South Africa's Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim recently declared that South Africa's stance on Israel is more extreme than that of many Arab countries. Sources in the South African government have called Ebrahim the leading influence on the framework of the country's foreign relations. He uses that influence to implement anti-Israel policies in the name of the governing African National Congress party and with the approval of President Jacob Zuma.
At the beginning of November, at a Congress of South African Trade Unions international relations committee meeting, South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said, "The struggle of the people of Palestine is our struggle. ... Ministers of South Africa do not visit Israel currently."
Nkoana-Mashabane said this decision was independently made by the government, and was not due to pressure from the Palestinian Authority. "Our Palestinian friends have never asked us to disengage from Israel [via severing diplomatic relations]. They have asked us in formal meetings to not engage with the regime," she said.
The belligerent declarations, and the cold -- but not frozen -- diplomatic relations with Israel, have been ongoing for years. A government source said that since Ebrahim's visit to Israel more than three years ago, there had been a de facto boycott of the country by South African government officials, a boycott strengthened by the fact that they continue refrain from visiting Israel. This is more than an official policy, but one that is also prevalent behind the scenes -- there are no back-channel talks, consultations or any type of kinship between the two nations.
And from the Israeli side? Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman leveled harsh criticism at Ebrahim, accusing him on his Facebook page of "a blend of hypocrisy and classic anti-Semitism," and warning that "a pogrom against the Jews of South Africa is only a matter of time."
From Johannesburg to Jerusalem
Yet again, anti-Israel voices are rising out from the African country that lies farthest from Israel: 6,500 kilometers (4,038 miles) separate Johannesburg and Jerusalem. In 2001, the Durban Conference took place under the auspices of the United Nations in South Africa's second largest city. The respected conference turned into a shocking anti-Israel and anti-Semitic free-for-all, a switch introduced by organizations that hate Israel. Essentially, that is when the broad international campaign for boycotting Israel and painting it as an apartheid state that must be denounced and excommunicated from the international community began.
There are many examples of this: In 2009, Jewish South African former judge Richard Goldstone headed the U.N. investigation committee on the Israel Defense Forces' Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. The committee released a report criticizing the Israeli government and the IDF's operations and claiming that there had been military attacks on civilians in violation of international law. The Israeli government denounced the report as distorted and false.
Two years ago, Goldstone expressed regret over things written in his report, and in a Washington Post article, admitted that he had since learned things he had not known at the time. He said that had Israel cooperated with the investigation, his findings may have been different. Goldstone even admitted that the U.N. Human Rights Council was prejudiced against Israel, and that Israel had investigated its own actions during the operation, while Hamas had not.
The Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry were still dealing with past traumas from South Africa when the new anti-Israel statements surfaced. Since the fall of the apartheid regime, South African governments have demonstrated a tendency to support the Palestinians, which has only grown stronger over the years. It is from South Africa that the comparisons and claims of Israeli apartheid against the Palestinians have emerged, comparing the blacks under apartheid to Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
South African literature scholar Alastair Reid said that he had heard of virtually no anti-Semitism toward the Jewish community in South Africa, but that there is "no doubt" that the official stance of the South African government is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli.
"The reason for this is a combination of history and current economic, trade and diplomatic interests," he said.
A fraternity of revolutionaries
"There are deep historic ties between the ANC, South Africa's ruling party, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, as with other Muslim groups that were stateless and planning revolutions," said Ben Swartz, a vice chairman of the South African Zionist Federation.
"The two organizations, the PLO and the ANC, were in exile at the same time and became very close as they went through Communist training camps together. Due to the nature of the ANC, with its revolutionary and socialist roots, it had a shared background with the Palestinians. At the same time, you must remember that the Israeli government was one of the few in the world that recognized and supported the apartheid government. Looking at it today, you have to understand the power of the Muslim lobby, which is very influential and connected to the ruling party [the ANC] and the government. So the attitude of the South African government to Israel is not very friendly."
But looking at the South African public, rather than the government, provides reasons for optimism. Some 80% of South Africans are faithful Christians, and most black Christian groups actually support Israel.
"Despite the diplomatic situation between the two countries, I don't think you should write off South Africa," Swartz said. "Many South Africans display appreciation and warmth toward Jews and the State of Israel. Most Christians believe in the Old Testament with the same devotion they do the New Testament. Black churches, which have great public importance, embrace Israel. So when the South African government will start to listen to the people and their wishes, the attitude will change and balance out, regarding Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the Israeli-Arab conflict in general."
Yet Swartz is not deluding himself: "Of course, there is still much work that needs to be done for this to happen. Despite hostile political elements, one should not describe South Africa as an enemy state estranged from Israel, because it has great potential to in the future turn into a true friend of Israel."
Swartz's words are backed by Kenneth Meshoe, the head of the Christian Democratic Party in South Africa and one of Israel's staunchest supporters in the country. Meshoe visited Israel several months ago for the traditional Feast of Tabernacles celebration held by the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, and talked about his pro-Israel activities.
Meshoe is considered to be one of the harshest critics of the South African government's hostile attitude toward Israel and he often produces pro-Israel videos. However, he does not wield great political power, as he is the head of a tiny opposition party -- three parliamentary seats -- in the National Assembly of South Africa, which has a total of 400 seats. Yet Meshoe represents many South Africans who hold the same views that he does.
"Any Christian who believes in the Bible cannot agree with the way of the current South African government," Meshoe said angrily. "The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel, as it is written in the Bible. Before the word Palestine was invented, Abraham received Israel from God as a promise and the people of Israel ruled the country after that. So the anti-Semitic claims that the land of Israel does not belong to the people of Israel are false. Every Christian believer should oppose those who support the enemies of Israel."
Meshoe's party may have only three representatives, but they form a vocal and energetic minority in the South African parliament.
"The South African government has taken sides against Israel," Meshoe said. "South African freedom fighters, including Nelson Mandela, said they always received protection from Jews during their persecution. The Jews marched alongside the blacks and identified with their struggle against the apartheid regime. Helen Suzman, a Jewish member of parliament, was a prominent opponent of the apartheid regime for three decades, sometimes acting alone. I feel that people who received protection from Jews in the past are now working against them."
Meshoe does not ignore the fact that the Israeli government cooperated with the apartheid regime and refused to boycott it like the majority of other world governments. But he says that is not the reason for the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel stance of the current government.
"The ruling party in South Africa receives millions of dollars from Arab states, including countries from the Middle East," Meshoe said. "For example, Libya under Gadhafi contributed a lot to the ANC. The government also receives many financial benefits from Arab countries. There is a clear economic interest that lubricates the anti-Israel policy."
Meshoe accused the South African government of hypocrisy and fraud.
"The foreign minister speaks out against and demonizes Israel, while most Christians in Muslim countries are persecuted," he said. Meshoe claims that millions of Christians support and love Israel and would even be proud to be called "Zionists." They will not let anyone harm the Jews, he said.
"I know what apartheid is, and there is no apartheid in Israel," Meshoe said.
It should be noted that not all ANC members take an anti-Israel stance. Alongside anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic figures in the parliament and government, there are also more moderate figures. The problem is that those figures are the quiet ones who work behind the scenes, and being the oft persecuted minority, fear having their voices heard. South African President Jacob Zuma is anti-Israel, but his influential deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, is considered more moderate and even supportive of Israel. Motlanthe, however, shies away from making public statements about the two countries' relations.
Pro-Israel Christian groups like the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem work in communities to forge a positive public opinion to Israel.
"We are educating our people in two aspects," Meshoe said. "The religious aspect, in which God blessed Abraham and Israel's religious and historical right to the land of Israel, as well as the practical aspect: Israel has technology that could improve lives in Africa as a whole and South Africa in particular.
"For example, the issue of polluted water can be solved using Israeli technology. Also the issue of growing plants in certain areas, which could be solved using advanced Israeli irrigation technology. Our activities help others recognize the importance of Israel. Part of our support for Israel comes from us putting our health and lives as South Africans before a political agenda."
Meshoe gets excited talking about politics as he looks even beyond the upcoming elections to be held in May. He is certain that there must be a change to the current "disappointing government, which has many detractors to its policies and has lost the public's faith."
Reid claims there "are political analysts who believe the reason for the South African foreign minister's anti-Israel statements is an attempt to garner votes from districts with a Muslim majority, like Cape province, which the ruling party does not have a majority vote in." So who is right? Time will tell.
The ANC is expected to win the upcoming elections as well. But the real question is if its power will diminish as the current polls suggest, and if so, by how much.
So why bother with South Africa? It is not one of the more wealthy, populous or influential countries in the world. Still, one should not take South Africa's importance for granted as a moral compass, says former MK Dr. Einat Wilf, currently a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute. The JPPI is funding a research project on Israel's delegitimization in the world.
"Because of its history as a country to overcome apartheid, South Africa is considered a leading example for a moral country for those who see themselves as cultured. It is the flag bearer for white and black equality and for tolerance. For example, Nelson Mandela is considered a world leader. South Africa holds the position as the liberal world's moral compass and is immensely influential on NGOs in the western world, and this reflects on European and leftist organizations in the U.S.," Wilf said.
South Africa's policies continue to influence liberal and leftist circles in the West, be it on campus in American universities or social-political groups in Europe. The initiative to boycott goods produced beyond the green line came from South Africa, as did the call to boycott ties with Israel, not recognize Israeli institutions and liken Israel to an apartheid state.
"South Africa also leads in the Jewish anti-Israel phenomenon," Wilf said. "While it is true that the Jewish community is very Zionist and committed to Israel, there are still some prominent Jewish activists who speak out against Israel and call it an 'apartheid state,' and they receive widespread media exposure for it. This is clearly very dangerous, because it is hard to argue with a Jew from South Africa who says this."