Taking Israel to court could be SA’s worst decision
South Africa made history on 11 and 12 January when it took Israel to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing it of waging genocide against Palestinians and asking the court to order an immediate ceasefire.
It might turn out to be the worst decision the country has ever made.
At one stage, South Africa, especially the post-apartheid beacon envisaged and fashioned by Nelson Mandela, would have had every right and indeed obligation to criticise oppression and champion the vulnerable, but it has been a long time since we lived up to Mandela’s expectations.
Madiba saw human rights as the guiding light for South Africa’s foreign policy when he became president 30 years ago. But the South African government’s actions over the past 10 years have belied this. Human rights have become a convenient beard, not for any “national interest” but rather for one based on narrow sectarian interests.
The 7 October attack – the massacre of several hundred unarmed and innocent civilians and the deliberate – and filmed – sexual violation and mutilation of women was a deliberate terrorist outrage by Hamas. The organisation’s founding charter is an unequivocal injunction for the destruction of Israel and the eradication of Jews. It’s a clarion call for genocide.
The South African government dragged its heels to condemn the 7 October crime against human rights, but responded with alacrity and positively to Hamas, and its funder, Iran, a sovereign state with an avowed intent to end the existence of the state of Israel.
Now, South Africa has taken Israel to the ICJ over Israel’s response to the attack, ignoring the catalytic role the 7 October attack played.
No-one can say that Israel shouldn’t be judged. No country – South Africa least of all – can ever claim a free pass from actions based on a legacy of past injustice. To suggest otherwise would be to create an untenable precedent, forever removing fairness, logic, and accountability.
This is South Africa’s fatal flaw. If Israel is to be judged, so too must Hamas stand in the same dock. Equally, those who accuse must be prepared to withstand the same scrutiny. South Africa has opened a Pandora’s box by accusing another country. There will be many who will be astounded that a country would seek to use a global instrument such as the ICJ, when only seven years ago, the International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled against it. The world won’t forget South Africa for its failure in 2015 to execute an arrest warrant issued by the ICC against the then president of Sudan, Omar al Bashir. No-one will forget how the South African government’s response was to threaten to withdraw from the ICC in spite of the Mandela administration being one of the original signatories to the Rome Statute which created this independent global body in 1998.
Last April, South Africa threatened to leave the ICC once again, this time to avoid the responsibility of arresting Russian President Vladimir Putin if he set foot in South Africa to take part in the BRICS (now Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates) summit in Johannesburg last August. The arrest warrant had been issued after Russia was taken to the ICJ for its invasion of Ukraine. Now, South Africa has chosen to take Israel to court over Gaza – albeit to a different global court.
When the world met at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the well documented war crimes its troops have committed there, South Africa abstained from the motion. It would do so twice more.
Far from being non-aligned as the government continues to claim, South Africa has proven to be one of Russia’s most strident allies, as it’s increasingly proving to be for Iran and now, its proxy, Hamas.
In its rank hypocrisy, quick to call out the injustice in some parts of the world but not others, South Africa is blindest to its own failings. Almost 23 000 people have died in Gaza since 7 October last year. In comparison, 27 494 South Africans died because of violent crime in a single calendar year. The rate of sexual violence is a global disgrace: between July and September last year, police recorded 10 516 rapes, 1 514 cases of attempted murder, and 14 401 assaults against female victims.
I’m a proud South African. I’ve also been a member, a supporter, and a fundraiser of the African National Congress (ANC) for more than three decades, but I’m also a Jew. I believe that the ANC has much to be proud of in terms of what it has achieved for South Africa as a whole. I believe, too, in the power of the ANC and its leadership to be a force for good on the international stage.
However, its actions since 7 October have wounded me in a way I never thought possible. I feel betrayed. Jewish South Africans have been rendered second-class citizens in the land of their own birth. The government did nothing to commiserate with the South Africans slain on 7 October, and as little to try to repatriate those caught in the conflict thereafter.
Most of all, I’m disappointed that the party of Mandela and Oliver Tambo and yes, even Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma once upon a time, has failed on the world stage to make a difference instead of just trying to make a statement. What was once the ANC’s greatest strength, being a broad church where all who shared its ideals were once most welcome, irrespective of race, colour, class, or creed, has become its greatest weakness. The party of today has become hijacked by minority interests wholly at odds with its traditional credo.
I have immense respect for President Cyril Ramaphosa, and a profound sympathy too, because as a loyal, lifelong member of the party that he now leads, he has to reflect its consensus by honouring it even if this might run contrary to his own beliefs.
When Mandela and his comrades shepherded South Africa’s peaceful transition from an intolerable regime of repression to the promise of the Rainbow Nation, they did so with humility, empathy, and an unshakeable belief in doing what was right – for everyone.
Mandela knew that the only way to solve problems was to encourage all the people to sit around the same table to find solutions, not for some to be press ganged into the same room on pain of subpoena in a criminal court and probable sanction in the court of public opinion. Sometimes, he had to take a position that was contrary to the party consensus to do so.
My country’s decision to take Israel to court could be the final unmasking of the South African miracle in the eyes of the world, ironically in the very year that we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela and millions of other previously disenfranchised South Africans casting their vote for freedom and a better life.
What a truly tragic epitaph for the promise we once held so dear.
- Ivor Ichikowitz is an industrialist and a philanthropist. He chairs the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, a leading African-based foundation supporting the development of the African continent and its people. The foundation promotes dialogue to facilitate conflict resolution, and Ichikowitz was involved in a supportive role with the African Peace Initiative to Ukraine and Russia.
- This article was previously published in the Chicago Tribune.