Has Palestinian issue hijacked SA foreign policy?

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Regular SA Jewish Report readers might feel that South African foreign policy has a preoccupation with Israel and the Palestinians. This newspaper is frequently filled with anti-Israel activities, from public protests to poisonous pronouncements from the Union Buildings or Luthuli House.
by STEVEN GRUZD | Mar 02, 2016

The temperature rises every March, as pro-Palestinian groups stage “Israel Apartheid Week” (IAW), mainly on university campuses countrywide. IAW compares Israel’s actions to apartheid South Africa and is designed to generate maximum media attention.

In 2015, two South African ministers and five deputy ministers were IAW speakers. Many preceded them. But to what extent is South Africa’s foreign policy really dominated by an anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian agenda?

First, keep things in perspective. The Middle East is not the major focus of contemporary South Africa’s foreign policy. Yes, under apartheid, close ties were forged between Israel and South Africa, as both found themselves isolated internationally.

Trade and military co-operation burgeoned. But today, democratic South Africa channels much more diplomatic energy into its relations with Africa and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). It also prioritises its ties with Europe, the Americas and Asia.

Second, there has long been a kinship between the African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. They saw their struggles for liberation as interlinked, and the movements shared offices in exile. In 1995, reciprocal diplomatic missions were opened in Ramallah and Pretoria. There is a historical sympathy for the Palestinian cause among South African political leadership.

Third, South Africa’s own transition and peace-making experiences have taught it that all sides to a conflict need to be included. This partially explains the controversial visit of Hamas in 2015, much to the chagrin of the Jewish community, Israeli Embassy and several Arab missions in Pretoria.

The visit was touted as merely a “party-to-party” encounter, even though they met senior ministers, including the president. Similarly, the ANC and its alliance partners officially endorse BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions South Africa], while government punts Israel’s right to exist and “two states for two people”, though the same people run both party and state. Talk about having your cake and eating it too!

Fourth, despite South Africa’s efforts to be a Middle East peace broker - witness the trip to the region last year by former ministers Aziz Pahad and Zola Skweyiya - it remains very much a bit player. Government’s vitriolic, one-sided condemnation of Israeli actions undermines trust in its peace-making efforts by Israel.

Fifth, South Africa maintains formal if frosty diplomatic relations with Israel and trade is increasing. Israel’s embassy continues to successfully promote cultural, scientific and agricultural co-operation. But it’s not for want of trying by the Palestinian lobby.

When hostilities in Gaza flare up, they call for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and severing of ties. They bully artists and academics. The increasing number of high-ranking ruling alliance figures, including ministers, making the Israel-apartheid comparison, shows some success for this agenda.

At times, the Jewish media gives BDS-SA and its anti-Israel agenda more headlines than it garners in the general press and adds fuel to its propaganda pyre. But we cannot deny or ignore how Israel is put under pressure in South African policy circles, with a ban on ministerial travel, differential labelling of settlement products and fallout from the refusal to grant a visa to Minister Blade Nzimande to visit Ramallah.

As the peace process meanders meaninglessly, this hostility is only likely to be ratcheted up even further.


Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs 


  1. 2 nat cheiman 02 Mar
    While Rome was burning, Emperor Nero played his fiddle.
    The ANC and government are more interested in the "occupation"than the junk status credit rating that is about to befall our country. It deflects from the real problems such as looting, SAA, Sapo, Eskom, Prasa and service delivery.
    The leaders are devoid of leadership ability and their attempts to fool the population will eventually result in government losing the vote.
  2. 1 Gary 06 Mar
    1 in 4 South Africans do not have enough food to survive and the ANC and their cohorts (including SA Jews for a Just Peace) et al only care about 'Palestine'


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