The head of South Africa’s opposition met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday, mere days after the country’s president reiterated Pretoria’s longstanding travel directive discouraging senior officials from visiting Israel.
Mmusi Maimane, who heads the Democratic Alliance party, arrived in Israel earlier this week on what officials called a private visit focused on fostering business ties. He was accompanied by three senior DA lawmakers, including Michael Bagraim, a former chair and president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.
Maimane, who has been the leader of the South African opposition since 2014, also met with his Israeli counterpart, Isaac Herzog, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and several Foreign Ministry officials. His visit was mentioned on the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s monthly list of official visits.
Both the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and the South African Embassy in Tel Aviv declined to comment on Maimane’s visit. The South African opposition leader declined requests for interviews.
On Sunday, South African President Jacob Zuma, speaking in his capacity as leader of the African National Congress, the country’s ruling party, restated the group’s policy to urge officials against visiting Israel.
“The people of Palestine continue to suffer in their rightful quest for self-determination and the ANC pledges its ongoing solidarity and support for their just cause,” Zuma said in his traditional January 8 address. “We reiterate that we firmly discourage travel to Israel for causes not related to fostering peace in the region.”
During last year’s January 8 speech, Zuma had said the party discourages “travel to Israel for ANC leaders, members and representatives for business and leisure purposes.”
Tens of thousands of South Africans ignore that instruction every year, according to a senior Israeli official.
“It is excellent that Maimane and three senior members of the DA are spending a week seeing the best of Israel,” the official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“It is a chance for them to see the variety of ways Israel can partner with South Africa. It is an excellent message, days after the silly, self-defeating ANC advice not to visit Israel, which nearly 30,000 South Africans ignored in 2016, that a young, thoughtful South African leader shows a different, more balanced vision.”
In a sign of thawing ties, Zuma on Monday condemned the vehicular attack in Jerusalem that killed four Israeli soldiers. In a statement released by the South African Foreign Ministry, the president “extended the country’s condolences to the government of Israel for the attack on its four young cadet soldiers killed in the truck incident that took place yesterday in East Jerusalem.”
Pretoria, which rarely comments on terror attacks against Israelis, opposes “any violent actions particularly in as far as the Israel-Palestine conflict is concerned” and offered “assistance in restarting negotiations between the two countries,” the statement read.
“As South Africa we regard political dialogue and engagement as key in finding lasting sustainable peaceful solution and the killing of the soldiers in Jerusalem should not be a justification for continued attacks and counter attacks which will only worsen the already precarious situation,” the statement said.
Relations between Jerusalem and Pretoria have long been fraught over the latter’s harsh criticism of Israeli policies and its staunch support for the Palestinians. In 2015, the African National Congress hosted the leader of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Mashaal, a move protested by Israel.
In September 2016, the then-director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, surprisingly met with the foreign minister of South Africa.
The meeting, which took place in New York at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, was remarkable given that South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in 2012 declared that officials from her country do not engage with Israel.
Earlier that year, Gold embarked on a three-day visit to South Africa, meeting with Jewish community leaders and government officials.
“The meetings were a very important start. To say that we’re about to have a completely different relationship is premature. But there was a readiness to hear our arguments,” Gold told The Times of Israel at the time. “There’s potential. Now, everything is in the follow-up.”