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Israel-Palestine conflict divides South African politicians – what their responses reveal about historical alliances

HAMAS’ brazen and deadly attack on Israel on October 7 elicited varied responses within the South African political scene. These diverse reactions reflect the long history, since before democracy in 1994, of South African engagement with the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The conflict holds symbolic significance for many in the country.

ASHER LUBOTZKY, Scholar in Residence, University of Houston

As with the war in Ukraine, taking sides on the issue also allows the different parties to highlight their position on the struggle for or against global Western dominance

The South African government, led by the African National Congress (ANC), characterised the recent events as a “devastating escalation”. However, it primarily attributed the situation to Israeli policies, including “the continued illegal occupation of Palestine land, continued settlement expansion, desecration of the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy sites, and ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people”.

It called for

the immediate cessation of violence, restraint, and peace between Israel and Palestine.

It also urged Israel to embrace the two-state solution as a means of resolving the conflict. The two-state solution suggests the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

For its part, the ANC put out its own statement in the name of the party. This gave even bolder support for Hamas. The party’s national spokesperson, Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri, defended Hamas’ actions, invoking the enduring solidarity between the ANC and the Palestinian cause.

It can no longer be disputed that South Africa’s apartheid history is occupied Palestine’s reality… the decision by Palestinians to respond to the brutality of the settler Israeli apartheid regime is unsurprising.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a far-left pan-Africanist party which was formed after a split from the ANC, and is now the third largest party in parliament, endorsed Hamas’ use of violence. Drawing parallels with the anti-apartheid struggle, the party’s spokesperson squarely placed the blame on Israel.

Conversely, several movements offered their solidarity with Israel. The liberal Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, vehemently condemned the “unprovoked attack” by Hamas. It decried the

senseless violence and all acts of terror against innocent civilians, women and children.

Some centrist or traditionalist parties, such as the Patriotic Alliance and the Inkatha Freedom Party, also voiced their criticism of the attacks. South Africa’s principal Jewish organisations also extended their support for Israel.

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Historical roots

Unwavering support for Palestinian nationhood has remained a steadfast element of South African foreign policy since the ANC came into power in 1994. This stance has seen the country become one of the most prominent voices critical of Israel globally.

The ANC has thrown its support behind the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, a movement aiming to replicate the iconic anti-apartheid boycott campaign. South African officials have consistently accused Israel of practising apartheid. The country’s parliament recently voted to formally downgrade the country’s relations with Israel from embassy to a liaison office.

I have been researching the history of the relationship between South Africa and Israel for nearly a decade. My research has found that both the ANC and some pan-Africanist formations once held more complex perspectives on Israel and Zionism.

They generally expressed support for Jewish statehood from the 1940s to the 1960s. For instance, in the early 1960s, both the ANC and its primary rival in the anti-apartheid struggle, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), considered Israel as a potential ally in their battle against apartheid. The PAC also received substantial financial assistance from Israel until 1970.

However, the ANC’s resentment towards Israel for its collaboration with white minority rule during the 1970s and 1980s, coupled with the perception of Palestinians suffering an apartheid-like oppression, has come to shape the party’s perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since the late 1960s, the ANC has cultivated strong ties with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). By the 1980s, these ties had evolved into a strategic and operational alliance between the two movements. In recent years, with the weakening of the PLO, the ANC has shifted its support towards the PLO’s erstwhile rival, Hamas. The Muslim constituency in South Africa, many of whom are ANC supporters and activists, further contributes to the party’s pro-Palestinian stance.

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The DA’s support of Israel also has historical roots. Historically, liberal or so-called “moderate” parties and individuals in South Africa have been the most consistent pro-Israeli political voice in the country.

Unlike the post-1970s ANC, many liberals have regarded Israel as a democracy with a decent record in treating minorities. In the Western Cape, which is the only province governed by the DA, there has been a greater willingness to explore collaboration with Israel.

In addition, in recent decades, various Christian and traditionalist forces have also strongly tended towards pro-Israeli views.

South Africa last asked people for their religious affiliation in a household survey in 2013. The figures at the time showed there were just over 1 million Muslims and just over 101,500 people of the Jewish faith. More recent data indicates that the Jewish population in the country has dropped to about 50,000 people. The latest census puts the entire population at 62 million.

Long legacy of international alliances

The diverse perspectives of South Africa’s political parties on Israel/Palestine also mirror their distinct international allegiances. Having valued the assistance of the Soviet Union and China in their struggle against apartheid, and nurturing deep-seated grievances against the Western role in supporting apartheid, the ANC and more radical movements have tended to stand beside actors that challenge the US on the global stage.

This policy has been particularly evident in South Africa’s sympathetic stance towards Russia, even amid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Conversely, the opposition DA has aligned itself with pro-western stances.

However, it’s uncertain whether most South Africans support the ANC’s approach to contemporary foreign relations issues. A poll from November 2022 found that 74.3% of citizens condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

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It is likely that the Palestinian cause enjoys higher levels of popular support. But, there are indications that views on Israel/Palestine are far from clear-cut. A study from 2017, for instance, found that there was similar support in South Africa for both Israelis’ and Palestinians’ “rights to a homeland” (54% and 53%, respectively). But the study also concluded that actual knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was limited, with only 29% having “heard of” the conflict.

South Africa’s official stance on Israel-Palestine is one of the most critical in Africa, particularly compared to other states south of the Sahara. Over the past decade, Israel has seen increasing bilateral relations with various African states. Several opinion polls indicate that public perception of Israel in sub-Saharan Africa is among the most favourable worldwide.

Lingering divide

South African politicians have framed the recent escalation between Hamas and Israel within the broader context of their perspectives on global dynamics. As with the war in Ukraine, the governing ANC and more radical elements unequivocally support the Palestinians – their longstanding allies. They view Hamas as representing the Palestinian cause and perceive Israel as an apartheid state.

The liberal DA’s support for Israel is also shaped by historical and contemporary factors. It mirrors the enduring liberal backing of Israel in South Africa. It also allows the party to align itself with Western governments that have recently expressed support for Israel.

By The African Mirror

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