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Ramaphosa’s river chant reflects sea-change for ANC

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At the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) last rally before South Africa went to the polls on 29 May, President Cyril Ramaphosa made sure he would be remembered as the president who took Israel to the world court accusing it of genocide, and calling for the genocide of Jews in Israel.

Deviating from his prepared script at the FNB Stadium in Soweto on 25 May, Ramaphosa chanted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” He also chose to leave out the words “the hostages held in Gaza must be released” from his prepared speech. The entire rally focused relentlessly on the Palestinians, including the unfurling of a giant Palestinian flag, rather than South Africa’s multitude of challenges.

The “from the river to the sea” chant is widely regarded as an antisemitic call for the eradication of Israel and the genocide of all who live in it. In April, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the chant as antisemitic. Back in November 2023, the Prosecutor’s Office in Berlin announced that the slogan was a form of incitement to hate and subject to criminal penalty.

“It’s unprecedented for a sitting head of state in South Africa to use chants expressing genocidal intent,” says South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) spokesperson Rolene Marks. “The SAZF is considering potential legal avenues in response to this hate speech.”

“The South African Jewish Board of Deputies [SAJBD] is reviewing its options for holding the president accountable for these hateful words,” says SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn. “This reconfirms our understanding that President Ramaphosa and his government aren’t looking for a peaceful solution to the conflict, but rather to cause discord among fellow South African against its Jewish community. The president’s contempt for South African Jewry is evident in this unscripted outburst, which amounts to nothing more than Jew hatred.

“The chanting of this slogan by the head of state of a government that recurrently expresses its commitment to a ‘two-state solution’ is hypocritical to the full,” says Kahn. “How does a sitting president reject his own government and party’s international relations policy?

“The president called for the elimination of the only Jewish state, speaking to thousands of ANC members and on national television,” she says. “The slogan and its call for the destruction of the Jewish state has its origin in the Hamas charter, with its goal of Israel being ‘Judenfrei’ [Jew-free].”

Says Marks, “This incident clarifies that the ANC government’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice is simply a ruse to delegitimise the Jewish state and represents a significant shift in ANC policy from supporting a two-state solution to calling for the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state.

“The SAZF is deeply concerned about the continued use of this dog-whistle for the annihilation of Israel, to the extent that we recently made a submission to Facebook owner Meta’s oversight board, clearly explaining why the phrase constitutes hate speech and violates its community standards,” says Marks.

“Calling for the annihilation of millions of people as part of a misguided attempt at electioneering is deeply destructive and hateful. It also violates the South African Constitution, which doesn’t protect incitement to violence.

“Such hatred toward Israel and a refusal to acknowledge its right to exist places South Africa at odds with its largest trading partners and much of the Middle East,” says Marks. “It has no connection to a call for Palestinian statehood, and is routinely used by extremists and terrorist groups such as Hamas calling for the elimination of Israel and the massacre of Jews.

“The SAZF calls on President Ramaphosa to immediately and unconditionally apologise to the South African Jewish community and all Constitution abiding South Africans for his use of extremist rhetoric during the ANC’s closing election rally.”

Local media, which is routinely anti-Israel, described Ramaphosa’s chant as “a gaffe” and “controversial”.

The moment contrasts sharply with Ramaphosa’s address to the Jewish community at the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation in the early days of his presidency in 2018, where he said, “Our Constitution explicitly provides for the protection of cultural and religious rights. We must remain vigilant against all forms of intolerance and discrimination. We must respond to antisemitism with the same resolve as we respond to any act or statement that seeks to demean any faith, race, gender, or ethnic group.

“We must continue to play a constructive role in the quest for peace in the Middle East,” Ramaphosa said at the time. “We’re clear and unequivocal in our support for the achievement of a Palestinian state alongside the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security with its neighbours.”

Hussein Solomon, senior professor in the department of political science at the University of the Free State, said, “The chant is deeply problematic because it wasn’t in the original speech, which suggests a bend towards greater populism – anything that could get votes. I think we’ve moved away from a ‘neutral position’ that encompasses a home for both Israelis and Palestinians, to just a Palestinian state. This is extremely problematic, especially because Ramaphosa is head of state. I hope this unfortunate statement doesn’t have severe ramifications for South Africa.”

Commenting on the ANC’s focus on Gaza until its very last rally, political analyst Daniel Silke says, “The script for the ANC in this election has been to use the Gaza conflict as best as it could to exact as much domestic political benefit as possible. The continuous use of Gaza in most of the major presidential addresses and even in addresses by other ANC politicians shows that this has in many cases usurped the domestic agenda within South Africa.

“The sloganeering from the president reflects the desperate need of the ANC to find resonance,” says Silke. “However, in all the polling, foreign policy issues haven’t shown up at all in responses from voters.”

Another local political analyst, Steven Gruzd, says Ramaphosa’s chant “shouldn’t come as a surprise, given his statements since 7 October and his wearing of a keffiyeh along with most of his cabinet. The ANC being anti-Israel is part of its DNA these days. People have already factored it into their voting choices.”

Political journalist John Matisonn, who wrote Cyril’s Choices: Lessons from 25 Years of Freedom in South Africa, says Ramaphosa is a thinking man who reads widely. He believes that perhaps he chanted the slogan because of “the heat of the campaign”.

“I’m not sure that he understands what the chant implies,” says Gruzd. “Or worse, he knows exactly what it means.”

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Gary

    May 30, 2024 at 6:20 pm

    When Ramaphosa first got in in 2018 countless South Africans including Whites and Jews were foaming at the mouth with ”Ramaphoria’ I said at the time Ramaphosa is far worse than Zuma and I say it now. He is vile.

    • Robert Mancusso

      Jun 1, 2024 at 5:43 pm

      The only real difference between Zuma and Ramaphosa is that the latter is more eloquent but just as easily swayed by certain players. With Zuma it was the Guptas with Ramaphosa it’s Iran.

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