Pro-Israel Lobby in South Africa Is Outplayed by BDS Campaign, Analyst Says

Howard Sackstein, founder of the Jewish Anti-Apartheid movement, says ANC’s latest emphasis on anti-Israel action is the result of trying to win Muslim votes.

JOHANNESBURG  - The well-organized, well-funded anti-Israel lobby in South Africa – mainly in the form of BDS (boycott, disinvestment and sanctions) – is overpowering the local pro-Israel lobby, a veteran analyst of Israel-South African relations told Haaretz.

According to Howard Sackstein ,whether pro-Israel groups can get back up on their feet depends on how rapidly they realize that they're up against “professionals,” and also how quickly they move away from counting only on personal relationships with personages in the African National Congress (ANC) and government.

Sackstein, an attorney currently working in telecommunications, studied international conflict resolution at Harvard University and worked for AIPAC, the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington D.C.

He was the founder and vice-chairman of Jews for Social Justice, the Jewish Anti-Apartheid movement, and led the only ANC delegation ever to visit Israel. Sackstein also took Nelson Mandela to Brussels on behalf of the World Jewish Congress.

He spent six years at the Independent Electoral Commission (1994 to 2000) ending as executive director of the IEC and becoming largely responsible for the 1999 South African general elections.

In Sackstein’s view, much of the ANC’s latest emphasis on anti-Israel action is the result of trying to win Muslim votes in the Western Cape, which is the only province in South Africa not controlled by the ANC. Many so-called “Coloureds” – who live mainly in the Cape – are Muslims.

“I think the Muslims in the Cape have got other priorities, but that’s not the point. The point is that the ANC is trying to woo them however it can, " he said, adding:  "One point I would make finally is that the BDS campaign, spearheaded by Muhammed Desai and Zachie Achmat, is very well run and seems to be well-funded. Maybe local Jewish leaders have relied for too long on their relations with ANC leaders who have in case moved on now – such as former President Mandela – and it’s time for the Jewish leadership to do some hard strategizing. Maybe this should be their new year’s resolution,” he added.

In his view, pro-Israel groups need to put together more effective strategies, while simultaneously realizing that there exist circumstances over which they have no control.

“By ‘circumstances over which they have no control,’ I mean of course the policies and behavior of the Israeli government and leaders,” said Sackstein in an interview with Haaretz.

“You have to start by realizing that, whatever other pressures and influences and games-playing by ANC politicians that we discuss, Israel’s policies and its human rights record towards occupied Palestinians are simply unacceptable to any member of the ANC and the South African Left – and maybe to most enlightened people anywhere, including Israel.

“This is the one factor that can’t be changed by those who try to fly the Israeli flag locally,” he added.

Sackstein was commenting on the latest four main incidents that have recently strained relations between South Africa and Israel as well as between elements of the local Jewish community and the ANC-led government. (Sackstein covered the modern “history” of SA-Israeli relations in an analysis written on website Politicsweb on 20 August: .).

The latest incidents were, first, the decision in 2011 by the University of Johannesburg (UJ), under pressure by BDS campaigners, to cancel its bi-lateral agreement with the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev on water purification projects in South Africa.

Second, at the behest of pro-Palestinian advocates, Open Shuhada Street, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies announced that he was to issue an official notice “to require traders in South Africa not to incorrectly label products that originate from the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) as products of Israel”.

Third, Deputy International Relations Minister Ebrahim “Ibie” Ebrahim said that Pretoria discouraged all South Africans from visiting Israel. He said: “Because of the treatment and policies of Israel towards the Palestinian people, we strongly discourage South Africans from going there.” He later told a newspaper that “Israel is an occupier country which is oppressing Palestine, so it is not proper for South Africans to associate with Israel.”

However, it seems that Ebrahim was “told” to temper the tenor of his comments on Israel and he later said that it was people on official business with Israel that should be discouraged from going there, not ordinary South Africans.

Finally, on 31 August, the Students’ Representative Council of the University of the Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, declared an academic and cultural boycott of Israel in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

“You know,” Sackstein said, “whatever fancy verbal footwork some people might do – such as, say, Minister Rob Davies regarding the labelling issue – the fact is that the most influential body in the ANC, and therefore in the country, the ANC’s national executive council (NEC), which is effectively the country’s presidium – I know for a fact that the NEC discussed Israel, Palestine etc. and decided that they would have a common front on the issue and that certain steps needed to be taken.”

In other words, said Sackstein, Davies and Ebrahim were not acting of their own accord, but effectively carrying out ANC policy.

The ANC, Sackstein recalled, had been very close to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, especially in the days before it became the government of South Africa and soon afterwards. In addition, the ANC policy is overall to be supportive of "oppressed people everywhere."

"Ebrahim said years ago that the ANC’s remaining struggles, besides its own, lay in east Timor, the Western Sahara and of course Palestine,” said Sackstein. “Besides, as I said earlier, the behavior of the Israel government doesn’t exactly enamour itself to leftist movements.”

A truncated version of this article was edited for the print edition of Haaretz.