The 54th Conference of the African National Congress (ANC) was held at the Nasrec exhibition complex in Johannesburg from 16-20 December 2017. The ANC is the oldest political organisation in Africa and the biggest political party in South Africa – since the dawn of democracy in 1994 the ANC has maintained a clear majority in parliament.
The ANC’s conference is significant because at this gathering the ANC endorses policies and elects its leadership. The president of the ANC will also serve as the South African Presidential candidate in 2019. The conference elected Cyril Ramaphosa to replace President Jacob Zuma who has led the ANC from 2007.
The World Conference against Racism (WCAR) in 2001, held in South Africa under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), is regarded as a milestone in Palestine-South Africa relations at all levels. South African civil society was vociferous in their condemnation of the state of Israel. Over the years the ANC has maintained a very close working relationship with the people of Palestine, strengthening government-to-government relations, promoting cultural exchanges and generally strengthening solidarity with the Palestinians.
Similarly South African civil society has been relentless in their support for Palestine. South Africa has led some of the largest marches and protests against the state of Israel in the world. The struggles of the people of South Africa against apartheid and that of the Palestinians have many similar features and over the years they have established a very close relationship. This relationship is demonstrated in the shared political jargon used in describing Palestinian political experiences including referring to Israel as an “apartheid state”.
The 54th conference of the ANC surprised everybody when it invited senior members of Hamas to attend their conference in Johannesburg. Mohammed Nizal a senior member of Hamas, led the delegation which sat prominently inside the plenary hall of the ANC. Next to Nizal sat the ambassador of Palestine to South Africa, Mr. Hashim Dajani, who made an emotional speech on behalf of the PLO and the people of Palestine. Hamas’ presence demonstrates a change in the attitude of the ANC towards the organisation and indeed a change in tactic in dealing with all political parties in Palestine.
In October 2015 the ANC met with leaders of Hamas including Khaled Meshaal in Johannesburg. During that meeting the organisation emphasised that the meeting was “meant to encourage other countries to take a stand against what the ruling party calls violence and apartheid, orchestrated by the Israeli government”. Days before the 54th conference of the ANC some senior members of the ANC indicated that they were considering dropping its long held position on the two-state solution. Although this did not form part of the discussion at the conference, it has become a serious talking point within the corridors of power.
The International Affairs Committee of the ANC held the discussion on Palestine high on the agenda at the conference. The majority of the delegates were wearing the Palestinian black and white scarves in solidarity. The delegates erupted into a spontaneous applause when the newly elected Secretary General of the ANC, Ace Magashule, announced that the ANC conference has decided to downgrade the status of the South African embassy in Israel to that of a liaison office. It is a drastic political position that will undoubtedly anger Israel.
The downgrading of the South African embassy in Israel follows other solidarity gestures made in the past by the government of South Africa, including the recalling of the South African ambassador Ishmael Coovadia in 2010. The South African government said at the time that this was a “way of protesting and a way of showing our strongest condemnation of the attack of the aid flotilla”.
In 2012 the South African Minister of Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, instituted a law which forced business in South Africa to label products imported from Israel. Davies issued a notice – Section 26 of the Consumer Protection Act – to force traders of certain Israeli goods to re-label them and stop them being sold as “Made in Israel”. Davies argued at the time that “consumers should not be misled into believing products originating in occupied Palestine came from Israel”.
Solidarity with the Palestinians sends a message to Israel and emphasises South Africa’s foreign policy independence.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.