South African parties tussle over senior politician’s Israel trip

Mandela would turn in his grave if he knew opposition leader visited Jerusalem, ANC says, challenging rival party to say if it believes Israel practices apartheid

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

Mmusi Maimane, who heads South Africa's Democratic Alliance party (screen grab Facebook)
Mmusi Maimane, who heads South Africa's Democratic Alliance party (screen grab Facebook)

South Africa’s two main political party traded barbs on Thursday over the visit oto Israel of the country’s opposition leader, with the ruling African National Congress party accusing its rival of supporting Israeli “apartheid.”

Mmusi Maimane, who heads the Democratic Alliance party, arrived in the country earlier this week on what officials called a private visit focused on fostering business ties. Accompanied by three senior DA lawmakers, he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition leader Isaac Herzog and other Israeli officials.

The delegation was also scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but the meeting was canceled due to scheduling difficulties. Maimane did meet with PA officials and Palestinian human rights activists in Ramallah and Rawabi.

“The ANC notes the anger and joins fellow South Africans in condemning the visit by the DA’s Mmusi Maimane to Israel and to Israel’s prime minister,” the party said in a statement released Thursday evening. “At a time when the world is increasingly standing up against Israel’s illegal settlements, including the United Nations Security Council, it is a pity that the DA is endorsing the Israeli regime instead of condemning its violations of international law.”

The DA has “let down our masses and betrayed the solidarity that Comrades Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo built with the Palestinian people,” the statement read, referring to icons of the ANC’s anti-apartheid struggle. “Without a doubt, they would be turning in their graves.”

The South African government discourages relations with Jerusalem “until Israel abides to international law and the peace process,” the statement continued. The assertion is remarkable, since Israeli officials and South African diplomats stationed in Tel Aviv often argue that the ANC’s hostile attitude is not translated into government policy.

The South African ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, signs a guestbook with President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, February 28, 2013. (photo credit: Issac Harari/Flash90)
The South African ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, signs a guestbook with President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, February 28, 2013. (Issac Harari/Flash90)

Reached by The Times of Israel on Thursday evening, South Africa’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, Sisa Ngombane, said it was up to the ANC in Pretoria to explain its statements. The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem likewise declined to comment.

Maimane’s visit to the region came mere days after South African President Jacob Zuma, speaking in his capacity as ANC leader, restated the party’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.” Hamas on Thursday thanked him for the speech.

Maimane himself tried to avoid publicity, not commenting publicly on the trip until Thursday. It was only then that, after several Israeli and South African media outlets reported on his trip, he took to Twitter, writing: “Fascinating to be in Israel and Palestine. 2 state solution is still what we must pursue. Listening, learning.”

Later in the day, the Democratic Alliance issued a statement saying its leader has been visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories “in order to listen and learn about the conflict firsthand and to discuss how South Africa should be playing a more constructive role in bringing the parties together for peace.”

Maimame is “a person of deep faith” and he visited some of the holy places, the statement read.

His visit is in “in keeping with the DA’s commitment to a two-state solution, where Israel and Palestine exist side by side, which is the position of the South African Government as well as the United Nations,” the statement continued. “Under the DA’s leadership, South Africa will play a constructive role in bringing the two parties together instead of inflaming tensions between them.”

The ANC took offense with the assertion that it pursues the same Middle East policies as the DA, asking its rival party “not to mislead the public by suggesting that our government and our party share the same position as the DA on Palestine,” the party said in its statement Thursday.

“We, unlike the DA, call out Israel for its racism against African refugees, we condemn Israel’s Apartheid policies and its violations of international law including building of illegal settlements and the inhumane Gaza siege.”

While the DA seeks to attract black voters, the party remains “on the wrong side of history, choosing the oppressors and not the oppressed,” the ANC statement continued.

It further accused the opposition party of being “completely unwilling to challenge the Israeli government on its continued abuse of human rights” and of never acting in solidarity with the Palestinians, “even during the height of Israel’s barbaric attacks on the Palestinian people of the Gaza Strip.”

The lengthy statement went on to accuse the DA of “blind support of the Israeli government and its abhorrent policies” and to challenge it to state whether it agrees with the assertion that “Israel is practicing forms of Apartheid against the indigenous Palestinian people.”

“With the backing of the majority of South Africans, the ANC will ensure government implementation of strict measures against countries violating international law and human rights abuses,” the statement concluded.

ANC STATEMENT ON MAIMANE'S JUNKET TO ISRAELThe ANC notes the anger and joins fellow South Africans in condemning the…

Posted by MyANC on Thursday, January 12, 2017

The South African Zionist Federation hailed Maimane for his willingness to visit Israel.

“The Jewish community embraces this refreshing approach to dealing with the international community from a prominent South African leader,” national chairman Ben Swartz said Thursday. “We look forward to more South African leaders following Mr. Maimane’s example in engaging and visiting Israel in order to see the reality for themselves.”

Maimane embodies “true South African values of dialogue and engagement and has shown vision and courage in these times of great slander against of the State of Israel,” Swartz added.

Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal at a rally in Hamas's honor in Cape Town, South Africa, October 21, 2015. (AFP/Rodger Bosch)
Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal at a rally in Hamas’s honor in Cape Town, South Africa, October 21, 2015. (AFP/Rodger Bosch)

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 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, 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.”

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