South Africa's cabinet has decided that all goods produced in illegal Jewish settlements must be labelled as originating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This is the culmination of several months of consultation, with the trade ministry inviting public comment back in May, saying that the labels should be introduced so that consumers are "not misled".
"This is in line with South Africa's stance that recognises the 1948 borders delineated by the United Nations and does not recognise occupied territories beyond these borders as being part of the state of Israel," government spokesman Jimmy Manyi told a press conference.
On the face of it, it all sounds quite straightforward. Not a single foreign government supports the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, which are illegal under international law. There is a substantial movement even within Israel to boycott goods produced over the so-called "Green Line", and this represents the far more moderate side of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. In fact, it is worth noting that South Africa is not advocating a boycott of these goods, simply clear labelling, and it has no bearing on goods produced in mainland Israel.
However, that is not how the Israeli Foreign Ministry sees it, releasing a very strongly worded statement: "Such exclusion and discrimination bring to mind ideas of a racist nature which the government of South Africa, more than any other, should have wholly rejected."
This reaction is completely out of proportion, particularly given that South Africa cites its history of apartheid, oppression and human rights abuses as the reason it backs the Palestinian cause. This view was summarised by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said in 1989: "If you changed the names, the description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would be a description of what is happening in South Africa."
The relationship between Israel and South Africa has never been easy. Israel had close ties to the white, apartheid regime, which fell in 1994. Although Israel nominally participated in western sanctions against South Africa from the 1980s, it retained a behind-closed-doors trade and defence relationship with the apartheid government. Prior to that, the two countries collaborated in military training and weapons development. The African National Congress has long-standing links to Palestinian freedom movements, and many leading figures have denounced Israel's policies. "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians," said Nelson Mandela in a speech in Pretoria in 1997.
It was against this backdrop that Ebrahim Ebrahim, South Africa's deputy foreign minister, said last weekend that citizens of his country should avoid visiting Israel. "Israel is an occupier country which is oppressing Palestine, so it's 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," he told the City Press newspaper.
Unsurprisingly Israel's Foreign Ministry was unimpressed, linking Ebrahim's comments to the decision to label goods from the Occupied Territories. "This proves our point," said spokesperson Yigal Palmor. "All their initiatives to mutually inform, as it were, the consumer, are nothing but a boycott in disguise."
Yet Ebrahim's comments had little to do with the policy of labelling produce. Allowing consumers to make an informed decision about whether or not to buy goods that have been produced on illegally occupied land is hardly evidence of some great conspiracy. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies issued a critical statement: "At bottom, they are believed to be motivated not by technical trade concerns but by political bias against the state of Israel." This appears to miss the point. Of course it is political. To pretend that the brutal military occupation of Palestinian land and the violent and insidious campaign of settlement building are anything but political would be disingenuous. But clearly labelling something that is produced illegally is not evidence of either racism or "bias". It is a clearly targeted policy, aimed not at the state of Israel as a whole but at the policy of settlement building, which other countries would do well to emulate.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.