South Africa now says envoy’s return to Israel is not permanent
Diplomatic confusion

South Africa now says envoy’s return to Israel is not permanent

After reports Sisa Ngombane was reinstated, and a letter ostensibly confirming this, Pretoria says he came to tend to personal matters but will then ‘return to South Africa’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

South African Ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane. (Screen capture: YouTube)
South African Ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane. (Screen capture: YouTube)

South Africa’s ambassador to Israel has not permanently returned to Israel and will leave for his country again shortly, the Foreign Ministry in Pretoria said Monday, one day after it was reported that he had quietly reassumed his position four months after being recalled to protest deaths at the Gaza border this summer.

This despite a letter, purportedly by South Africa’s embassy, that had festively announced Ambassador Sisa Ngombane’s return some days ago.

Ngombane is “still recalled for consultations and has not resumed his duties as an Ambassador for South Africa in Israel,” Pretoria said in a statement.

“Ambassador Ngombane traveled to Israel to deal with urgent family and personal issues. He is expected to return to South Africa as soon as these are completed,” the statement explained.

“The conditions that prompted the recall of our Ambassador to Israel for consultations in Pretoria have not changed. Any change in status in our diplomatic relations with the State of Israel will be communicated by the Department after due consultations with the President of South Africa.”

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Tuesday declined to comment. On Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon confirmed to The Times of Israel that Ngombane had returned to Israel “a few days ago.” Nahshon declined to comment further on the move.

In its earlier letter, South Africa’s embassy in Ramat Gan had said it “presents its compliments” to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and to all diplomatic missions accredited to the Jewish state, and “has the honour to inform” that Ngombane “has returned to Tel Aviv.”

The embassy said it “avails itself of the opportunity to renew” to Israel “the assurances of its highest consideration.”

Such flowery language is standard for diplomats, but noteworthy in the case of South Africa, which is arguably Israel’s harshest critic outside the Islamic world.

A copy of the letter was published Thursday evening by Channel 10 news:

Ngombane has been South Africa’s ambassador to Israel since early 2013.

He was recalled to Pretoria on May 14 “until further notice,” in protest of the deaths of at least 55 Palestinians in violent clashes with Israeli troops on the Gaza border. The Hamas terror group that rules the Gaza Strip later said that most of the dead were its members.

Jewish leaders in South Africa termed the government’s decision to withdraw the ambassador “outrageous,” said it displayed “gross double-standards against the Jewish state,” and urged that the move be reconsidered.

“By withdrawing its ambassador,” their statement said, “South Africa is essentially walking away from playing any meaningful role in finding a sorely needed resolution to the conflict.”

On July 5, South Africa’s International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said she was “very glad” to have recalled Ngombane, vowing not to reinstate him until “we are making headway.”

“It’s been a violation that has been going on for a long time, and we can’t be looking away,” she said at the time. “We are holding back on our ambassador until we are certain that we are making headway. For us this is an unacceptable situation, completely unacceptable.”

The African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, resolved last December to call on the government to immediately downgrade the country’s embassy in Israel. But the government in Pretoria has yet to say whether it will implement the decision.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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