Cape Town – South Africa’s parliament voted on Tuesday to approve the downgrading of diplomatic ties with Israel, in a move seen as having little legislative but important political significance.
The vote, endorsed by 208 MPs, with 94 voting against, places a symbolic seal on the motion approved by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at its Dec. 2017 conference to downgrade South Africa’s Embassy in Tel Aviv to the status of a liaison office. That decision, which was strongly condemned by South Africa’s Jewish community, was taken in the presence of representatives of Hamas, the Islamist terror organization that rules Gaza.
The parliamentary vote meanwhile requires the South African government to inform Israel of the change if it is to be implemented. The government has made no statement so far regarding its intentions, South African news outlets reported on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s motion was submitted by the National Freedom Party (NFP), a tiny center-left party that holds two seats in South Africa’s 400-seat parliament, with the backing of the ANC.
In a statement hailing the vote, the NFP claimed that “the State of Israel was built through the displacement, murder, and maiming of Palestinians.”
It added: “And to maintain their grip on power, they have instituted apartheid to control and manage Palestinians. As South Africans, we refuse to stand by while apartheid is being perpetrated again.”
Israel meanwhile condemned Monday’s vote. “At a time when many African and Muslim countries are strengthening and deepening ties with the State of Israel for the benefit of everyone’s common interests, it is unfortunate that South Africa continues to adhere to anachronism and the deterioration of relations, a move that will only harm South Africa itself and its standing,” a statement from the country’s foreign ministry declared.
The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) similarly slammed Tuesday’s vote, accusing the ANC of having “created a foreign policy that aims to befriend dictatorships and bash democracies.”
The ANC “obsesses over Israel, which is the size of our Kruger National Park, and at the same hosts navy war drills with Russia, responsible for horrific war crimes and the deaths of thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians over the past year,” the SAZF pointed out in a statement.
Apartheid, the Afrikaner word for “separation”, was a legally-based system of racial segregation that prevailed in South Africa for most of the twentieth century, entrenching the rule of the white minority population of 10 percent over the Black majority of 90 percent. Black South Africans were severely restricted in their educational and job opportunities, were confined to overcrowded, unsanitary townships, were forbidden from entering into relationships with white people and were banned from voting. Despite the absence of similar legislation in Israel, the ANC and its allies have insisted on labeling the Jewish state as an “apartheid” state where Jews hold similar privileges to those enjoyed by white South Africans prior to the abolition of apartheid in 1994.
The NFP statement also invoked the late, widely revered leader of the anti-apartheid struggle, Nelson Mandela, asserting: “This is a moment Madiba [Mandela’s honorific title] would be proud of. He always said our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.”
There is no record of Mandela, who died in 2013, expressing support for anti-Zionist ideology or advocating Israel’s elimination as a sovereign state. In a speech delivered to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies on Aug. 21, 1993, Mandela expressed his deep sympathies with both Jewish and Palestinian national aspirations.
“As a movement we recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognize the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism. We insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders but with equal vigor support the Palestinian right to national self-determination,” Mandela said at the time.
On a visit to Israel in Oct. 1999, Mandela reaffirmed his position at a joint press conference with then Israeli foreign minister David Levy. Lauding Israel as an “economic powerhouse” long before the country acquired its “start-up nation” reputation, Mandela opined, “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel within secure borders.”