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:
- Said South Africa condemns all violence against civilians – in Ramaphosa’s most recent statement, specifically condemning Hamas atrocities in Israel;
- 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;
- 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
- 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:
- 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;
- 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;
- 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
- 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