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To make a difference in any conflict, it is essential that the mediators are prepared to hear both sides of the story–whatever their own personal thoughts might be, writes Zev Krengel

For years, South Africa had the gravitas to intervene in international issues, fighting far above its weight division in global disputes on the back of a hard won legacy, due almost entirely to the efforts and personal sacrifice of the father of the modern South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Mandela won the admiration of the world for his total lack of personal animus. He bore no ill will for his incarceration that cost the best part of his productive life. Instead, he harnessed those experiences to allow him to negotiate with his former captors, while leading his comrades on a path not any had the stomach for.

Apartheid has rightly been described as a crime against humanity, we forget how difficult it was for so many ANC leaders to give up the opportunity of the armed struggle at that time to press home their advantage in pursuit of total victory against the regime.

Mandela knew differently. He was able to persuade his key lieutenants of his vision of reconciliation and reconstruction and it was they who suggested the sunset clause, that allowed the apartheid apparatchiks a five-year period immediately post-apartheid to transfer power and skills to the new cadres and in doing so lay the foundations for a remarkable period in our country’s history.

It was Mandela’s determination to understand both sides of the conflict that led to an imperfect tool such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to take place, that sacrificed justice on the altar of pragmatism and co-existence—premised on honest disclosure.

This combined legacy of profound understanding and a fundamental commitment to build a sustainable home for all created a unique selling point for South Africa, as a broker of peace in otherwise impossible situations.

It was a mantle easily adopted by his successor Thabo Mbeki and to a lesser extent by Kgalema Motlanthe as interim president, while Jacob Zuma concentrated his passions and interests in domestic issues that rarely ventured north of Beit Bridge. Sadly, December 2017 marked a turning point that very few could have foreseen.

The New Dawn promised by the ANC’s new leader, and soon to be South Africa’s fifth president, Cyril Ramaphosa, brought with it the harbinger of something more ominous. The ANC party resolution called for a closing of the South African embassy in Israel, notwithstanding the longstanding cultural, economic, and personal ties that link our two countries.

The embassy was not closed but diplomatic relations began their steady decline from which they have never recovered. Ambassador Sisa Ngombane was recalled in May 2018 for consultations, returned to post in October, and then left in December that year. Following this, the then Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, announced that the embassy had effectively been downgraded to a liaison office, with no political, trade or development mandate. This situation continued for almost five years until late last year.

There are many that think that 7 October 2023 was ground zero. They would be right. It was the worst atrocity ever to be visited on Jews since the horror of the Holocaust. The barbarism, the intentional gender-based violence, the filming and the distribution of these attacks, the opening of a Pandora’s Box of latent and vile anti-Semitism was unprecedented, but for South African Jews, worse was to come. For a start our government and our president could not bring themselves to condemn the attacks on the innocent. They could not rouse themselves to reach out to their own nationals caught in the conflict. They could not offer solace to the families of South Africans slain in the attacks. The Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor could reach out to Hamas though—and did.

A month later, the South African government recalled all its diplomats from Israel for consultation. They have yet to return. Shortly thereafter, the Israeli government recalled its ambassador to South Africa. For the last three months, there has been no vestige of normal diplomatic ties whatsoever between the two countries.

But the South African government had still to reach the true depths of its duplicity. Last December, after eight weeks of urging by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, every week since the devastating attack; President Ramaphosa deigned to meet with a delegation on December 13. 10 days later, on December 23, his government asked for a meeting with Israel’s foreign minister. The Israeli foreign minister agreed on December 26, the Day of Goodwill in South Africa. On December 29, three days later, South Africa issued suit in the International Court of Justice, accusing Israel of waging genocide in Gaza.

The president had effectively weaponised the concern of his own country’s Jewish community to show that he had consulted widely before taking this step. It is a rank calumny, but sadly indicative of the true state of the current administration.

We all know what happened at the ICJ. We all know how badly the ANC government wanted this attention—far more cabinet ministers and senior public servants attended the two-day hearing than the Rugby World Cup final.

Despite the efforts to spin the ICJ judgment as a devastating legal blow for the state of Israel, the ruling was nothing of the sort, but the nuances were lost on those who had already written their own headlines and only had to shape their dispatches to fit. The ANC and its leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, the stewards of a failed state by any metric, now bask in the glow of some foreign plaudits as heroes for human rights, but it is a perverse accolade.

The ANC is neither neutral observer nor honest broker. This has become perfectly clear by its conduct in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War, steadfastly refusing to condemn Russia at the UN General Assembly. It has been mute on the ongoing persecution of Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese and totally missing in action regarding the humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan. Yet on Gaza, it acted with alacrity.

Its opportunistic abuse of international organs, when it has perverted the course of justice to shield warmongers like Vladimir Putin or genocidaires like Omar al Bashir is no surprise. Its motives are highly dubious; driven more by the need to survive the internal machinations of a once proud liberation movement than adhering to any principle.

As such, the current government no longer has the right to paint itself as a concerned global citizen, because it has no interest in finding solutions beyond internet clicks and newspaper headlines.

To make a difference in any conflict, it is essential that the mediators are prepared to hear both sides of the story—whatever their own personal thoughts might be. To do that engenders trust and with trust, respect. South Africa, because of its acts over the last five years, has squandered both.

The burning question put to the Hague last month was whether the court had locus standi to hear the case.

The real question should have been whether our government had the necessary jurisdiction to bring it. For South Africa’s Jews, there was no doubt: the last vestiges of the new dawn evaporated in the cold light of 29 December 2023—as empty as the vessel which had borne them.

Zev Krengel is President of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

By Editor