Is the recall of the SA ambassador effectively a downgrade?

The prospects of a swift return of South Africa’s ambassador to Israel look bleak. Last week, at her first newly instituted monthly press briefing, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu emphasised that current conditions prevent Ambassador Sisa Ngombane from going back to his post in Tel Aviv. Is this tantamount to a tacit downgrade of the South African embassy to a liaison office, as per the ANC’s December 2017 resolution?
by STEVEN GRUZD | Jul 12, 2018

According the Town Press community newspaper, Sisulu said at the briefing: “I’m very glad that I recalled the ambassador, because we could not have been in the situation that we are at now. It’s been a violation that has gone on for a long time, and we can’t be looking away. We are holding back our ambassador until we are certain that we are making headway. For us this an unacceptable situation, completely unacceptable.”

Ngombane was recalled to Pretoria in mid-May to express government’s outrage about the deadly clashes at the Gaza border fence, as Gazans protested against Israel’s 70th Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) celebrations. The South African government blamed Israel alone for the violence.

Sisulu’s comments above suggests that South Africa was waiting for a trigger to prompt the recall.

This comes after the ANC adopted the following resolution in December: “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 Gaza protests have subsided (and left the headlines), this has been insufficient to reverse the recall. There are no current peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians either.

By maintaining the status quo – with the ambassador cooling his heels in Pretoria indefinitely – does this accomplish the objectives of downgrading the embassy, without all the noise and formalities?

I think not.

The ANC has taken a resolution to downgrade the embassy, and to put this into effect will require specific, formal steps. Until this is done, the two states maintain diplomatic relations, albeit increasingly strained the longer that Ngombane is grounded.

There is a difference between not having an ambassador at his post for a long time and a downgrade. The former, while uncomfortable for Israel’s supporters, means the embassy must be run by less senior officials, takes away some of its prestige, and sends a political signal of dissatisfaction by South Africa. The US has not had an ambassador in South Africa since the end of the Obama administration, for example. Relations continue, but they lack gravitas.

A downgrade may mean that visas are required and could affect consular services such as passport applications and repatriating dead bodies. And if there is no embassy in Tel Aviv, there would be the inconvenience of working through a third country. It could amount to the de-recognition of Israel’s right to exist by South Africa.

The news website, Independent Online (IOL), reports that Sisulu, when asked at the briefing about what specific steps her department had taken on the downgrade, replied: “The ANC resolution on this issue at the 54th conference was clear and unambiguous… The ANC subcommittee on international relations has not yet met to give us a deadline… this will be top of the agenda.”

The formal downgrade is thus still on the cards and is exacerbated (but not superseded) by Ambassador Ngombane not being at his post. Israel’s supporters will continue with high-level meetings, indignant press releases, feasibility studies, marches and petitions, but these have not swayed the South African government.

The longer the recall remains, the more fuel is being added to the downgrade fire.

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


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