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South Africa’s divisive ICJ case against Israel has already critically altered its foreign policy space

South Africa’s divisive ICJ case against Israel has already critically altered its foreign policy space
Illustrative image: (Photos: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach | Rawpixel | Gallo Images/Die Burger/Deaan Vivier

Regardless of what the World Court decides, a recalibration of South Africa’s bilateral relations will be needed. 

South Africa’s decision to take Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on charges of genocide has elicited polarised global responses. Critics accuse South Africa of theatre, political opportunism and double standards, while supporters laud its principled and clear-eyed stance. 

The move has catapulted Pretoria into the centre of an international legal maelstrom and will have significant ripple effects on its international relations. Why has South Africa chosen this course of action amid potentially grave diplomatic risks?

Legally, as a contracting party to the Genocide Convention, South Africa may approach the ICJ if it believes the convention has been violated. Apart from that, Pretoria’s support for the Palestinian cause is deeply rooted in democratic South Africa’s foreign policy. By way of the country’s apartheid history, the Palestinian cause is largely seen as analogous to its own struggle against oppression, occupation and violence. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel guilty of ‘apartheid’ crimes against Palestinians, says Human Rights Watch

Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor recently echoed this: “South Africa really has a moral responsibility to always stand with the oppressed because we come from a history of struggle, a history of striving for freedom, a history of believing that everybody deserves human dignity, justice and freedom; this is the only reason that we have taken this major step as South Africa”.

By drawing on established international institutions, South Africa’s government is simultaneously asking the ICJ to rule on whether there is an ongoing genocide in Gaza and to clarify the duties of all states to prevent genocide, while testing the legitimacy and consistency of this system. That means the value of the case is not solely about the legal outcome, but about spotlighting concerns surrounding the fairness and accountability of the international justice system. 

SA foreign policy contradictions

South Africa should be applauded for working through legitimate global legal instruments in its support of the Palestinian cause. However, Pretoria’s glaring foreign policy contradictions and inconsistencies cannot be ignored, especially if the government believes this ICJ case may help the country rekindle its moral authority on the world stage. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA’s fickle foreign policy means it has no principled approach towards global crises

From its 2015 failure to uphold its international and domestic legal obligations to arrest former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, to its muddled response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are many cases where international law violations and abuses of power by other states haven’t received a similar reaction from Pretoria. 

The situation is complicated by the country’s troubled relationship with the International Criminal Court, from which the ruling African National Congress has threatened to withdraw — a proposal that’s since been revoked. And foreign policy missteps such as the clumsy handling of the Lady R saga risk the loss of global moral and financial capital. 

To be fair, most countries’ international relations are rife with contradictions, and the art of foreign policy may be seen as the business of navigating such inconsistencies towards a defined national interest. However, this may be a tall order for South Africa, given how deeply divisive international responses to its case against Israel have been. 

On the one hand, Pretoria’s stance plays well internationally. Amidst rising geopolitical competition, South Africa has sought to position itself as a leading voice of the global south. Its successful hosting of last year’s BRICS summit was a notable step in pursuing a more equitable and just global political and economic system. 

Rising global support

The decision to use the United Nations’ World Court to advocate the Palestine cause has generated widespread support among global south countries and has ramped up pressure for a ceasefire. Following South Africa’s actions, Indonesia has brought a separate case against Israel to the ICJ, while Chile and Mexico intend to refer Israel to the ICC for alleged war crimes. And this month, the Non-Aligned Movement summit adopted a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Government positions towards South Africa may become more entrenched after the ICJ’s imminent ruling on provisional measures, and over the coming years when a decision on the merits of the genocide case is expected. 

This will test Pretoria’s bilateral relations with numerous major Western partners opposed to the case. In particular, the United States (US) dismissed the legal action as a ‘meritless’ distraction, and Germany intends to join the legal proceedings as a third party supporting Israel.

In better managing South Africa’s foreign policy contradictions and relations with leading states, Pretoria must recognise that the country largely sits outside the intricate patchwork of geopolitics and security interests that plague the Middle East. That means South Africa is not burdened by the immediate concerns of regional and major powers with vested interests in the outcome of the conflict. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: US legislators vent ‘disgust’ at SA’s genocide charge against Israel

While this distance from the Middle East affords South Africa a unique opportunity to pursue a fundamentally normative approach towards the Palestinian cause, the country’s leaders still need to engage in the realpolitik at play. 

South Africa now needs clear, unambiguous foreign policy positions on Hamas, Israel, Iran and the US and its allies — with actions that match its rhetoric. This necessitates a foreign policy as well versed in the discourse of geopolitics, violent extremism and religious fundamentalism, as in progressive internationalism, oppression and occupation. 

As the world awaits the ICJ’s decision, South Africa’s international relations will require careful recalibration regardless of the outcome. How Pretoria seizes the current momentum will be a critical test of the country’s next government. DM

Ronak Gopaldas, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Consultant and Director at Signal Risk and Priyal Singh, Senior Researcher, Africa in the World, ISS Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gordon Cyril says:

    This article says literally nothing other than a few truisms yet without a single specific. It also omits South Africa’s shockingly hypocritical failures to call out sectarian massacres that dwarf anything happening in Gaza viz: Syria, Yemen, and abuse suffered by the Uighars at the hands of China, and current African abuses in South Afruca’s own backyard Sudan, Zimbabwe et al, all of which are somehow omitted from the “analysis.”

    In addition, the convenient observation that SA is sidling up to the new polecats of the world is ignored but where the writer suggests SA will have to define its relationship with e.g. Hamas. Hamas? A relationship with terror?

    Of course it also neglects to point out the time-honoured tactic of deflecting focus away from governmental failures at home by screaming at trouble elsewhere and then preening sanctimoniously to show its democratic credentials…in a failing country where its populace are desperate for some largesse and hoping it hasn’t all been thieved away by the very people castigating Israel.

    There is no telling what the ICJ decision will be but politics suggests that SA will be thrown a bone they will then bray about as justification…but ultimately winning skirmishes doesn’t always connote winning the war, and this may well be a war that SA loses badly, to the detriment of folk at home for along time to come

  • Ephraim Mafuwane says:

    All that South Africa was to ask the ICJ to rule on a specific issue. What is wrong with that? To say that there are allegations of genocide committed by Israel is against Israel? How many times have we heard our leaders, who even their bone marrow is corrupt say let us go to court “to ventilate the issue in public? Could it be that ICJ is for Africa, Mid East and South America? Israel can always pull out of the ICJ. No one is above the law, even Israel

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    “Global South” is a rather pompous name for a bunch of countries who are authoritarian dictatorships and /or marxist orientated semi democracies in various degrees, sharing only an anti-West position.

    • Gretha Erasmus says:

      Very well put. I would really like someone to explain to me what is “the global south” other than a couple of northern hemisphere countries that believe in dictorships and oppression of citizens. Who is meant by this term ‘global south’?

      • chris smit says:

        The Global South includes all the dictatorial countries not in the north They are being sucked into the fire because they do not realise something is happening

      • T'Plana Hath says:

        Indeed! It seems that making up words to win an argument doesn’t have a specific term, but it could certainly be considered a form of fallacy or manipulation. It’s important to note that the use of made-up words (yes, I know all words are ‘made up’) or phrases doesn’t necessarily lead to a valid or truthful argument. Instead, effective argumentation typically involves the use of clear, precise language, logical reasoning, and credible evidence. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,

        “Logic is the cement of our civilization with which we ascend from chaos, using reason as our guide.”

  • Geoffrey Spilkin says:

    Why has the ANC not S0uth Africa taken the case to the ICJ. I would herald a ‘wild guess’ that quite substantial sums of money have passed hands into various coffers and probably the odd Lamborghini and Bentley, or two.

    State (ANC) capture of foreign affairs.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      I agree with your comment – our politicians never do the right thing because it’s the right thing…an”incentive” is usually required first!

  • Geoff Coles says:

    In my opinion, very poorly written.
    The ANC standard of what is right and wrong, as practiced at home and on the African Continent seems at odds with a world stage and with Israel in particular.

    • Drac M says:

      Fair point. Although, if you were to look a bit deeper at those countries where we are “at odds with the world stage” you will note some significant opposition to the policies in these countries, most currently have right leaning policies related to Israel that don’t sit well with large portions of their voting population. A brief look at the British parliament deliberations this week would be enlightening.

  • Jack Russell says:

    Instinct and precedent tells me that the whole show was carried out by the anc in return for a bailout of the bankrupt party, finance for the election and assorted bribes, all from Iran and other anti West entities?

  • Pretty good article, and well balanced given how toxic these discussions usually become. Mexico & Chile are referring Israel AND Hamas to the ICC for war crimes BTW

  • Louise Roderick says:

    The ANC has been tried to hide where it’s loyalties lie.

  • davidramol says:

    As we wait


    It’s not rising support against Israel, it is rising antisemitism. If that were not the case why has South Africa not prosecuted Malema for Kill the Boors and Hamas/Palestinian supporters for From the River to the Sea? These are calls for genocide.

    You see you are all hypocrites.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Unfortunately, our government is so inturbulated with its own internal problems that a clear unambiguous foreign policy is the last thing on the agenda! Much easier to just follow Putins directives!

  • Peter Smith says:

    By its own utterances, the ANC is anti-West. It moral compass is broken as it blatantly supports its own allies such as Zimbabwe, Russia and Cuba. The ANC is a joke and the laughing stock of the world. It has no understanding of how international business and economies work. Bankrupting South Africa further by angering its biggest trading partner and lenders. I am again embarrassed to be a South African.

  • Vincent Britz says:

    The ANC took Israel to court, not South Africa.. We as South Africans would rather take the ANC to court for human rights violations happening here and now in South Africa, each and every day!!

  • Charles Butcher says:

    Better late than never,SA is doung the right thing. As far as Ukraine goes they fell asleep when the usa orchestrated the 2014 coup that leadcto tye genocide of nearly 20000 innocent Russian peoples in the Donbass region.

    • Amadeus Figaro says:

      How? When that was the time SA pawned its foreign policy to China then Russia in favour for help in enhancing its global stature. Read the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreements with the two countries.

  • Steve Du Plessis says:

    Sa is veering onto the wrong side of history

  • Johannes Heyl says:

    I agree that foreign policy of most countries are contradictory, but I’m not so sure about the point that South Africa needs a clear position. It seems to me that an ambiguous one is best. Western countries, like Germany, want good relations with South Africa for several reasons. Rational ones such access to the market and access to its resources, some virtue signalling reasons for German domestic consumption and some political such as gaining support for their initiatives in international organisations. South Africa is also not a critical player, and the country’s actions are diffused in a network of other countries’ actions. Therefore, countries like Germany would tolerate a very high level diplomatic conflict before it really affects anything substantial. But it becomes much more difficult to fudge the relationship along if positions are clear, and that would lead to results most likely not be good for the South African economy.

  • Wayne Holt says:

    The ANC at best has shown how politically immature they are. Their behavior cannot be seen otherwise. Like a toddler in it’s play pen laughing and happy and then screaming temper tantrums with no clue as to what is really going on

  • Harold Uberstein says:

    Ashamed south african. The country, with the biggest murder and slaughter on earth ,of farmers, killing,butchering of women and children, corruption and bullying its voters. The cheak to kreep to the court and accuse another country of genoside. They are also the only country of terrorists, who call themselves a democracy. The west must sanction them like zimbabwe. Most south africans support ISRAEL.above any terrorists. SA has opted to support evil over GOD. THEY MUST PAY FOR THIS.

  • Rae Earl says:

    The ANC has seriously demoted South Africa’s standing with its major trading partners like the US, Germany, the UK and other EU countries. The ANC cosied up to Putin and remained silent on Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine but comes out bleating support for a terrorist group when it murders 1,200 young men, women, and children attending a music concert. The only hope for normalising our standing in the West now, will be for the ANC to be replaced by a party that cares about its citizens instead of jumping onto world stages to make arrogant accusations against states being attacked by terrorists. Hamas declared war on Israel and is solely responsible for what is now underway in the Middle East.

  • Robin Phillips says:

    Interesting article. I trust you at DM are trying to find out who paid for the costs of SA’s going to court!

  • Vic Mash says:

    Free Palestine

  • Citizen X says:

    Free Palestine no matter who does it, ANC or SA government maybe they e same thing right now. .. Forget the detractors and pro Zionist extremists no matter the outcome. Hoping for the best result for the sake of the Palestinians and for possibility of Peace with Israelis.

  • lesleyloock9 says:

    There is no global south

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