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Pandor doubles down on excluding Israel from AU

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South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Dr Naledi Pandor, this week vowed to ensure that Israel was excluded from the African Union (AU) in spite of the debate about Israel’s observer status being officially suspended.

She also alluded to distancing South Africa even more from the Jewish state.

“We all know that our history of struggle and the values derived from it – against racism and colonialism – make us duty-bound to be a voice for the oppressed and marginalised everywhere,” said Pandor during the State of the Nation debate on 15 February.

“We have vehemently, as South Africa, opposed the granting of African Union observer status to Israel by the chair of the AU Commission. Our objection stems from our own Constitution and its values, and the AU charter which rejects colonialism, racism, and the illegal occupation of the land of others. Our concerns are substantive, and they are shared by at least 24 other AU member states,” she said, to supportive calls from the audience.

“Yes, it’s true that South Africa has diplomatic relations with Israel, but this can’t be used by anyone as a reason for bringing Israel into our union,” she said.

“Our governing party resolutions directed us to downgrade our embassy in Israel,” continued Pandor. “We withdrew our ambassador as part of this process of downgrading, and we’re considering further measures to indicate our significant dismay at the continued apartheid practices of Israel against the long-suffering people of Palestine. We’re studying the recent human-rights report on Israel [possibly referring to the Amnesty International report calling Israel an apartheid state], and hope to approach cabinet with a further proposed direct action against well-documented apartheid practices of Israel.”

Importantly, President Cyril Ramaphosa didn’t talk about Israel or any foreign policy during his State of the Nation Address (SONA), choosing rather to focus on South Africa’s myriad challenges. So, it’s unclear why Pandor was speaking about Israel at a SONA debate.

When Pandor’s speech was shared on social media, one person, Yasien Mohamed, pointed out that “The ANC [African National Congress] favours a two-state solution – she doesn’t speak about that.”

Another person, Saber Ahmed Jazbhay, said, “Yet SA [South Africa] has diplomatic ties with this country, Israel. Man, it’s complicated.”

But these more rational voices were overshadowed by extremists, including one Hanif Manjoo, who wrote, “[We] should identify all Zionists and deport or charge them for crimes against humanity or strip [them] of citizenship and deport them.”

The question remains if Pandor would be so extreme if she knew her comments were fanning the flames of such antisemitic rhetoric. Her previously more moderate stance, where she spoke about a two-state solution and that South Africa wouldn’t fully cut ties with Israel, seems to have gone out the window.

Responding to parliamentary questions on 7 June 2021, Pandor said, “South Africa recalled its ambassador accredited to the state of Israel, Mr Sisa Ngombane, in May 2018. The government remains seized with the modalities related to its diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. The department will communicate any further actions still under consideration.”

Then, she essentially held the line against pressure for South Africa to turn its back fully on Israel. Now, she seems more open to the idea.

Perhaps she’s infuriated at the remarks made by AU Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat on 6 February 2022 at the AU summit in Addis Ababa, in which he defended his July 2021 decision to grant Israel observer status. He also criticised those who had campaigned against it – possibly pointing to South Africa – and implied that they had double standards.

Asked if her more extreme stance could be in response to the AU summit, local political analyst Steven Gruzd said, “Possibly. South Africa didn’t get its way in Addis. It doesn’t want to ‘reward’ Israel with AU observer status when it feels Israel is responsible for the conflict. My feeling is that as soon as another crisis happens in the conflict, South Africa and others will push hard to rescind the observer status.”

Said South African Zionist Federation chairperson Rowan Polovin, “We’re outraged but not surprised at Minister Pandor’s obsessive compulsion with Israel over all other international issues on her agenda, where she once again singled out the Jewish state for unique opprobrium and victimisation at the SONA debate.

“South Africa’s international credibility is increasingly being questioned and diminished by Pretoria’s ongoing posturing to totalitarian dictatorships through its anti-West rhetoric. Contrary to Pandor’s comments, much of Africa and the Arab world are moving closer and becoming friendlier with Israel, and South Africa’s position is simply isolating ourselves from the progressing world. We call on the South African government to align its foreign policy with the values of the Constitution, and to focus on benefiting the people of South Africa and our continent.”

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