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Aggressive discourse in South Africa on Gaza invasion – Part I

Four thousand miles south of Gaza, in South Africa, a cold war of epic proportions is raging between pro and anti Zionist groups, and political parties, over Israel’s invasion of the Strip. With passions running high, government is in a glaring spotlight.



South Africa is currently a hotbed of aggressive discourse, especially as Gazans look to South Africa for empathetic support, and because its history as an apartheid state is often compared to Israel today. This has left the government stuck between maintaining diplomatic relations between the two countries while still upholding Mandela’s legacy that “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.

The fight has crossed the social spectrum, all the way from Julius Malema threatening to ‘physically remove’ the Israeli ambassador from his office, to consumers changing their cool drink brand of choice.

On Saturday, over 100,000 Capetonians marched in the city heat to show their support for Gaza, and to call on government to implement their demands. The first demand from groups opposing Israel’s invasion of Gaza, which over four weeks has left 1,881 Palestinians (and 67 Israelis) dead, is that the Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk, be expelled immediately and the South African ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, be recalled. They also demand that South Africa cut off all diplomatic and trade relations with Israel, and implement boycott, divestments and sanctions (BDS) on Israel both in the public and private sectors. [BDS South Africa is also the name of the South African office advancing and working with the international Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) against Israel movement)]

9th August, Cape Town. A Mail & Guardian photographer in attendance estimated there were “well over 100,000, possible even close to 200,000 people” on the streets, making it the largest protest march in South Africa's history. Photo source: National Coalition for Palestine

9th August, Cape Town. A Mail & Guardian photographer in attendance estimated there were “well over 100,000, possible even close to 200,000 people” on the streets, making it the largest protest march in South Africa’s history. Photo source: National Coalition for Palestine

These groups fall under the National Coalition for Palestine, and include the Palestine Solidarity Alliance, solidarity forums from top universities and several religious organisations. It also boasts the names of the Congress for South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Julius Malema’s party the Economic Freedom Fighters, the African National Congress Youth League and the South African Communist Party.


The Democratic Alliance, and its leader, Helen Zille, was always going to be the party everyone was watching. The DA is not new to criticism regarding leanings toward Israel: former party leader Tony Leon was married to an Israeli, and in 2012 former parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said that Israel could not be called an ‘apartheid state’ because there is a “much more even distribution of suffering” in Palestine than there was in South Africa.

Zille finally made her thoughts known in a statement two weeks ago, which have also garnered criticism. She finishes with the disclaimer of “I have a limited knowledge of the Middle East and have never been there. Based on what I have read, these are my views.”

She refers to Israelis and Palestinians on a religious basis as when she says “If the descendants of two brothers, Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac, cannot solve their differences, who on earth can be expected to?” A few days later, SABC journalist Yolisa Njamela, tweeted from an Israel solidarity rally that officials had announced that delegations from the DA and three other parties were present at the event. Zille’s response was “I was fighting by-elections in Nelson Mandela bay. I do not monitor DA members’ activities,” adding that there were people “intent on distortions and spreading lies”.

The sentiments from the ruling party, the ANC – or at least those in media releases and on podiums – is that they are completely in support of an end to the invasion as well as Israel’s siege on Gaza and occupation of the West Bank. Their most recent statement in Parliament is that “The situation involving Palestine and Israel is an undeclared war, in which the aggressor, Israel, has destroyed the Palestinian economy, robbed people of their land, unilaterally changed borders, and unilaterally built a wall of exclusion to keep Palestinians out of their land”.

South Africa and Palestine have an affinity because of the similar history and experiences of black South Africans and the Palestinians

South Africa’s history as an apartheid state is often compared to Israel today.

But the top level is not budging. The official statement from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) says that expelling Lenk will prevent South Africa from being able to influence events in the region. They are making no mention of the call for BDS. When describing their stance on the situation, they condemn Israel’s offensive and Hamas’ firing of rockets equally, when the playing grounds are actually dramatically unequal.

But it’s not enough for the Zionist lobby, it seems. This week the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) held a poll on its website asking: “Do you think the government is being manipulated by those who want to block trade with Israel?” Out of 560 voters, 70% said yes.

Protesters were joined by a group of Jews, to the loud cheer of the crowd

Protesters were joined by a group of Jews, to the loud cheer of the crowd

Currently, South Africa engages in trade with the Israel government, mostly in the agricultural sector. But figures of this trade are very hard to come by. One specific point of contention is that several government institutions and buildings contract British company G4S as their security. This includes at prisons, airports and seaports. G4S is known globally as the company that provides security services and equipment to Israeli prisons, checkpoints and the Israeli military and police. It is part of a major boycott campaign around the world for specifically this reason.

[The department of transport did not respond to questions about their contracts with G4S, after two weeks of engaging with them.]

And last week, the company was in the South African news for another reason. It had just been handed back the contract from the Department of Correctional Services to privately manage and secure Mangaung Correctional Centre in the Free State province, which had been revoked last year because of a labour strike. However, it was also the centre of multiple allegations of torture by inmates. The department said it had opened an investigation into the allegations, but no findings have as yet been published. G4S says that they are unable to respond to questions about the investigation.

There is also significant trade between private companies in South Africa and both the Israel government and private companies. A major boycott of national retailer Woolworths began last week after it was lambasted by BDS for importing goods from Israel.

Woolworths made a public statement saying that “We respect our customers’ right to make individual purchasing choices, which is why we clearly label every product’s country of origin and fully comply with government guidelines on product from Israel. Less than 0.1% of our food is sourced from Israel.” But the rumours had set off panic in the Zionist community. The South African Zionist Federation issued two press statements to the ‘rattled Jewry’ explaining that they had spoken with Woolworths and they would not stop stocking Israeli products.

The pavements and mall corridors at the entrance to Woolworths stores around the country have been littered with protesters, sometimes one, sometimes 20, sometimes with blood stained hands and ghost masks, informing shoppers about the Israeli produce.


Zionists retaliated, by standing inside the Woolworths store in Sandton City in Johannesburg, draped in Israel flags and handing out figs from Israel to passing customers. But other major retailers, Spar, Pick n Pay and Checkers import goods from Israel, specifically from the settlements, and won’t be immune to the boycott call for long.

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9th August, 2014, Cape Town. Photo: Barry Christianson

However, a popular food supermarket chain in Cape Town, Elite, acted quite differently, and this week returned all its Coca Cola products to the supplier, leaving an entire row of refrigerators empty. Coca Cola has a bottling plant in an Israeli settlement. Settlements are illegal under international law.

So if civil society is coming out in the hundreds of thousands to make demands on government to not only take a clear stand on Israel, but to actually implement it with BDS, and the ruling party is unashamedly expressing its anger with Israel, why is the government remaining so tepid?

Sanusha Naidu is an independent political analyst.

She says that the state’s positioning on the issue needs to be looked at in the context of its constraints on a global level, which affect how it articulates this position. We need to understand how the overall global perspective on global peace and stability needs to be in synergy with South Africa’s role at the United Nations.

But it is quite difficult to pinpoint who actually makes these decisions in South African foreign policy.


“We talk about a range of domestic actors that shape such decisions, from the role of the presidency and DIRCO, to the ruling party and alliance partners. To a large extent the ANC will continuously support the Palestinian cause in light of the its own international anti-apartheid movement as well as the global solidarity support it shows for dismantling discrimination in other countries.”

But a major issue then, is the alignment between the party policy and state policy and how one influences the other.

It is also important to be aware, she adds, of Israel’s potentially increasing investment in Africa to make friends outside of the Middle East.

“Another compelling question is that of resources and the extent to which governments may feel constrained to be adopt a caution approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict,” says Naidu.

“A less cautioned approach may jeopardise their trade and diplomatic relationships with other countries like the US and Britain, who are close allies of Israel.”


Pressure is mounting heavily: The government has to make some decisions soon as it can only continue its method of appeasing the opposing parties for so long. There is money, reputation and integrity at stake, and it is at times like these that the government has to lay its priorities on both the local and international tables.