AnalysisRamaphosa: Gaza 'has now turned into a concentration camp'

South Africa’s shift on Israel: From Mandela-era acceptance to ‘genocide’ allegations

Unprecedented anti-Israel statements by the African nation’s head appear to be part of a broader geopolitical shift, but the country’s Jews report feeling safe and comfortable

Canaan Lidor

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Illustrative: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa listens during the BRICS group of emerging economies three-day summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)
Illustrative: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa listens during the BRICS group of emerging economies three-day summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

By publicly calling Israel’s actions in Gaza a “genocide” this month, South Africa’s government has exceeded all of its past criticisms of the Jewish state.

“But not by much,” according to Benji Shulman, director of public policy for the South African Zionist Federation, the country’s oldest Jewish organization.

Shulman is referring to the South African government’s incremental shift on Israel over the past 15 years. Once one of Israel’s most significant partners on the continent, South Africa has gradually come out as one of its most vituperative critics, calling Israel an “apartheid state” and accusing it of “ethnic cleansing” and now, finally, also of genocide.

The genocide allegation has traveled up the ranks of government, beginning on November 2 with Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, a relatively junior cabinet minister, and then being expressed on November 17 by none other than President Cyril Ramaphosa. Gaza, he told reporters during a state visit to Qatar, “has now turned into a concentration camp where genocide is taking place.”

This shift on Israel, longtime observers of the relationship say, is part of a broader ideological and geopolitical realignment by South Africa, which is deepening its alliance with developing nations at the expense of its ties to the West even as its domestic economy and infrastructure shrivel.

Yet South Africa remains mostly hospitable to Jews, who worry more about the country’s creeping descent into a failed state than about its erratic foreign policy.

Nazi hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff. (Courtesy)

Efraim Zuroff, a prominent Nazi hunter from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called the genocide allegation “outrageous, false” and indicative of ignorance. “The South African government should be ashamed of itself,” he said.

But Ramaphosa did more than just fulminate. South Africa recalled its diplomats from Israel and on November 16 joined other nations that referred Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes over Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Explosions spread along the underground complex as the IDF blows up a tunnel network in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, in footage released on November 19, 2023. (Kan TV Screenshot, used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

On Tuesday, the South African parliament passed a resolution that calls on the government to close down the Israeli embassy in Pretoria until Israel agrees to a UN-mediated ceasefire with Hamas. The resolution, which also calls Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “apartheid,” is not binding on the government.

Israel launched a massive military operation in Gaza last month against Hamas following a massacre that some 3,000 Hamas terrorists had perpetrated in Israel on October 7, when they murdered some 1,200 people and abducted another 240, among other war crimes and atrocities. Authorities in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip say Israeli strikes on Hamas have killed 13,300 people. They have offered no information on how many of the fatalities were terrorists.

Ramaphosa said that South Africa “did not condone the actions taken by Hamas,” but his language and actions on Israel were far harsher. The country’s ruling party, the African National Congress, or ANC, said it would support a draft resolution calling for the Israeli embassy to be closed indefinitely.

On Monday, Israel said it was recalling its ambassador from South Africa.

Late South African industrialist Mendel Kaplan with former president Nelson Mandela, who opened the South African Jewish Museum in 2000. (Photo credit: Shawn Benjamin/Ark)

It is the nadir of a relationship that had survived some inherent challenges, largely thanks to the leadership of Nelson Mandela, who in 1994 became South Africa’s first president after apartheid.

Mandela supported Israeli territorial concessions and was close to the Palestinian cause, “but he was also very supportive of Israel, which he’d visited and where he’d received an honorary doctorate from Ben Gurion University,” said Shulman of the Zionist Federation. “His viewpoint was that Israel had the right to exist.”

Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, continued this line, but, said Shulman, it began to change under Jacob Zuma, who served from 2009 to 2018.

South African president and African National Congress (ANC)’s president Jacob Zuma delivers a speech during the Party official launch of the Municipal Elections manifesto in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, April 16, 2016. (AFP/Michael Sheehan)

Not an ideologue himself, Zuma, who has faced multiple corruption scandals that finally forced him to resign in 2018, consented to turn over foreign policy to radicals “as long as they didn’t get in his way,” Shulman said. Zuma, more than any of Mandela’s successors, allowed the ANC’s partners in trade unions and the Communist Party to shape foreign policy, according to Shulman.

“So we started to see a shift towards Iran, for example, and toward Hamas,” Shulman said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 17, 2023. (Ramil Sitdikov/Photo host Agency RIA Novosti via AP)

It’s the economy, stupid

The policy pivot emerged also after the February 2022 invasion by Russia into Ukraine. South Africa adopted a nominally neutral stance on Russia, which many interpreted as an endorsement because the party didn’t rebuke any of the prominent ANC members and cadres that have openly sided with Russia.

This had negative consequences for South Africa’s relationship with the United States. which reportedly considered punishing Ramaphosa by relocating a summit meeting on aid that the United States had selected South Africa to host, the African Growth and Opportunity Act summit. South Africa eventually did host the summit this month.

From left, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, China’s President Xi Jinping, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pose for a BRICS group photo during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 23, 2023. (Gianluigi Guercia/Pool via AP)

But the pivot away from the policies of the United States, the West and Israel may be a calculated move. It is one motivated by ideology and incentivized by an economic vision, according to Michael Kransdorff, a financial and international tax specialist who is based in Johannesburg and is Jewish.

“South Africa is very involved with BRICS,” he said of the trade bloc whose other members are Brazil, Russia, India and China, and which is understood to be an economic rival of the United States and the European Union. ”There’s a very anti-Western, anti-American movement among the political elites in the ANC. It’s all got to do with that. I think that’s what feeds this whole thing,” Kransdorff said.

Residents of Soweto shout slogan in front of Maponya Mall in Soweto, on July 14, 2021. (LUCA SOLA / AFP)

History’s oldest scapegoat

There may be additional incentives for South Africa to sound tough on Israel.

The ANC is grappling with record-low public approval ahead of the 2024 general elections, born out of anger over South Africa’s violent crime epidemic and concerns that the country is becoming a failed state as its infrastructure breaks down. Frequent power shortages and an unreliable public transportation system are the result of a lack of “a functioning integrated public logistics infrastructure, with roads, rail, and ports all in disarray,” William Gumede of the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand wrote in an op-ed last year.

The ANC’s radically socialist economic policies are widely seen as an exacerbating element, adding to the popularity of more free-market-oriented opposition parties, some of which have pro-Western foreign policies.

If the ANC can peel away Muslim voters — many of whom are in above-average income brackets — by being vocal on Israel, “then that’s just one more reason to do it,” Shulman said. (He doubted this tactic would prove to be effective.)

File: South Africans protest against Israeli actions in Gaza, outside parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

To many of South Africa’s Jews, whose numbers are estimated at 50,000, the government’s anti-Israel sentiment is a secondary nuisance in comparison to the country’s apparent infrastructure collapse, high crime and economic malaise, Kransdorff said. He works as a financial consultant for many clients who emigrate, some of them Jews who immigrate to Israel.

Aliyah is on the rise, jumping from an average of 210 South African newcomers to Israel in the years 2012-2016 to nearly double that in the following six years. Hundreds more emigrate elsewhere thanks to passports from Lithuania, an EU member state, from where a vast majority of South Africa’s Jews have familial roots.

Michael Kransdorff. (Courtesy)

But many Jews remain in communities that are vibrant and robust, Kransdorff told The Times of Israel over the phone.

“Many of us still have a comfortable life here,” he said, adding that he would not be afraid to wear a kippah on the streets of Johannesburg.

“It’s still nothing like you’ll see in any Western capital in the world, Australia, anything like that. We’ve had no physical incidents of violence,” Shulman said of the levels of antisemitism in South Africa.

The upcoming summer 2024 elections offer the promise of a positive change both for the economy and for bilateral ties with Israel, Shulman added. They can be restored, he asserted.

However, he added: “I just don’t think that they can be restored with the ANC at the helm.”

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