exploring issues related to Israel, israeli society & global Jewry
In this article, Bev Goldman suggests that the current political and social climate in South Africa has left the Jewish community feeling vulnerable. She explores what a Ramaphosa presidency might mean for South Africa-Israel relations and the future of the South African Jewish community.
AS we enter a Ramaphosa-presidency, there is little doubt that “we live in interesting times.” Tumultuous and tempestuous, yes, but riveting too. What will the future bring? How imminent and dramatic will change be? And, considering the ANC’s stance on Israel, will these changes include a dramatic reconfiguration of relations between South Africa and Israel?
"Local businesses that continue to seek alliances with Israeli enterprises seemingly pay little, if any, attention – on the surface at least – to the political noises emanating from those who hold power."
Our Jewish community is an intriguing one. Our public utterances present an outward picture that we are a united community, that we strive for the same goals and aims, that we traverse the same beat. For the disinterested, the uninformed and those who still have hope, there is some sort of safety in trotting out the tried and tested axiom that South Africa and Israel, for all the media hype, are in reality still good friends away from the glare of the public spotlight. To think otherwise would suggest that the Jewish community’s relationship with the national government is soon to enter a turbulent period.
The trade partnerships between the two countries is often described as one of ‘business as usual.’ Local businesses that continue to seek alliances with Israeli enterprises seemingly pay little, if any, attention – on the surface at least – to the political noises emanating from those who hold power. Nor do they seem particularly perturbed by any civil society criticism of Israel. Instead they place profit above politics. These companies seem to ignore comments like those made by newly-elected Minister of Higher Education Naledi Pandor that “The majority party has agreed that government must cut diplomatic ties with Israel”. Pandor claimed that this decision was based on “the absence of genuine initiatives by Israel to secure lasting peace and a viable two-state solution that includes full freedom and democracy for the Palestinian people”. These businesses sidestep the pronouncement by Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, that “(the) Embassy of Israel (must) pack(s) up and go(es) to the Dead Sea”. They seemingly pay little or no attention to the call by Julius Malema, leader of the EFF, “not to visit Israel”, and for academic institutions and businesses “to cut all ties with the country until the land is returned to the Palestinians.”
But are they (and are we, as members of the Jewish community), simply sticking their (and our heads) in the sand? What about the growth of the BDS movement? And the ANC’s policy resolution to downgrade the SA Embassy in Israel? What of the reluctance of many ANC and other government officials, who have visited and praised Israel, to publicise their opinions on their return home for fear of backlash? And, what of the recent antisemitic statements made by ANC Member of the Provincial Legislature Sharon Davids that the “Jewish Mafia” were behind Day Zero. And, this is not to speak of the ANC’s very notable silence on her comments. These all present real dangers – some might argue even ultimatums – to the Jewish community, and to any chance of a reasonable official relationship with Israel.
"Although antisemitism in South Africa is still far less visible than elsewhere in the Western world ... it is gaining ground."
Will Minister Pandor, with so many odds already stacked against her, concentrate on improving the appalling state of education in the country, or will she instead be so fixated on advancing an anti-Israel agenda that she will lose sight of her ministerial mission? Will Minister Sisulu refuse to attend any UN or other conferences or meetings if the Israeli representative is there? And as for MP Malema, who has displayed a populist animosity for both Israel and white South Africans alike, might this contribute to what could easily be the most convincing trigger for a mass exodus of South African Jews? Of one thing we are certain: South Africa is in flux and there is a lack of clarity on its policies. Although antisemitism in South Africa is still far less visible than elsewhere in the Western world -- antisemitic incidents in the US surged by 67% in 2017; Jews were targeted almost four times a day in the UK; and in Europe, Jew-hatred has “practically become the norm” -- it is gaining ground. Will BDS foster antisemitism as part of their strategy to demean, delegitimise and ultimately bring an end the State of Israel? Whether one is a supporter of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government or not; whether one is a 'Zionist’ with all the contentious connotations that accompany that label, the ultimate goal of the BDS movement is a one state solution. This would lead to the inevitable demise of the Jewish state as we know it. This cannot be countenanced.
Goodwill Zwelithini, the constitutionally-recognised king of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, has taken the ANC head-on regarding the latter’s decision to weaken and eventually cut all ties with Israel. Zwelithini has chastised the ANC for not lauding Israel’s “dedicated efforts to curb the devastation of drought and the spread of HIV/Aids in South Africa”. Most tellingly, and most sensibly, he urged the ANC leadership not to “interfere in things we know nothing about.” But the question now is, will his support of Israel influence decisions taken by the new government under President Ramaphosa? Common sense says yes: if the ANC is to maintain its dominance in the election in 2019, and if President Ramaphosa is to retain the power he now holds, he would be foolish to discard the potential votes he could gain from the Zulu contingent. That would mean he would have to agree with – or at least not challenge – the King’s sentiments vis-à-vis Israel. The King, however, has been making quite a few public waves lately, fighting for his rights and those of his constituents, as he becomes embroiled in rather difficult issues. He has accused the provincial government of not paying him what he deserves as the Zulu king. He recently warned the ANC that it would lose power should it not take firm action against the slew of political killings in KwaZulu-Natal. He is fighting with the government over custodianship of land held under the Ingonyama Trust (and has asked every member of the Zulu nation to contribute R5 to a bank account, with the money to be used for the upcoming legal battle). One can but wonder how much influence he actually wields, or will wield, vis-à-vis the Ramaphosa government.
"Cutting ties [with Israel] is certainly not in the best interest of South Africa".
Ramaphosa’s approach thus far in terms of leading the country is definitely a-step-at-a-time strategy, winning the initial race for ANC presidency (by beating Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, albeit by a hairsbreadth) and keeping his enemies close until he is able to shrug them off. He’s cautious and careful; ridding the Cabinet of its rotten apples was his first move, and he did it in his own time, not pandering (we think) to established policies.
Many would hope that when the question of Israel arises, he too will give it equal consideration and do what is best for South Africa. Cutting ties is certainly not in the best interest of South Africa. There are undeniable benefits to retaining a connection with one of the world’s most innovative, technologically advanced and forward-thinking countries. Those who might disagree, and who would challenge this, have every right to do so, and, indeed, must do so. They should, however, keep in mind Israel’s role in global technological advances; how indebted the world is for so many of its inventions which have revolutionised agriculture, medicine and cyber-security; how almost 90% of wastewater in Israel is treated for reuse, making it the leading nation in water recycling. Israel is keen to share its knowledge with the world;and we cannot ignore how astounding its’ scientific and technological advances are, so much so that all major hi-tech companies including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Intel and Samsung now have R&D centres in Israel. Can South Africa boast the same? I love my country and recognise that it offers so much to its citizens and its tourists; but can it truly compete with Israel in those areas?
President Ramaphosa is a pragmatist, straddling a number of tightropes at the same time. Himself a savvy and astute businessman, he has many influential friends in the Jewish business community. It would be imprudent for him to cast them aside in favour of a policy (downgrading the Embassy in Israel) with which he may not even agree, although whether or not that is so remains a closely guarded secret. His actions so far prove that he sees the bigger picture, which may motivate him, when the time is right, to speak out in favour of retaining ties with Israel, and to put forward his rationale in a way that may well change minds of current detractors. Again, only time will tell if this will become a reality. Importantly, Ramaphosa has not shown himself to be ideologically anti-Israel. Above all he is a politician and a canny one at that, and he surely knows that making intemperate accusations against Israel because of being put under pressure by those who refuse to label the country anything other than an apartheid state would place him firmly in the anti-Israel camp. And once in, he’d not find it easy to exit, added to which both sides would lose trust in him. He is also on record as having said that “South Africa will lose its leverage to mediate in the Middle East if it heeds calls to sever ties with the Jewish state.”
The new government under President Ramaphosa’s authority has prompted many in the South African Jewish community (including this writer) to pin their hopes on a much-improved South Africa and a much-restored relationship with Israel. After all, this is the country that gave us what we have and to a large extent made us who we are. While Israel is our spiritual home, South Africa is our foundation: we have been the recipients of easy lifestyles, excellent education, nurturing surroundings and beautiful nature-scapes that cannot be easily mirrored in too many other countries across the globe. Most of us don’t want to be elsewhere permanently.
We need to give the new government and its President a chance to prove, in the words of 14th century English mystic and theologian Julian of Norwich, that, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” This will do much to assuage the fears of the Jewish community and restore hope.
Bev Goldman spent many years working in the fields of English Literature and English Language before joining the SAZF where she focused on Media and Education. Currently she is head of the South Africa Israel Chamber of Commerce, and still deals with media issues vis-à-vis Israel and the Middle East. She is National Vice-President of the UJW-SA and holds two portfolios on the International Council of Jewish Women.