South Africa has, over the years, convinced trade unions to disseminate its views and support international solidarity campaigns launched by the so-called progressive BDS movement.
South African youth movements do the same, often providing numbers for the constituency-poor BDS. In the process, the organisation has appropriated the liberation struggle phraseology of the ANC in order to operate without suspicion and to cast itself as a progressive movement endorsed by the ANC, and therefore the majority of black South Africans. This is despite the fact that Muslims, who are mainly Indian, do not vote for the ANC, nor have much appetite for social causes other than the Palestinian one.
The crowning moment came at the ANC’s December elective conference – not because of organic change within the ANC, but because of an orchestrated charade controlled by BDS.
Even during the supposed intensive deliberation at the conference by the international relations commission speaker after speaker with non-voting delegate badges (BDS was apparently brought in as an expert on the matter) called on the ANC to downgrade the South African embassy in Israel.
All other international relations issues were cast aside. Nothing was said about South Sudan, Syria, or other human rights violations anywhere else – because international relations in the ANC are now all about overtures only against Israel and conceding to every Palestinian request.
Senior members of the ANC in the commission – including former president Kgalema Motlanthe and the hapless chair of the commission, Edna Molewa – were spectators at their own “policy-making platform” and marvelled at how the ANC had changed.
But some, such as the deputy minister of international relations, Luwellyn Landers – the most senior BDS operative in government and the rapporteur in the commission – ensured that BDS was bold enough to propose the decision to the ANC plenary, which promptly adopted it.
This matter goes far deeper than the ideological subscription of the ANC. The economy, the rights of South Africans with business interests in Israel, religious pilgrims and students, to mention a few, will suffer not only from an ANC that failed to apply its mind on this issue, but also from the permanent delegation of South African policy on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to BDS – an unelected entity with vested anti-Israel and anti-Semitic persuasions.
Mzoxolo Mpolase is managing director at Political Analysis South Africa.
* This article has been edited and originally appeared in Business Day