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South Africa’s offer to mediate in Israel must not be ignored — remember Northern Ireland


John Stremlau is Honorary Professor, International Relations, at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

At a time when the US and much of Europe identify as supporters of the national security and self-determination of Israel, South Africa’s embrace of similar goals for the people of Palestine may provide a moral and diplomatic counterpoint should any peace process finally unfold.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent public statements on the current crisis between Israel and Palestine raise two fundamental questions. 

Can there be peace between Palestine and Israel with the prospect of greater justice among and between their diverse people?  

Might South Africa contribute to making this aspiration a sustainable political reality? 

These questions lay at the core of Ramaphosa’s public remarks on Saturday, and his written statement from the just-concluded ANC National Executive Committee meeting.   

They have also been conveyed in several formal and informal comments by Minister Naledi Pandor and her team in the Department of International Relations and Cooperation.   

All officials have repeatedly:

  1. Said South Africa condemns all violence against civilians – in Ramaphosa’s most recent statement, specifically condemning Hamas atrocities in Israel;
  2. Yet always stressed South Africa’s support of the aspirations for self-determination of the people of Palestine, not endorsing any particular leader or faction;
  3. Reminded us of the historical solidarity and friendship that Palestinians showed to those during the long struggle for justice here, emphasising similarities, noted by many others, to apartheid-like conditions in Palestine; and
  4. Declared South Africa’s willingness to play whatever mediating role might advance lasting peace.

As an advocate of a peace process acceptable to all stakeholders, South Africa remains appropriately partisan. At a time when the US and much of Europe identify as supporters of the national security and self-determination of Israel, South Africa’s embrace of similar goals for the people of Palestine may provide a moral and diplomatic counterpoint should any peace process finally unfold. At least among these stakeholders they agree that the rights of civilians should be protected. 

Efforts to resolve these age-old conflicts peacefully have failed thus far. Can the current crisis be different?

Tuesday’s destruction of a Gaza City hospital and the hundreds of innocent civilians reportedly killed or injured makes more urgent the case for a South African role in support of a two-state solution, viable and sustainable for Palestinians and Israelis.

A different but seemingly intractable conflict in Northern Ireland is worth noting, if only to illustrate innovative approaches involving Ramaphosa.

Following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, or Belfast Agreement, between a British-backed government and the Irish Republican Army, a potential deal breaker was how to monitor the disarmament agreement. The toughest aspect was recruiting someone acceptable to the “terrorists” and the oppressor. Ramaphosa was the IRA’s choice because of his role in ending apartheid and because he was acceptable to the British. His partner in this critical exercise was former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.  

Perhaps South Africa can one day play a similar role, reassuring to the Palestinians, while not opposed by Israel, while on good terms with Israel’s closest ally, the Americans. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East Crisis News Hub

But many more intractable problems must first be resolved and here too the South African experience is different but may still hold useful analogies. The most fundamental difference is that South Africans focused on the challenge of integration, rather than racial or ethnic separation. For now, there does seem to be international renewed interest and political momentum for achieving a two-state solution. 

Yet there may still be value in recalling the four key attributes of a successful political resolution of South Africa’s domestic conflict and the current Middle East conflict.  

The four attributes that mark South Africa’s success are:

  1. Leaders who were strong enough politically and morally to risk embarking on what became a highly fraught peace process. So far, no Israeli or Palestinian leader has emerged capable of overcoming factional disputes to negotiate a viable two-state solution;
  2. South Africa’s leaders were also strong and confident enough to take ownership of that peace process. Leaders willing to take ownership of a peace process in the Middle East have yet to emerge, but that is something diplomats who are pro-peace should encourage as a priority;
  3. Although the peace process in South Africa was owned by its leaders who discouraged offers of mediation by outsiders, an international consensus that apartheid should end did help move the process forward. Today, at least the horrific civilian killings by Hamas and Israeli revenge attacks have reignited broad international support for a two-state solution and protection of the rights of civilians now most at risk in Gaza; and
  4. The final attribute in the case of South Africa was of a nation “united in its diversity”, with individual and group rights carefully demarcated and, so far, protected in its democratic, non-sectarian Constitution. Whether this is possible in a two-state solution has been elusive, although in the 1990s the then leaders appear to have come very close.

All four attributes contributed in the 1990s to South Africa’s transformation from democratic authoritarianism to liberal democracy. Today, globally and locally, conditions have changed, but I would argue that the attributes of a successful peace process remain. And foreign pressure for peaceful change still matters.   

In South Africa, new national identities were formed and the state was redesigned to protect them and advance a collective vision for a better future. Armed enemies became political adversaries as the mode of sectarian revenge gave way to one of mutual survival. 

As Mahmood Mamdani writes about South Africa’s success: “The point is not to avenge the dead but to give the living a second chance.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Religious Fundamentalists on each end of the table = will NEVER find solution.

  • Denise Smit says:

    The author does not know the history of Israel very well. And he is obviously pro-Hamas. Ireland is definitely not a good example. It is similar ethnic groups with different Christian religions. The Jew – Hamas is completely the opposite. Denise Smit

  • Max Ozinsky says:

    Very interesting perspective. I just wonder why you are so fixated on a two state solution as the possible outcome of negotiations? It seems that the era of the 1947 UN Security Council resolution is coming to an end, due to the UN failing to ensure its implementation.

  • George 007 says:

    Anything the ANC touches turns to $%^^&. Stay out of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict unless asked for help. The problem is the ANC takes itself seriously but no other serious country does.

    • Winston Bigsby says:


    • Winston Bigsby says:

      Might South Africa contribute to making this aspiration a sustainable political reality? Fast fwd the irrelevant Irish metaphor & the short answer is how?
      Like here’s another corrupt African state that can’t keep the power & water on but let’s get them in to mediate? The “ruling party” is so hopelessly inept & incompetent that they can’t sort out their own internal Zimbo work visa/permit issue! Couldn’t mediate or run a bath!

  • mark29 mark29 says:

    Don’t you think the area has enough problems without sending an ANC politician.

  • Martin V says:

    This South African government has surely lost its right to mediate matters of this level of importance. How can a government that is so deeply corrupt down to its crumbling foundations, a government who cannot put the needs of its people before their own greed, be trusted to mediate a matter like this with sort of integrity? I guess I will never come close to understanding how people in politics think…. a fact for which I am very grateful.

  • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

    Laughable at best to suggest that these jokers, who have declared sides at every opportunity, would even be considered impartial brokers. The “inside scoop” is more likely to be that someone in the party said there was an overseas trip, all expenses paid, up for grabs and one of these clowns thought it’s my to go shopping for Louis Vuitton now, saying “ooh, pick me” …

  • Beverley Roos-Muller says:

    Am always grateful for a balanced and thoughtful article, and always dismayed by the snappy, righteous comments that follow. As a former daughter of both South and North Ireland (where I first attended school) this is an issue dear to me, the oldest still-running conflict in history. Partial but quite long-lasting peace was restored there due to wise heads, not back-biting. There are players at ‘both ends of the table’ who don’t want peace, but the vast majority in the middle do. This comment isn’t original but worth repeating: In order to make peace, we need to talk to our enemies, not our friends.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      A calm and reflective comment … not common these days . Thanks .

    • Trina Matheson says:

      I agree with you Beverly. Ramaphosa was well respected as a contributer to building our internationally renowned constitution. The fact that his ANC have failed to show ability to run the country does not take away from us having a great constitution. It has been show through history that great leaders during war time do not make good leaders during peace and visa versa. For example Churchill. Perhaps his strengths lie in the areas of reconciliation and diplomacy as let’s face it our largely peaceful move from constitutionalised apartheid to the new South Africa was nothing short of a miracle.
      Albert Einstein was reputed to say: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
      So let’s let Ramaphosa have a go, and let’s stop criticizing the fish in the tree.

  • Winston Bigsby says:

    Ja! Let’s offer military assistance like the US? 😂😂😂

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