Palestine supporters at a march in Cape Town, 2021. [Picture: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp]
Observing the International Day of Solidarity with Palestine at an event in Pretoria in 1997, former statesman Nelson Mandela uttered what has become one of his most famous lines. “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” he declared.
The year 1948 stands out as catastrophic years in both South African and Palestinian history. On this end of the world, the government of Daniël François Malan legalised discrimination with the introduction of apartheid. In Palestine, the Nakba displaced nearly a million Palestinians and marked the birth of a similar apartheid state.
Today, South Africa is a democracy. Palestine is a fragmented territory, subjugated under the brutal regime of chief butcher of the Middle East, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist Cabinet. Palestine is barely visible on the map and ethnic cleansing goes on.
The demise of apartheid in this country marked a shift in the relationship between Pretoria and Tel Aviv. The current administration has arguably been the most vocal since the latest Israeli onslaught against Palestine, even going as far as to condemn “genocide” when other countries would rather not. Lawmakers of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) even voted to cut diplomatic ties with Israel.
But, although president after president condemned apartheid Israel’s terror, trade continued to flourish between democratic SA and terrorist Israel since 1994. It steadily increased from $387.8 million in 1992 to $706.4 million in 2000, peaking at a staggering $1.03 billion in 2010. The embassy of the State of Israel remains open for business in Pretoria.
Describing the apparent contradictions in SA’s foreign policy towards the Palestinian cause as “manipulative”, activist and writer Ilham Rawoot said: “The way that they’ve been dealing with this is very confusing. Do they actually have the will at all to be pulling out?”
‘Perplexing relationship’ with Israel amidst genocide in Palestine
Rawoot attempted to analyse the “perplexing relationship” between the two countries in a recent article for The New Arab. She took a stab at unearthing why it was that the SA government said one thing, but proceeded to do something else when it came to the Palestinian issue.
“In one way, you look at them and you say this is amazing. Our Parliament even voted overwhelmingly to expel the ambassador, but when it comes down to it, it’s almost schizophrenic,” she said, in a recent interview on Salaamedia.
“The way that they speak and the way that they act,” are not the same, she continued.
The department of international relations maintained that severed ties with Israel would diminish any efforts to mediate between Palestine and her oppressor, Israel. But that was very different from what the ANC in Parliament said when it readied to support a motion to close the embassy in Pretoria. It was also an “excuse” Rawoot did not buy.
“It’s all nice, but Israel doesn’t want to have a chat. Sitting down and having a conversation with them is not going to work. South Africa using this … is very hopeful and we’re not stupid. This is just an excuse to be able to maintain trade ties with them,” she said.
This presented a valid question for anybody who believed the ANC was completely behind the Palestinian cause. “If we don’t cut economic ties, we don’t cut diplomatic ties [and] we’re still one of the biggest trade partners, is there a point in Cyril [Ramaphosa] wearing his keffiyeh; is there a point in him waving flags around?”
While it might be true that SA had technical expertise in mediation, owing to its history of a negotiated settlement to end apartheid and efforts elsewhere in Africa, she said at the end of the day it meant nothing as long as Israel was unwilling to enter into talks.
“But when it actually comes down to it, is Israel open to any mediation? I don’t think so. I think that this is hopeful. The only thing that is really going to bring Israel down is resistance and … consumer boycotts are winning,” she said.
For activists like Rawoot, the maintenance of diplomatic, economic and cultural links between the two nations went in the face of this government’s stated support for the liberation of Palestine. A perplexing relationship, it was a deep relationship that spanned decades of history and connections. You may listen to her full analysis here.