How parties pile up on Israel policy

  • Steven Gruzd
As election day approaches on 8 May, what do the three major South African political parties say about foreign policy in the Middle East, and could it have an impact on our vote? Or, should South Africa’s Jewish voters rather support smaller, more pro-Israel parties?
by STEVEN GRUZD | Feb 28, 2019

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is widely tipped to win between 50% and 60% of votes cast. The ANC has squarely supported the Palestinians for decades, moving ever closer to the positions of terrorist group Hamas, and the radical anti-Israel (and frequently anti-Semitic) lobby group Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions South Africa.

Lest we forget, its 54th national conference at Nasrec in December 2017 resolved that “in order to give our practical expression of support to the oppressed people of Palestine; the ANC has unanimously resolved to direct the South African government to immediately and unconditionally downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel to a liaison office”.

Although the Department of International Relations and Cooperation has dragged its heels on the downgrade, South Africa has not had an ambassador in Tel Aviv since May 2018, when incumbent Sisa Ngombane was recalled for consultations in Pretoria. His term expired in December, and he has not been replaced. The “downgrade-not-downgrade” verbal gymnastics reminds me of the “coup-not-coup” that ousted Robert Mugabe – a coup in everything but name.

The cynic in me wonders if the downgrade might happen in April, in a Hail Mary pass (one in American Football thrown in desperation by the quarterback) to woo Muslim voters away from the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the Western Cape. This could backfire, with 87.8% of the province’s residents being Christian, compared to just 5.3% who are Muslim.

Interestingly though, the ANC’s 2019 election manifesto, “Let’s Grow South Africa Together”, does not even mention the Middle East. Many pressing issues from poverty and unemployment to safety, corruption and poor growth crowd out the Palestinians. Foreign policy matters mentioned include a focus on southern Africa, resolving conflict in South Sudan, combatting climate change, United Nations reform, and implementing the long-term vision for Africa, “Agenda 2063”.

Perhaps Israel is irrelevant, or an unnecessary landmine to plant in this document. Or is this a softening of the ANC’s stance?

I agree with Stephen Grootes in the Daily Maverick, “With its manifesto, the ANC has stabbed its flag into the middle ground of our politics, attempting once more to be a party for everyone, with policies which speak to most people. That is always a difficult political feat to achieve, especially in a country as polarised as South Africa is these days.”

The DA, the second largest party in Parliament (89 out of 400 seats, to the ANC’s 249), launched its manifesto on 23 February. It echoes the ANC’s in substance if not in style. It also does not refer to Israel, the Palestinians or the Middle East.

One trait the DA consistently demonstrates is inconsistency. Party leader Mmusi Maimane drew flak for visiting Israel in January 2017 – where he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but not Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – but harshly criticised Israel over the Gaza border violence in May 2018.

The DA’s support for Palestinians (or Israel) is at best sporadic. It opposed the downgrade (calling for a parliamentary ratification), clings to a two-state solution, and South Africa as a Mid-East mediator.

But it suspended DA Johannesburg mayoral committee member for health, Dr Mpho Phalatse, for saying that she and the city were “friends of Israel”.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by firebrand “commander-in-chief” Julius Malema, makes no bones about where it stands in its 2019 manifesto.

“The EFF government will implement incremental boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against the apartheid state of Israel as a concrete form of solidarity with the Palestinians to end the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel.”

Not much nuance there, exhibiting typical inflammatory and populist slogans.

The EFF manifesto usurps the ANC’s usual laundry list of foreign policy issues with a more populist ring. Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Western Sahara (occupied by Morocco) get a mention.

The manifesto says, “The EFF government will protect Zimbabwe from imperialist threats and sanctions”. It adds, “The EFF government will lead a progressive programme to reject the foreign, particularly Western, domination of African economies as well as so-called neoliberal globalisation.”

Several smaller parties, however, support Israel.

The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) called Phalatse’s suspension “baseless and cowardly”, adding “Christians across all the denominations understand that their faith is non-existent without Israel. It is for this reason that no true Christian can take up arms against Israel. The ACDP also notes that in Syria, just across the border from Israel, hundreds of thousands are being massacred, but South Africa’s ambassador hasn’t been recalled. There is no noise about Damascus. Why Israel?” It has consistently gone into bat for the Jewish state.

At the event by the Jewish community to honour his 90th birthday in October last year, Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi called the embassy downgrade “short-sighted and regressive”, and boldly stated “I cannot, and will not, hide the fact that I have had a long friendship with Jews in both South Africa and Israel… so when people denigrate me for supporting Israel, I pity their ignorance.” Buthelezi went to Israel in September 2015, along with party leaders of the ACDP, Congress of the People, and Freedom Front Plus at the invitation of the South African Friends of Israel (SAFI).

Buthelezi said, “I have no shame in telling the truth about Israel or about my friendship with the Jewish community. Indeed, I am proud.”

Manifestos may be ultimately irrelevant in the psychology of voting, but smaller parties that defend Israel consistently may be a more prudent place for you to place your cross.

  • Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs. In 2018, he published “South Africa and Israel Since 1994: The Changing Anatomy of a Complex Relationship” with Larry Benjamin, in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.

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