Creating new perspectives since 2009

A long and unpredictable relationship: South Africa's ties to Israel

January 28, 2014 at 2:08 am

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, [L] meets with South African President Jacob Zuma at Union Building in South Africa [Thaer Ganaim/Apaimages]

South Africa has announced that it will label products made in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories as “made in occupied Palestine” rather than “made in Israel”. It has provoked fear amongst some and hope amongst others that a boycott of such goods will take off within the international community. Indeed Denmark has already followed suit.

If past boycotts are anything to go by, those who fear the implications of the boycott have every reason to do so. In 1958, Chief Albert Luthli called for the boycotting of apartheid South Africa, a move that played a huge part in the eventual collapse of the system.

Looking Back

This is not the first time that Israel and South Africa’s foreign policy have been linked. Historically, the two countries have fallen out and back into each other’s arms on many occasions.

The seeds were sown as far back as 1917, when South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts helped the Zionists to obtain the Balfour declaration from Britain. He remained loyal to the Zionist cause until his death in 1950. In fact, even when the Nationalist Party took power in South Africa in 1948 – a party feared by the Jewish population for its pro-Hitler stance – it was more interested in maintaining a white majority than setting out on a campaign of anti-Semitism.1

The 1950s and 60s saw Israel cooperate with the post-colonial African states, whilst at the same time condemning apartheid. When Israel lost support from the same African states after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, it very conveniently reviewed its stance on the political system in Pretoria.2 As the two countries became increasingly isolated from the rest of the world they gravitated towards each other. Both were victims, they believed, of Western disdain.

The relationship proved to be long and profitable. Over the years, Israel introduced South Africa to the international arms trade and its state-owned factory Beit Alfa sold anti-riot vehicles to Pretoria. The most contentious influence Israel had was providing South Africa with the proficiency and technology to develop nuclear weapons.3

Perhaps what has anchored this relationship through the years, to outsiders at least, is that Israel’s political system is and was compared constantly to apartheid South Africa’s.

It was a UN General Assembly statement in 1975 that linked Zionism to apartheid in a declaration that made official an idea that had been around since 1948.4  Newspaper articles, research centres and opinion pieces have since performed comparative studies of the two political systems. The reality is no longer a question of whether they are the same; the conclusion is that Israel is, in fact, worse.5 In apartheid South Africa, black people were not forbidden from work, for example, nor were missiles used to destroy their townships.

The 2012 boycott: what are the obstacles?

Through its relationship with Israel, South Africa has affirmed a foreign policy prone to pragmatic movement for economic and political convenience. It came as no surprise, therefore, that President Jacob Zuma became part of the BRICs group of emerging economies in April 2011   along with Brazil, Russia, India and China -whose core message is against Western dominance.

Even so, the moral weight of pronouncements made by a country that has overcome the horrors of apartheid makes South Africa’s a powerful influence that cannot be underestimated.

Action by South Africa may not be able to damage Israel’s economy alone, but it has helped to turn the international spotlight onto the illegal policies and practices of the Israeli government. It draws attention to how far boycotts can go towards influencing a government, and possibly bringing it down. This sends a message to Israel that its current policy on Palestine is far from acceptable.

There are also setbacks, in that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has reacted to the threat of a boycott by declaring that South Africa is “racist”. Many Israelis see the boycott move as an attempt to discredit the actual existence of the Zionist state.

However, in July 2011, Israeli individuals and institutions also called for a ban on products made in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli government’s response was to pass a law banning geographical boycotts and now protesters do so at the risk of legal action forcing them to pay damages.6

Why though, would South Africa’s action be declared “racist”? Whether they take place inside or outside Israel, the boycotts do not stem from hatred of a particular ethnic group or religion, but from an absolute necessity for someone to stand up to a government which is pursuing discriminatory policies against the Palestinians and attempting to change the demography of historic Palestine. Boycotts are part of a peaceful, non-violent movement working to achieve a better way of life for the people of Palestine.

Looking forward: what do people want?

Following the recent events in the Middle East, the Arab Spring and the success of the Palestinian hunger strikes, it has become increasingly important to talk to citizens, not to the governments who have smothered them for so long. Whilst it is useful to assess the fluid nature of South African foreign policy and Israel’s responses, it is the will of the people, who have seen that they can create change, to provide a better way of life. That is more than an idea; it is a tangible reality at the expense of rulers if they stand in the people’s way.

So what do people really want? A BBC poll in 2011 showed that Western public opinion against Israel was more negative than positive, and this figure is rising.7 The next step in the fight is for this sentiment to be expressed in popular action.

In March this year the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, New York voted against the boycott of Israeli products in their store. The move was part of the Boycotts Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and after ardent canvassing by co-op members, local politicians and protesters it became another in a long line of supermarkets in the United States which decided against a boycott. Yet during apartheid in South Africa, products were boycotted, as were Chilean grapes during the Pinochet regime.8

Does this mean there is no hope for change or just that such things require patience? The movement against South African apartheid was also a long and slow battle. At the time, Desmond Tutu was the Archbishop of Cape Town and had to work hard to convince churches, universities and businesses to join the protest movement. A 12th July 1987 Associated Press headline reads, “Leaders of the Church of England rejected a proposal Saturday to get rid of the church’s investment in South Africa.”9

It is when there is a real cultural shift anchored in South African and international values and beliefs which reflects an anti-Israeli stance that there will be real change, especially when this leads to actions. Just as there was a tipping point that helped dismantle apartheid in South Africa, there will also be a tipping point in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Boycotting products made in settlements is the beginning, not the end.

1Israel South Africa, The Natural Alliance, Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, published by Blackrose Press
4J. Adams, “Israel and South Africa. The Unnatural Alliance”, published by Quartet Books, 1984, pg. 17
5A. Badran, “Zionist Israel and Apartheid South Africa”, published by Routledge, 2009, pg. 50

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.