Despite a continuous stream of anti-Israel comments from senior officials in Pretoria — including endorsement of the boycott movement and calls to reduce government contacts — most South Africans support strong ties with the Jewish state, Israel’s new envoy to the country said.
While he has yet to meet with top-level government representatives, Ambassador Arthur Lenk said he had not had any trouble connecting with South African officials.
“The vast majority of people I’ve met with are interested in engagement with Israel, are interested in learning about what South Africa and Israel have in common. While it’s true that there is a very vocal group in South Africa that’s not interested in engagement, I found that they’re a small minority,” Lenk told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview Sunday evening.
“There are disagreements and there are certainly statements… we have problems with. That said, I think it’s unfair to say that there isn’t a meaningful relationship between Israel and South Africa, and certainly the people of Israel and the people of South Africa.”
On Friday, South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane launched a bitter attack against Israel, saying she was losing sleep over the Palestinians’ plight and that Pretoria would downgrade relations with Israel. Speaking to a Congress of South African Trade Unions international relations committee, she said it was Pretoria’s policy that “ministers of South Africa do not visit Israel currently.”
“We have agreed to slow down and curtail senior leadership contact with that regime until things begin to look better,” Nkoana-Mashabane said.
Bilateral ties, which have not been cordial in years, drastically deteriorated in recent months. In August 2012, Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim said it is “not proper for South Africans to associate with Israel,” explicitly discouraging people from visiting the Jewish state. Later that year, the African National Congress, South’s Africa’s ruling party, officially endorsed the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement. In June, former South African ambassador to Israel Ismail Coovadia accused Israel of practicing apartheid and implied it was built on “stolen” land.
After Nkoana-Mashabane’s comments Friday, former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman warned South African Jews of a looming “pogrom” incited by their government, urging them to leave before it was too late. He also accused Pretoria of being “anti-Semitic” and hypocritical on Israel.
Lenk, who has been stationed in Pretoria since early August and officially became Israel’s ambassador on October 16, refused to comment on the statement by Liberman, who is slated to return to the Foreign Ministry — becoming Lenk’s boss — if he is cleared of wrongdoing in the ongoing corruption trial against him. Lenk also said he could not discuss the content of Nkoana-Mashabane’s speech before seeing an official transcript, which he said he had requested from South African officials.
For its part, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, an umbrella organization representing South African Jewry, expressed concern on behalf of the local Jewish community over both Nkoana-Mashabane’s and Lieberman’s comments.
“MK Lieberman’s suggestion that this might lead to pogroms in South Africa is alarmist and inflammatory,” SAJBD said in a statement. “Those familiar with South Africa know that it has consistently been shown to have very low rates of anti-Semitism, both numerically and in terms of the severity of the attacks. We have not seen the violent anti-Semitic incidents that are manifesting in Europe and most recently in Australia.”
The organization also noted that the South African minister’s comments were inconsistent with South African policies and detrimental to South Africa’s stated desire to play a positive role in the peace process.
“The South African Jewish community is surprised and disappointed by International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane’s comments regarding South Africa’s relationship with Israel,” the statement said.
“When she last met with the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, Minister Mashabane expressed interest in South Africa’s playing a role in advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and bringing about a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict,” the statement went on. “However, South Africa will contribute nothing to the process by applying discriminatory punitive measures against Israel alone, and indeed will only sideline itself as a credible peace broker in the Middle East.”
Lenk, the Israeli envoy, echoed SAJBD’s warning against singling out Israel.
“Assuming that [media reports about her comments] are true, it’s disappointing because it’s clear that South Africa could have an important role to play and give a message of reconciliation and compromise,” Lenk said. “A one-sided message actually hurts South Africa because it totally misses the message that Israelis and Palestinians sent to each other by the direct negotiations that are going on.”
Lenk has not yet had meetings with President Jacob Zuma, Nkoana-Mashabane or her deputy, but said he speaks “regularly” with International Relations Ministry officials. “I’ve only been here for three months, but I don’t feel limited in any way in who I can talk to and who will talk to me,” he said. “I interact with South African officials every day. We have an embassy here; they have an embassy in Israel. And we talk to them regularly.”
“There are obvious issues that we don’t agree on,” he continued. “At the same time, I found, with just about everybody I’ve met, that the conventional wisdom that South Africans don’t like Israel is nonsense. That said, I believe that when South Africa doesn’t engage as much as it should with Israel, it is missing out.”
One of the great lessons that former South African president Nelson Mandela can teach everybody, and especially the people of the Middle East, is that “you negotiate, and you negotiate, and then you negotiate some more, and you compromise to solve insolvable problems,” said Lenk, a native of New Jersey who immigrated to Israel 30 years ago. “Today, at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are negotiating, that is a message that both Israelis and Palestinians desperately need to hear.”