“The struggle of the people of Palestine is our struggle” and South Africa has decided to “slow down” and “curtail senior leadership contact” with the Israeli “regime,” South Africa’s International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said on Friday. Already, she said, South Africa’s government ministers do not visit Israel.

“Our Palestinian friends have never asked us to disengage with Israel [through cutting diplomatic relations]. They had asked us in formal meetings to not engage with the regime,” Nkoana-Mashabane was quoted by South African website News24 as telling a Congress of South African Trade Unions international relations committee meeting on Friday. The Congress of South African Trade Unions supports a boycott of Israeli products and has in the past accused Israel of practicing apartheid.

“Ministers of South Africa do not visit Israel currently. Even the Jewish Board of Deputies that we engage with here, they know why our ministers are not going to Israel,” she added.

Nkoana-Mashabane further said that South Africa has “agreed to slow down and curtail senior leadership contact with that regime until things begin to look better.”

“The struggle of the people of Palestine is our struggle,” she declared.

South Africa on Friday criticized Israel’s plans, announced on Tuesday, to build at least 5,000 new settlement units including some beyond the security barrier, according to reports.

“That arrangement there in Palestine keeps us awake,” Nkoana-Mashabane said.

“The last time I looked at the map of Palestine, I could not go to sleep. It is just dots, smaller than those of the homelands, and that broke my heart,”” she said, referring to the bantustans that existed in South Africa during the apartheid era.

The meeting was also addressed by a group campaigning for the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. According to AFP, the campaign began on “October 25 at Robben Island, the former prison where anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela served 18 of his 27 years in jail.”

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu threw his support behind the campaign, calling for the “release of imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouthi and other Palestinian political prisoners,” according to News24. “I am proud to associate myself with the global campaign for the freedom of Marwan Barghouthi and other Palestinian political prisoners,” Tutu said in a statement quoted by the website. Barghouti is serving five life terms in Israel for involvement in five second intifada-era murders.

South Africa has been a harsh critic of Israel, with prominent figures often drawing parallels between between the country’s apartheid era and Israel today, slamming Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, and voicing support for cultural, economic and educational boycotts of Israel.

In June, the former South African ambassador to Israel accused the Jewish state of practicing apartheid and indicated that it is built on “stolen” land.

An anti-Israel rally in Johannesburg last year. (photo credit: CC BY Meraj Chhaya, Flickr)

An anti-Israel rally in Johannesburg last year. (photo credit: CC BY Meraj Chhaya, Flickr)

“I have supported the struggle against Apartheid South Africa and now I cannot be a proponent of what I have witnessed in Israel, and that is, a replication of Apartheid!” Ismail Coovadia proclaimed in a letter to a group of pro-Palestinian filmmakers.

That statement drew a harsh reaction from Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem, who said Coovadia was not acting like a diplomat and castigated his “uncouth” rhetoric. He served as ambassador until December 2012.

In 2010, after the Mavi Marmara affair — when Israeli forces raided a Turkish boat seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, leading to the deaths of nine Turkish citizens — South Africa temporarily recalled its ambassador and summoned the Israeli ambassador to protest the incident.