Israeli-South African Relations: On the Mend?

Friday 10 December 2004, by Kristin NELSON

It’s not every Saturday in downtown Johannesburg that one sees a crowd of kaffiyeh-clad protesters shouting slogans about Palestinian liberation. But then again it’s not every day that South Africa’s government of former freedom fighters plays host to a top official from what many now refer to as an “apartheid state”.

On October 16th protests took place in all three major cities of South Africa, prompted by a visit by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and 23 Israeli business leaders to the country. Although the march in Johannesburg drew less than 300 people, nearly 2,000 people took part in a concurrent demonstration in Cape Town. Protesters called for the cancellation of Olmert’s visit and the cessation of further economic relations with Israel.

Olmert’s arrival marked Israel’s first official state visit to South African since 1994. Over his four-day stay Olmert met with deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad, Trade and Industry Minister Mandisi Mphahlwa, and President Thabo Mbeki.

In addition to his political interactions, Olmert engaged in discussions with business leaders and met with representatives of the South African Jewish community - estimated to number between 70,000 and 80,000.

In the days leading up to Olmert’s visit South African officials issued several press statements stressing their desire to contribute to the Middle East peace process. However, according to the Israeli embassy in Pretoria, the primary purpose of the Israeli trade mission was the enhancement of bilateral relations, specifically in the areas of the economy, trade and investment.

On top of his role as Deputy PM, Olmert is also Israel’s Minister of Trade; during his stay officials from the two governments signed an agreement regarding the mutual protection of investments. The Israeli government said the investment agreement, which was the outcome of talks between the two governments that began in 1995, was part of a series of bilateral agreements intended to protect Israeli investments in developing nations and in “transitional” economies.

“Relations are becoming closer,” according Ilan Fluss, Deputy Chief of Missions at the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria, “especially in the last few months.” This warming trend has elements of South African civil society up in arms.

“Relations are becoming closer”

Just as Israel is South Africa’s largest trading partner in the Middle East, South Africa is Israel’s principal trading partner in Africa. Trade between the two countries was worth about R4 billion in 2003, up from R3.8 billion in 1999, the diamond trade alone was worth R4.4 billion between 1999 and 2003.

“South Africa is a very important country in Africa and it plays an important role in the rest of the world,” said Fluss. According to Israel’s Export and International Cooperation Institute more than 800 Israeli companies and exporters currently operate in South Africa, and in the future the two countries plan to cooperate in areas of mining, telecommunications, agriculture, engineering and water.

However, the prospect of ANC politicians solidifying economic links with Israel is unacceptable to South Africa’s Palestine solidarity movement, especially given mounting calls for an international boycott campaign against Israel.

Although the conflict in the Middle East may seem far removed from this adolescent “rainbow nation”, many South Africans sympathize with Palestinians and perceive parallels to their own struggle for liberation. The ANC has a long history of cooperation with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and, at one time, was considered to be a terrorist organization.

Even after 10 years of freedom, there remains potent psychological connection between the two nations. At the recent demonstration in Johannesburg Joseph Massetle, 34, a resident of a township in the East Rand, spoke of Israel’s construction of a wall on occupied land, the army’s daily incursions into Palestinian neighbourhoods, and mass arrests of activists. “We sympathize with the Palestinian people and don’t want things to get worse for them,” he said.

Shabnam Mayet, who donned her head scarf and a long sleeve shirt in spite of the scorching Johannesburg sun, was unequivocal: “no one knows better than South Africans what Apartheid is.”

A Tortured Past

In addition to South Africans’ emotional affinity to Palestinians, the ANC will also have to contend with the historically surreptitious relationship between the two nations if it wishes to strengthen bilateral ties with Israel. Israel’s collaboration with the former Apartheid regime is ingrained in South Africans’ collective memory.

At the height of Apartheid Israel ignored international sanctions against South Africa, citing its own vulnerability to such tactics. It continued to sell roughly (US$) 600 million worth of arms per year to the white minority government before eventually banning further military contracts in 1987.

According to Salim Vally, spokesperson of the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), “Israel was one of those countries like Pinochet’s Chile and other unsavoury military dictatorships that gave South Africa the sustenance it needed at that time and it prolonged the Apartheid regime.”

Before the early 1990s and the release of Mandela, mutual aid between the two governments evolved out of a natural fraternity: both were technologically advanced, militarily powerful nations that felt surrounded by hostile neighbours. During the 1970s this affiliation extended into the field of nuclear weaponry when Israeli experts helped South African to develop at least six nuclear warheads.

Although the extent of their covert collaboration is not entirely clear, Israel is known to have supplied technical assistance to South Africa in exchange for no less than 300 tons of uranium. Several Israeli nuclear scientists, including Ernst David Bergmann (the "Oppenheimer of Israel"), visited South Africa in 1967, and evidence of increasingly close relations accumulated throughout the 1970s.

Thus, in September 2004, when a delegation of Likud politicians made a surprise trip to South Africa, many South Africans were completely taken aback. It was the Likud’s first ever visit to the post-Apartheid state and it signalled a mending of bridges.

Ironically, just one week before the Likud delegation’s arrival, South Africa hosted a Non-Align Movement (NAM) conference where the ‘Declaration on Palestine’ was passed. The declaration called for an immediate boycott of Israeli goods produced in the occupied territories, as well as the possibility of more general sanctions against the state in the future. Notwithstanding their prominent role within the NAM, ANC politicians appear eager to strengthen ties with Israel.

Constructive Engagement or Isolation?

There is a growing sentiment in South Africa that the ANC has a special contribution to make in finding peaceful solutions to the worlds’ most intractable disputes. According to University of Witswatersrand professor of International Relations Larry Benjamin “our own transformation in this country may have possible lessons for resolving the conflict in the Middle East.”

Benjamin “doesn’t buy” the argument that the ANC’s rapprochement with Israel is guided solely by economic considerations. “I would imagine that the focus of [Olmert’s] visit is an extension of the efforts of South Africa to have a role in solving the Palestinian issue. The South African government is trying to show an even-handed approach in this matter and I think they should be lauded for doing that.”

If indeed the burgeoning association between Israel and South Africa has more to do with good will than economics then South Africa is obviously opting for “constructive engagement” with the embroiled state, as opposed to isolation. This is similar to the government’s policy towards Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, however, it is a clear departure from the ANC’s own call for international sanctions during the struggle against Apartheid.

Their decision not to ostracize Israel has received accolades from representatives of South Africa’s Jewish community. In a joint statement issued by the South Africa Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) after Olmert’s departure the groups applaud the government for showing “that it is serious about playing a constructive role in helping bring about a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict.”

In the words of Ilan Fluss of the Israeli consulate, “the way we see it, there are two ways to influence [Israel]: sanctions, which make you irrelevant, in our opinion, or you can try to have communication and dialogue with both sides, which is much more productive.”

Joseph Stremlau, another professor of International Relations at Wits, believes that the ANC’s policy of constructive engagement reflects its broader geo-political objectives. South Africa is the leading candidate for a seat in the expanded United Nations’ Security Council. “It’s the big prize,” he says; “the South African government really really really wants to be recognized for its work on the international stage.”

The ANC is aware that in order to remain in the running it must obtain the support of the United States. “They are willing to risk some domestic conflict in order to advance [South Africa’s] position.”

“You could fault them with naiveté,” Stremlau maintains, “but not with hypocrisy.”

On the other hand, the groups opposed to Olmert’s visit are highly critical of the ANC’s policy. “They [the government] are turning their backs on principles they had earlier held dear. They failed to extend the same solidarity that was extended to oppressed South Africans at the time of our struggle,” said a joint statement from the Muslim Judicial Council, the PSC, the Congress of SA Trade Unions, the Western Cape Provincial Council of Churches and the Friends of Al-Aqsa.

The debate between constructive engagement and isolation is just beginning in this country. In the words of Salim Vally, “there is a reason why we believe that calling Israel and ‘Apartheid State’ is not just a rhetorical flourish or a propagandistic slogan, it is based on an analysis of the Israeli state, of the ideology that fuels what the state does as well as the structural and legal system that exist in Israel, and we will continue to fight it.”

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