This past week, South African-Israeli relations sunk to one of their lowest points since the “new” South Africa began in 1994. The only other incident that caused such a fuss was the 2010 Gaza flotilla debacle when Israeli Ambassador Dov Segev-Steinberg received a dressing-down from then-deputy minister of international relations, Sue van der Merwe, and South Africa withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv for a period of time.
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The latest conflict, which is more specifically between the South African Jewish community and the South African government, involves the cancellation, announced August 10, of a visit to Israel by mayors and other members of municipalities in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province.
Similar trips for representatives from eight of the country’s nine provinces have been organized over the years by the South Africa-Israel Forum to promote agricultural and technological cooperation between the countries.
Following the cancellation, Deputy International Relations Minister Ebrahim “Ibie” Ebrahim said in the Mail & Guardian newspaper, “We discourage South Africans from visiting Israel, we don’t ban them.”
Ebrahim, now in his late 70s, was badly tortured as a political detainee in the 1980s and spent many years as a political prisoner on Robben Island (South Africa’s political Alcatraz), including 10 years in the same communal cell as current South African president Jacob Zuma. Ebrahim, who claims not to be anti-Israel but merely anti-occupation, denied that his comments represented a toughening of the government’s attitude toward Israel.
“This is not a new position,” he said in the City Press newspaper on Sunday. “Israel is an occupier country that is oppressing Palestine, so it is not proper for South Africans to associate with Israel. We discourage people from going there, except if it has to do with the peace process.”
Referring to the latest incident, as well as to the brouhaha caused by the government’s proposal to label goods from the occupied territories as such, Segev-Steinberg said it was now clear that the intention of the South African government was to boycott Israel. “The cat is out of the bag,” he said.
Ebrahim denied that there was any plan to boycott Israeli goods.
Asked if President Zuma, who has good relations with the local Jewish community, would make a statement, spokesman Mac Maharaj laughed.
“No, no, we’re definitely leaving this one to the International Relations Ministry,” said Maharaj, who knows Ebrahim well. “Let’s see how Ibie does with this one with the Jewish community.”
A group calling itself Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions South Africa claimed responsibility for the decision by the KZN officials to cancel their visits.
“The South Africa-Israel Forum has attempted several ‘boycott-busting’ trips to Israel,” the group’s statement said, calling the forum a covert arm of the Israeli lobby in South Africa with direct ties to Cape Gate, a company they claim “supplies material to, and profits from, the construction of Israel's notorious ‘Apartheid Wall.’”
They accuse the forum of circumventing South Africa’s national policy toward Israel. “The Israeli lobby in general, and the South Africa-Israel Forum in particular, have been taking members from the academic, sports, business, media and local government sectors to forge relations with the Israeli establishment,” the group said.
The group sent a petition to the KZN officials, supported by Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions), former minister of intelligence Ronnie Kasrils, a permanent thorn in the side of South Africa-Israeli relations, and Sandile Phakathi, president of the South African Union of Students.
KZN premier, Zweli Mkhize, who arranged the cancellation, made no comment but his spokesman said that Mkhize knew about the invitations and that he had cancelled the trips.
“During the days of Apartheid we had similar attempts by the regime to undermine the isolation of South Africa,” said Kasrils. “It is not surprising that the Israeli lobby is also attempting to ensnare the unwary into boycott-busting trips. The KZN provincial administration’s rejection of this opportunistic invite is commendable and an example to all South Africans believing in justice and solidarity for the dispossessed Palestinians.”
On Tuesday, during a radio interview, Ebrahim clarified his position. “The government did not say people were forbidden to go to Israel. South Africans go there on a daily basis. However the government discouraged prominent individuals and government officials going to Israel.”
“Israel is an occupying power,” he said, “and visiting it would give legitimacy to its occupation.”
Radio host Chris Gibbons interjected by asking Ebrahim if the government had the same policy with other human rights abusers such as Myanmar and China.
Ebrahim responded that the African National Congress, South Africa’s governing political party of which he is a member, has a One China policy and does not recognize the Tibet issue. He also added that the government looked at Israel in harsher light because “it has been an occupying force for over 60 years, with no process to resolve the issue.”
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, and the South Africa Zionist Federation issued a statement on Tuesday saying, “The South African Jewish community deplores Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim’s statement that he is discouraging South Africans from visiting Israel. Such a stance is grossly discriminatory, counter-productive and wholly inconsistent with how South Africa normally conducts its international relations and contradicts its official policy of having full diplomatic ties with Israel.”
In an interview this week with a local Jewish website, Segev-Steinberg said that the king of the Zulu people, Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, had accepted an invitation to visit Israel in the near future.
“The King spoke of his passion for rural development and said he would especially look into new possibilities to cooperate with Israel in the fields of health, agriculture and education amongst other areas of interest for the benefit of the Zulu people,” said Segev-Steinberg.
The Zulu king, though revered by the Zulu people, has a mainly ceremonial role and is quite often at odds with the ANC government.