South Africa, World

Maimane’s Israeli blunder: The DA’s self-inflicted injury

By Ranjeni Munusamy 16 January 2017

There is only one show in town in 2017. The ANC succession battle will dominate the political agenda and various factions are destined to eviscerate the organisation even more as they campaign for their preferred candidates to occupy the top positions in the party. As in the past, dirty tricks and negative campaigning will be part of the game. At the end, a portion of the ANC will be crushed. Opposition parties need to do two things – watch from a safe distance and avoid provoking their own controversies. This is why Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane’s trip to Israel and the party’s handling of the visit is such a faux pas. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Let’s not forget the first major controversy of 2016. Durban estate agent Penny Sparrow assumed Facebook was a safe space for like-minded racists and called black people on the beach on New Years Day “monkeys”. The DA found itself in the middle of the storm because Sparrow was a member of the party. Sparrow’s rant became a trigger for a number of other public racist incidents that the DA struggled to disassociate from. It followed the crisis the party had to navigate in late 2015 when its prominent Member of Parliament Dianne Kohler Barnard shared a Facebook post praising apartheid president PW Botha.

ANC leaders are already doing their level best to make sure attention stays on them this year. President Jacob Zuma, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, national chairperson Baleka Mbete and surrogates of presidential contender Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma are all actively participating in the succession discussion while trying to pretend that it has not yet started. The ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) and ANC Youth League (ANCYL) are also trying to lead the dialogue with the former trying to upstage the party’s 105th anniversary celebrations by announcing they would back Dlamini-Zuma for the presidency.

Zuma, who has been media shy over the past few months as controversies raged around him, is out to play again. He has been addressing ANC rallies – he made a surprise appearance at a rally in KwaDukuza in KwaZulu-Natal on Sunday, stealing the limelight from national treasurer Zweli Mkhize – and has been doing selective radio interviews. Speaking on the SABC Nguni radio stations last week, Zuma was enthused about the idea of a woman president.   

“The ANC is ready for that‚ in fact the party has been ready for some time.”

This has been interpreted as Zuma’s endorsement for Dlamini-Zuma. Even if this is the case, it does not mean Dlamini-Zuma has sewn up support in the Zuma camp. In interviews with the Sunday Times and City Press this weekend, Mbete, the Speaker of the National Assembly, seemed confident that she was still in contention and would be supported for the position of president.

The ANCYL president Collen Maine told Reuters that their choice of candidate for the presidency would send “shockwaves” throughout the ANC. He said the ANC needed a bold leader to launch a “second revolution” that would redistribute wealth to the country’s black majority. He did not name the candidate, prompting a guessing game, even within the ranks of the ANCYL. Maine’s candidate is believed to be Free State premier Ace Magashule.

Meanwhile, some of Zuma’s allies are still trying to float the idea of extending his ANC term to align with his government term of office. The Sunday Times reported that Zuma’s supporters in the North West, Mpumalanga and the ANCYL were keen to bring a proposal that Zuma stay on as ANC leaders for two years to prevent a “two centres of power” situation.

All this suggests disarray in the “premier league” camp, with different preferences splitting this dominant faction in the ANC.

Ramaphosa, who has until recently been reluctant to show some leg, now seems to be campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket. He has been speaking out against vote buying and is promoting the idea of lifestyle audits for ANC leaders. At a rally in the Eastern Cape on Sunday, Ramaphosa said ANC leaders were divided and fighting over money.

“It is us as leaders who are divided and as a result we go on to divide you. These divisions are not based on politics, these divisions are based on money because we are fighting about money, and nothing else,” said Ramaphosa.

All this commotion will be of great spectator value for the opposition parties. The numerous controversies engulfing the Zuma presidency, such as the Nkandla and the Gupta/state capture scandals, have been veritable gifts to the opposition. These also resulted in some ANC voters turning away from their party and others staying away from the polls at last year’s local government elections.

The last thing the opposition parties should do now is get swept up in their own battles and controversies.

The Middle East crisis has been a controversial issue for decades and many, many prominent global leaders have tried and failed to mediate between Israel and Palestine. Although South Africa and Israel maintain diplomatic relations, the position of the ANC government is not, and never will be, neutral.

The ANC and the South African government have been involved in numerous efforts to mediate the crisis with a view to securing the two-state solution.

The ANC, its allies, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, and a large number of civil society organisations weigh heavily in support of the Palestinian cause for independence and human rights. South Africa’s history of apartheid discrimination means that many ordinary people in this country understand and sympathise with the oppression of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state.

Knowing all of this, as well as the recent United Nations Security Council resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territories, Maimane ventured on his Middle East tour completely naïve about the consequences of his “listening and learning” mission.

The visit was not pre-announced but became public through Maimane’s twitter feed. Then a picture of Maimane posing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was distributed. The picture sparked outrage as Maimane was standing in front of the South African flag, suggesting that this was an official diplomatic visit.

The Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Arthur Lenk tweeted the picture with the words:

“Excellent @IsraeliPM@MmusiMaimane meeting yesterday in Jerusalem. So much for #Israel & SA to do together. Good to meet & exchange ideas.” 

There was no suggestion from the DA, which scrambled to do damage control, or the Israelis that Maimane advanced South Africa’s position, or that of the UN for that matter, at the meeting with Netanyahu. A statement from DA spokesperson Phumzile van Damme said Maimane was visiting Israel and the Palestinian Territories “in order to listen and learn about the conflict first hand and to discuss how South Africa should be playing a more constructive role in bringing the parties together for peace”.

Unfortunately for Maimane, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled a planned meeting with him “due to a scheduling conflict”. The DA leader did however meet with Palestinian officials and human rights activists. But this did not undo the damage of his photo-op with Netanyahu and the South African flag.

In an interview with Redi Tlhabi on Radio 702, Maimane’s spokesperson Mabine Seabe flip-flopped on why the flag was in the picture. He said at first that Netanyahu’s office had made the arrangements but after further questioning by Tlhabi said: “I don’t see how that’s problematic, the South African flag being used in this regard.”

The DA’s explanations about Maimane wanting to “get information” made it seem as if he was on a school excursion.

The ANC smelt blood and dived in, calling the trip a “junket”.

“The allegations that the Democratic Alliance is funded and controlled by apartheid Israel sympathisers seem to be true,” ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa said.

“We also warn the DA not to mislead the public by suggesting that our government and our party share the same position as the DA on Palestine. The ANC not only supports a just a fair solution but we also have for several years attended, actively supported and organised international solidarity campaigns with the people of Palestine. 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,” said Kodwa.   

All of this is true as every major ANC statement and conference pronounces solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The DA does not.

This was also a terrible time for Maimane to have embarked in his tour. While the Middle East crisis has not been dominant on the international agenda for some time due to other explosive global matters, his visit came on the eve of a French-led summit on Sunday attended by 70 countries. The aim of the Paris summit, which was not attended by Israelis or Palestinians, was to attempt to restart the stagnant Middle East peace process.

Maimane appears to be like a deer in the headlights. He ventured into the territories without anticipating the controversy it would spark at home, and not understanding the global context. If the visit was financially motivated, it backfired badly. Unlike Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga who recently visited Taiwan, a state South Africa does not recognise officially, Maimane is a national leader and a possible contender for the presidency of South Africa. If the DA cannot read public sentiment at home and cosies up to a repressive state weeks after the UN Security Council passed a resolution against it, the party is badly exposed.

The DA has declared that it wants to be the party in power in 2019. With such silly mistakes, the DA will mimic the ANC in being its own worst enemy. The trip should have been properly planned and because the Middle East is always a hot potato issue, the intention and itinerary should have been made public before the Israeli PR machinery took over. And if Maimane and the DA want to continue to project themselves as the “reasonable” alternative to the ANC, they can never be neutral on fundamental issues such as violations of international law, injustice and human rights.

With power comes responsibility, not only to the people you lead but the global community. While Donald Trump might have been elected on the basis of being clueless, it does not mean South Africa will also opt for a president who will fumble his or her way through governance and global affairs. Well, not again. DM

Photo: Mmusi Maimane shakes hands with Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: Mtshatshalazisi/


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