By Kenneth Mokgatlhe
South Africa has been an active participant in the Israel-Palestine conflict debate where its activists and academics suggest solutions. There are constantly calls led by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) to boycott or sanction Israel. South Africa’s government took a difficult decision early in 2019 to downgrade its embassy to a liaison department in Israel to appease the Palestinians.
As South Africans, we acknowledge that all is not well in that region, but we want our government to be an active player in trying to break the impasse between the Israelis and Palestinians. South Africa has always respected the sovereignty of other nations and therefore should resist taking sides but set its sights on striving for meaningful peace for both paries.
Too quick to label Israel with apartheid, that South African abomination and the current Israel-Palestine situation differ significantly. They differ in their divergent histories, people, the time period, collective traumas, international and domestic narratives and security. Rather than being patently partisan, South Africa – if it is to contribute – should suggest fair, just and workable solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a prominent anti-Israel activist, was recently in South Africa and was interviewed (see article below or link to the article) in which he made several comments accusing Israel of practicing Apartheid and several other untruths.
Mustafa Barghouti’s understanding about the history of Apartheid is wrong. Apartheid was unique to South Africa. A political and social system introduced by the white Afrikaner Nationalist government, Apartheid enforced racial discrimination – the word apartheid means “separateness” in the Afrikaans language.
And yet, after 25 years of democracy, blacks only own 4% of private land, and only 8 percent of farmland has been transferred to black hands, well short of a target of 30% that was meant to have been reached in 2014.
Barghouti should know that South Africans were given an inferior education system which only fulfilled the economic interests of the “master” (oppressor), and that this education tragedy still haunts us today, 25 years after democracy. Our people were not only dispossessed of their land, but they were also exploited by the multinational conglomerates which are still taking advantage of us today.
In 1960, South African police massacred 69 peaceful protesters in Sharpeville – mostly shot in the back while fleeing – and this system of state barbarity persisted towards the twilight years of Apartheid. A brutal and pivotal milestone occurred on the June 16, 1976, when police massacred over 100 proteststing schoolchildren who were resisting a new law that forced them to learn Afrikaans in schools. While not undermining the plight of the victims of the Israel-Palestine conflict, we cannot afford to erroneously compare the two tragedies.
Who are we helping and who are we hurting?
Can South Africa really afford to boycott Israel? What is the cost of this position? We have an economy which is dramatically declining and that may result in many companies closing down and ultimately people being retrenched. We always hear economists suggesting that we desperately need abundant foreign investment. Why then, should we obstruct Israeli companies from investing here that will benefit South African workers?
Our foreign policy should be determined by the interests of our own citizens. People want be part of the economy and that can be better achieved when foreign companies invest their expertise and capital in South Africa. This will benefit all our people – empowering them whether as employees or partners. South Africa is a peace-oriented nation – and should not take sides in complex foreign disputes that could rebound negatively on the welfare of South Africa’s citizens.
Afterall, look at our behaviour with our northern neighbour – Zimbabwe. There, despite the former president, Robert Mugabe killing the very freedoms he originally fought for, South Africa chose not to interfere. It was silent in the face of patent abuse of its people. While the West (UK and USA) imposed economic sanctions against Zimbabwe, South Africa maintained being its most important trade partner. There was no talk of boycotts and sanctions!
When the opposition in Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – recently called on Pretoria to intervene in a political impasse, we were reluctant as our politicians made the case that it not in our nature to do so unless both parties wanted us to perform the role of mediator.
We fail to show such sensitivities when it comes to Israel!
Downgrading relations with Israel as advocated by Mr. Mustafa Barghouti will never resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict which dates back over a century. It is misguided for South Africa to believe it has the insights and expertise to play a role by being exclusively partisan.
This is not diplomacy but arrogance.
South Africa is a still a developing country – not powerful as Africa’s former colonial masters – Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Portugal – and therefore should be cautious as how it chooses to interfere in global conflicts.
However, no harm done in advocating for peace between people – – but we should do so fairly.
Debate Not Downgrade
One positive point that Barghouti made in his article is that there should be national debate. However, “debate” is not South Africa dictating to others because it believes it knows best.
We are not a “colonial master” and should not believe we can dictate to others. Our brief should be to see peace triumph.
It is unwise to obstruct relations with a country like Israel that could contribute so much to our people. Engaging Israel will benefit our economy and introduce technological innovations from hi-tech to water management and agriculture. These are all areas that we could benefit from Israel’s cutting-edge expertise.
We must prioritize our people before anyone or anything else.
There are many countries across the globe that interfere in the affairs of other countries from the USA in Venezuela to Russia’s military occupation of Crimea in the Ukraine.
Does South Africa take a position in these disputes? No.
One of our biggest trade partners is India, predominantly Hindu, that administers – some would argue treats as a colony – Kashmir, and which has a longstanding dispute with Muslim Pakistan. Has South Africa taken a position over this conflict that has persisted since 1948 – the same year Israel became independent?
I am not dismissing Mustafa Barghouti’s struggle but his appeal for South Africa imposing sanctions against Israel. Why? Because it penalises the citizens of the country doing the imposing. Following Mr. Barghouti will be denying South Africa’s population access to opportunities. We are living in a global village; we are more connected than ever, and politics should not divide people but rather unite them.
Kenneth Mokgatlhe holds BA Honours (political science) from the University of Limpopo. He was a spokesperson of the Pan Africanist Congress from 2015 to 2018. Mokgatlhe has written for Political Analysis South Africa, and is a frequent columnist for South African papers, notably – The Star, Sunday Independent, Sowetan and Cape Times.