SA embassy’s closure leaves South Africans in limbo
South Africa’s decision to recall its diplomats in Israel as a way of censuring the Jewish state means that the South African embassy in Ramat Gan, which was a liaison office, is now closed. This decision, made on 6 November, impacts immigrants, tourists, and many other South Africans.
It’s effectively the end point of the downgrading process that the African National Congress (ANC) voted into action in 2017. However, it may not be permanent as the diplomats have been recalled for “consultation”.
“It’s outrageous that South African citizens arrived at the South African embassy in Ramat Gan to find a notice stuck on the door saying, ‘This office will be closed until further notice’,” says South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) National Director Wendy Kahn.
“As South African citizens, Jewish and Christian, we have a right to diplomatic and consular support, and to simply shut this down with no consultation is a dereliction of the responsibility of our country’s leadership to its citizens.
“We’ve written to President Cyril Ramaphosa to request an opportunity to share the impact this will have on the lives of Jewish South Africans living or visiting Israel. These are practical considerations, and shouldn’t be determined based on political posturing in Parliament and in political discourse.”
Kim Kur, who has supported South Africans fleeing crises from the COVID-19 pandemic to the Ukraine war, says, “I’ve tried to appeal to Dirco [the department of international relations and cooperation] officials personally, regarding at least having an honorary consul in place for issuing of emergency travel certificates, registration of South African babies, and the repatriation of remains. I’ve advised that this is closing the humanitarian corridor for South Africans needing to exit Israel – the very same corridor they called to be provided for those needing to leave Gaza.”
Kur’s advice to South African olim needing to renew their South African passports and coming to South Africa is to “fly on their Israeli passport with the 90-day visa exemption still available to Israeli passport holders as well as their South African ID/birth certificate and expired passport for now.
“It’s important to note that according to clause 26B of the Citizenship Act, a dual national South African ‘major’ is legally required to enter and exit South Africa on their South African passport and can be denied exit on their Israeli passport or be banned for overstaying if they don’t leave on their new South African passport,” she says. “So, they must ensure they show proof of their appointment on arrival, apply and collect prior to departure, as one can collect on their behalf as of August 2022.” Anyone needing support can join Kur’s Facebook page, Community Circle SA.
Kahn said that if South Africans face difficulties as a result of the current closing of the embassy, they can contact the SAJBD for support.
South African olah Liora Blum said, “Three hours after I picked up my passport, I was notified that the embassy was closed. I keep thinking, ‘What if I hadn’t gone to collect it immediately?’”
South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister Dr Naledi Pandor called the return of diplomats a “normal practice” to determine “whether there’s any potential for you [the diplomats] to be of assistance and whether the continued relationship is actually able to be sustained in all terms”.
Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said, “Another Holocaust in the history of humankind is unacceptable, and the South African government has decided to withdraw all its diplomats in Tel Aviv for consultation.” Comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to the Nazis is antisemitic, according to the widely adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism. This is the second time since 7 October that Ntshavheni has compared Israel’s actions to that of the Nazis.
Lior Haiat, a spokesperson for the Israeli minister of foreign affairs, said South Africa’s decision to recall its diplomatic staff was a “victory for the Hamas terrorist organisation, and rewards it for the massacre” of 7 October.
“Israel expects South Africa to condemn Hamas, which is worse than ISIS [Islamic State], and to respect Israel’s right to defend itself against an attack by a horrific terrorist organisation that has engraved on its flag a call for the destruction of the state of Israel,” Haiat posted on social media platform X.
In 2019, an article on the Daily Maverick website by Hamas member Dr Basem Naim praising the downgrading of South Africa’s embassy essentially proved Haiat’s point. “South Africa stands on the right side of history,” wrote Naim.
With the embassy having been downgraded, it was already difficult for olim and others to receive consular services. “I was pleasantly surprised that it [the passport] was ready at all,” says Blum. “There had been a small complication at the application stage, and no matter how many emails I sent, I received no answer for the past few months, so had no clue if I would ever receive it!”
But now, even that small possibility of intermittent consular services has ended. “I won’t be able to apply for a new South African passport as I was intending to,” says South African oleh Gerald Davids. “With family living in South Africa, I still intend to travel there. There can be major problems entering South Africa on any foreign passport.
“People say you have to apply to the South African embassy here [in Israel] a year in advance of the expiry of the old one,” he says. “My passport expires only at the beginning 2025, but I was planning to do it at the beginning of 2024 for that reason. Now, of course, I can’t do that, and who knows if the embassy here will ever re-open. And even if it does, it might be in six months’ time, which would be too late. I might then have to travel to South Africa mid-2024 and stay with family until it’s ready there.”
Another olah, Michelle Essers, believes the decision is “an excuse to prevent expats from voting in the next South African elections against the ANC”.
Anati Kiesel Salama, also an olah, says, “There was absolutely no reason for them to close the South African embassy other than pure antisemitism. [The decision to close the embassy] is an immoral and despicable move on their part. The embassy is an asylum for those that need aid for whatever link they still may have with South Africa. Without it, they are purposely making Jewish people denounce their citizenship so that Jews in Israel won’t be able to renew their passports.”
“It’s going to affect more Christians, especially tours and pilgrimages to Israel,” says South African Friends of Israel spokesperson Bafana Modise. “I know pastors that do trips every year to Israel. They’re going to be affected by this.”