Diplomacy students at Tel Aviv University could hardly believe they were listening to an ambassador. But halfway through his talk on Wednesday evening, South African envoy Major General Fumanekile Gqiba admitted to them that he had never been trained as a diplomat.
"I'm a military man and I usually say what I think," Gqiba breezily told an audience of over 100 at the university's Faculty of Social Sciences. "Later, if there's any damage," he added with a smile, "the diplomats sort it out."
Gqiba, who served as chaplain general of the South African National Defense Forces, spoke frankly for nearly an hour about "The New Era of Reengagement between Israel and South Africa." He offered a "brief bird's-eye view" of South Africa's journey to democracy from the perspective of a "foot soldier" in the struggle, before outlining the role played by South African Jews and Israel.
Gqiba acknowledged that Jews both in South Africa and abroad were at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid but he emphasized that "The sad story is that the majority [of South African Jews] decided to support the government and the National Party, which had supported Hitler during World War II and which ran a system which fed on the blood of the majority - the Africans. This is the reality."
Gqiba also stated that the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin showed explicit support for the apartheid government in the mid-1970s and that the military establishments of Israel and the apartheid regime had worked "hand in glove," including the use of Israeli-made weaponry to suppress anti-apartheid protesters. "So very few [leaders in the new democracy] were ready to talk and embrace the State of Israel," he explained, adding that he had personally viewed Israel as "the enemy of our struggle."
The change came with the Oslo peace process, Gqiba asserted. "That's when we saw a potential partner for peace. But then came the [Al-Aqsa] Intifada and our budding relationship went down."
When one student commented that Gqiba had painted a very negative view of relations between Israel and South Africa, Gqiba responded by pointing to the flurry of contact between the two countries over the past 18 months. He cited visits by Israelis to South Africa, including a delegation of Likud MKs and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as well as return visits by a group of senior African National Council officials, a local government delegation, and - last week - by Minister of Trade and Industry Mandisi Mpahlwa. South Africa's Minister of Sports is expected to arrive here next week to attend the official state ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of Rabin's assassination.
Gqiba said that the "Spiers initiative," under which groups of senior Israelis and Palestinians have been invited to retreats for intensive discussions with South Africans involved in the transition to democracy, was initiated in part as a response to the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001. "That will never happen [in South Africa] again," he said, referring to the overt anti-Semitism displayed at the conference.
Gqiba, who referred to the PLO as former "comrades in the liberation struggle" also expressed admiration for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"I respect [Sharon] as a strategist, Gqiba said. "When I'm asked about him, I say yes, he has committed mistakes in the past but I tell them about [South African apartheid-era president F.W.] de Klerk, who is a hero. We feel [Sharon] needs international support."
"My worry is that if Sharon is not here tomorrow - I'm sorry to say - I don't see peace in the region," Gqiba continued. With six million Jews and 20 million opinions, you need a benign dictator. He's a guy who, if he's made up his mind, he pushes. If you take a gentleman, you'll get nowhere. You need somebody here who's going to say how it's going to be whether you like it or not. It's like in the military. That's how you accomplish the mission. You can't have another type of character here."
Gqiba was also full of praise for the late chief rabbi of South Africa, Cyril Harris, who he described as "a great prophet of our time. More surprisingly, Gqiba had kind words for Likud "rebel" leader Uzi Landau. "He defends his case very eloquently. We wanted to bring him to South Africa." Gqiba said.
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