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SA cements its irrelevance on the global stage with Israel downgrade


Mzoxolo Mpolase is managing director at Political Analysis South Africa.

South Africa’s decision to downgrade its embassy in Tel Aviv is all about appeasing internal lobby groups and is to the detriment of its international standing. Without a clear foreign policy direction, trade objectives or national security strategy, the country has been reduced to a campaign office for every international social justice cause.

On 3 April 2019, Lindiwe Sisulu, the Minister of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, gave a speech at a South African Institute Of International Affairs event and announced:

 “We are in the process of following the downgrade resolution of the ruling party and stage one has been completed. Our ambassador (to Israel) is back in South Africa and we will not be replacing him.”

She said the downgraded embassy, which she termed a liaison office, “will have no political mandate, no trade mandate and no development co-operation mandate”.

It will not be responsible for trade and commercial activities. The focus of the liaison office would be on consular and the facilitation of people-to-people relations.”

Sisulu provided no reasons, no context and no justification for this sudden implementation, except to say it was just the ANC government implementing an internal ANC resolution.

In the aftermath of this ANC resolution, I wrote about how flawed the process of arriving at the resolution was, where the whole decision at the 2017 Nasrec conference came about “not because of organic change within the ANC, but due to an orchestrated charade, driven and controlled by BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).”

A sham decision, which can be reduced to quite simply, the ANC conceding to every Palestinian request because the party believes “it is what Palestinians want us to do”.

And therein lies South Africa’s foreign policy problem. Without a clear foreign policy direction, trade objectives and a national security strategy, South Africa has been reduced to a campaign office for every social justice cause — a disembowelled office, with no clear-cut political diplomacy, commercial or even trade diplomacy.

Lindiwe Sisulu and her International Relations Department would inevitably claim that the downgrade decision is consistent with the Department’s age-old tenets of a just and equitable world. However, such doctrines are not unique to South Africa. Every democracy in existence today is guided by principles of social justice, but unlike South Africa, it is never to the detriment of their national interests, security, trade and development goals.

In many ways, South Africa fits the profile of an unreliable partner — there is no one thing that any country can be sure about in its relationship with Pretoria. Even in its quest to be seen as a human rights defender, it has failed miserably, evidenced by its first two terms as a non-permanent member at the UN Security Council, where it routinely voted with, and in favour of, governments with reprehensible human rights records. And more recently, it was again found wanting on this front, by opting to abstain on a UN Third Committee resolution on Myanmar in November 2018.

Listening to Sisulu’s address at the  South African Institute Of International Affairs event, the above was lost on her.

In her mind, South Africa was a fearless African representative on the world stage, a living example of democracy done right, and a flourishing economy ready to exact power at the global level, hence the title of her address, “Representing Africa in the World: Setting Priorities for South Africa’s Third Term in the UN Security Council”.

The reality though, could not be bleaker. South Africa’s position in Africa and the world has waned, it is no longer the largest economy in Africa, it fails to exert any meaningful influence beyond the Southern African Development Community (SADC) — and the latest evidence of this was the woeful failure to block Morocco’s re-admission to the African Union in 2017.

Its once flourishing economy cannot even muster a 2% growth, its currency has in a space of 10 years lost 50% of its value, it cannot even keep the lights on and regularly experiences crippling blackouts. Corruption has led to the collapse of its state-owned entities, as well as a reduction in foreign and local investments.

Any other country faced with such debilitating challenges would not put into jeopardy the near R10-billion worth of trade between South Africa and Israel, and would instead balance its own practical priorities against the real task of ensuring that the Israelis and Palestinians finally talk and hash out some kind of peace deal. Instead, like an ostrich in the sand, the ANC government is intent on acting out ideological and factional motivations, much to the detriment of its own people and position in the world.

One also wonders why this resolution seems to enjoy the greatest level of implementation contrasted with other ANC resolutions since its ascent to power in 1994. There are a whole host of more pressing resolutions adopted by the same ANC, which range from the phasing out of multi-grade schools, the reintroduction of street committees to fight South Africa’s world-renowned crime problem, the establishment of a National Security Strategy, to introducing laws barring councillors from secondary work — all of which are yet to see the light of day.

The only conclusion is that this downgrade decision is about the upcoming 8 May 2019 elections and appeasing Jacob Zuma, trade unions, South African Muslims, and other factions of the ANC, real or imagined.

In the end, ideological battles are far easier to win, and go no further than solidarity — which is why the downgrade of South African diplomatic representation in Israel is such a great rallying call, and, I would argue, easy action.

Much easier than being a true arbiter and facilitator of peace, which is what the Israel-Palestinian conflict so desperately needs. DM


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