A reply to Malcolm Ferguson’s Op-Ed in Daily Maverick, 21 May 2018.
The targeted shooting of peaceful protesters in Gaza by the Israeli Defence Force that left around 60 people dead and many hundreds wounded on 14 May 2018 has been seen by the world for what it is – a coldblooded massacre.
Malcolm Ferguson praises the South African government for taking the step of recalling our ambassador from Tel Aviv in response to this slaughter. However, the main objective of his opinion piece is to discredit ANC policy and government statements to downgrade the South African Embassy in Tel Aviv and he simply cannot contain his disdain for a foreign policy that takes action in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Ferguson addresses South African Zionists, seeking to bring them closer to government so they might strengthen their influence on government policy. He does so by arguing that it is better not to criticise, but rather to welcome the recall of our ambassador in order to constrain the South African government from taking more substantial action against Israel.
Given that the majority of South Africans support the ambassadorial recall following the Gaza massacre (80% according to a poll Ferguson refers to), he cautions that Jewish institutions and individuals might come under attack from unidentified “extremists” if the government does not take this action at the very least. Raising the spectral figure of “extremists” in South Africa is a disingenuous attempt to punt his position and play on the fears of anti-Semitism. It is tainted with racism, as the only possibility for Ferguson is that extremism comes from the Palestinian side.
He then attempts to ingratiate himself with the current South African administration, flattering Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and President Cyril Ramaphosa as so much more “reasonable” and “informed” than the Zuma-led government. He is trying to discourage them from taking any further sanction against Israel, which would make them “unreasonable” and by implication populist, like Zuma.
However, the ANC resolution, passed at the December 2017 Conference, calls for “an immediate and unconditional downgrade”. Ferguson does not consider that while this resolution was tabled during the Zuma ANC presidency it was unanimously adopted, even by Ramaphosa supporters, and is stated in the closing Conference Declaration following the election of President Ramaphosa. Indeed, Minister Naledi Pandor, in the debate following State President Ramaphosa’s SONA address in February, went further and said that South Africa will “cut diplomatic ties” with Israel. President Ramaphosa has subsequently, on more than one occasion, reminded South Africans of the downgrade resolution as a matter that government has to deal with.
Ferguson also addresses himself to ANC supporters and officials, arguing that maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel will make us a serious player in the “Palestinian-Israeli problem”.
First, the “problem” is that Israel is a colonial state that has refused to fulfil any of the UN resolutions since 1948 or its commitments under the 1993 Oslo Peace Process that was supposed to have led to a two-state solution.
Second, he argues that if we cut ties with Israel they will not allow us to operate our diplomatic mission in the West Bank, which only goes to show exactly how Israel holds total control of the Palestinian territories. It is also questionable given that both Venezuela and Bolivia cut diplomatic relations with Israel but maintain their Ramallah missions. Furthermore, it would be a signal to the international community of South Africa’s weakness if we countenanced this consideration.
Third, we cannot be held to ransom over a seat at the UN Security Council when other countries that do not have diplomatic relations – or do not even recognise the state of Israel – have held such seats. Currently Bolivia and Kuwait have non-permanent seats and do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
Fourth, why should the fact that some of Israel’s neighbours have diplomatic relations influence our foreign policy? Our foreign policy, as Minister Sisulu has argued, should be based on our values and principles as a country – irrespective of whether “neighbouring states” have the same values or not. Indeed, “neighbours” such as Jordan and Egypt are not democratic states, and our foreign policy should not be influenced by dictatorships.
The crux of the matter is that Ferguson has always considered it “futile” for South African diplomacy to act in solidarity with the Palestinian people. I worked with him in the early 2000s when he was Chief Director: Middle East in the then Department of Foreign Affairs. At that time he was most concerned with ensuring that there was no trade or diplomatic break with Israel, in spite of acts of Israeli violence against the institutions of the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank, the infrastructure in Gaza and, of course, the Palestinian people.
Although we held a number of engagements that brought together senior Palestinian and Israeli negotiators among others, such as the Spier process, it was increasingly evident that Israel had no interest in moving towards genuine negotiations on the final status issues to create two states as envisaged under the Oslo Peace Process. Israel therefore was not taking us seriously, and indeed used the fact that we were trying to play a role of “neutral” mediator to pressure the South African government into silencing criticism of Israel and to increase trade relations. More recently, Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that there will never be a Palestinian state or that such a “state” will have no control over its borders, airspace, water or gas resources and security. In short, Israel seems willing only to recognise a Bantustan that will have fewer powers than did Bophuthatswana or Transkei.
The fact is that the Oslo Peace Process has been completely torpedoed by Israel. Over the past 25 years Israel has continued to build settlements, built an illegal wall and established checkpoints around the constantly expanding settlements in the West Bank, creating Bantustans and restricting Palestinian movement within areas that were supposed to have formed part of a Palestinian State. It has laid siege to Gaza – a “toxic slum” as UN Human Rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called it last week – and raised much of it to the ground in numerous bombardments, most cruelly in Operation Cast Lead (2008-9) and in 2014.
And since 30 March 2018, when Palestinian civil society in Gaza started its peaceful Great March of Return protest, Israel has killed at least 113 Palestinians and wounded more than 12,000 people – many maimed for life.
In light of Israel’s intransigence and aggression, it is little wonder that the vast majority of South Africans, including ANC members, have demanded that South Africa strengthen solidarity with the Palestinians and take actions to isolate apartheid Israel.
It was only by internationally isolating apartheid South Africa in support of popular uprisings, strikes and armed struggle that we were able to put enough pressure on the regime to come to the table and negotiate a South Africa that belongs to all who live in it.
Likewise, we need to intensify pressure on our government to immediately cut diplomatic ties with Israel, signalling to the world – and especially to the Palestinian people – that we have not forgotten their support for us during our Struggle. We must heed the call of the international BDS movement and demand complete trade sanctions: sport, cultural and academic boycotts; disinvestment and an arms embargo in support of Palestine that belongs to all who live in it.
Acting resolutely in solidarity with the Palestinian people is far from what Ferguson calls “mouthing of cheap slogans and boycotting engagement with the Israelis as an expression of outrage”. Rather, it will demonstrate confidence in our “international prestige” by standing for equal rights, justice and a sustainable peace while encouraging people in other countries and multilateral fora to do similarly.
It is these actions that will achieve exactly what Ferguson purports to support: crafting our foreign policy as an expression of our own constitutional aspirations. DM
Roshan Dadoo grew up in exile and was an activist in the Anti Apartheid Movement and ANC structures. She worked for the South African High Commission in the UK from 1996-2000 when she joined the Department of Foreign Affairs (now Department of International Relations and Co-operation). She served in the Middle East section, the Deputy Ministry and as Political Counsellor in the South African Embassy in Algeria (2004-2008). From 2009 to 2015 Roshan worked for the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa and is currently studying for a Masters degree in Development Studies. She has been active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK and in South Africa.
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