The war between Israel and Hamas has exposed deep divisions in South Africa, with the government’s staunch support for the Palestinians coming in for criticism from leaders of the country’s Jewish community, among others.
The government has announced the withdrawal of its diplomats from Israel, and suggested that the position of Israel’s ambassador to Pretoria was becoming “untenable”.
This has been sharply criticised by the country’s Jewish Board of Deputies which has called for an urgent meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa.
South African sympathy for the Palestinian fight for an independent state goes back to the days of late anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.
He famously said in 1997, three years after he became the country’s first democratically elected president after decades of struggle against white-minority rule: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
The unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel, which killed some 1,400 people, has not changed the position of the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), even though two South African nationals were among the dead and another is among the more than 230 people taken hostage.
President Ramaphosa has pledged the ANC’s solidarity with the Palestinians, saying their history had echoes of apartheid – and South Africa’s struggle against white-minority rule.
Although he did condemn the Hamas assault, a week later he led 60 party leaders as they waved Palestinian flags, while wearing the traditional chequered black and white Palestinian scarf, the keffiyeh.
“They are people who have been under occupation for almost 75 years,” he said of the Palestinians. “They have been waiting and waging a war against a government that has been dubbed an apartheid state.
“We have always pledged our solidarity, and have always insisted that the only solution, especially with the issues of Palestine, is a two-state solution.”
South Africa’s foreign ministry has gone even further, suggesting that the Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip, which the Hamas-run health ministry says has killed more than 10,000 people, might amount to a genocide.
In the statement announcing the withdrawal of its diplomats, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor accused the Israelis of imposing “collective punishment” on Palestinian civilians – an allegation rejected by Israel.
The government has not commented on the South African hostage, or named them.
Its pro-Palestinian position has been condemned by the country’s Jewish Board of Deputies, the South African Zionist Federation and the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).
Because of the passionate views on both sides, some South African talk radio stations have deliberately limited airtime around taking calls from listeners keen to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas.
Large pro-Palestinian protest marches have been held around South Africa since the conflict began.
Smaller pro-Israel marches and rallies have been held in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Last Friday members of the Jewish community hung up 221 big red balloons across Johannesburg’s Nelson Mandela Bridge to bring attention to the Israeli hostages and call for their release.
A demonstrator, holding an Israeli flag, is removed by police officers, at a protest in support of Palestinians outside the US embassy in Johannesburg, South Africa, 11 October 2023
This pro-Israel demonstrator was removed by police at a protest in support of Palestinians
One ANC official, Gabriella Farber, resigned from the party, accusing it of “supporting Hamas”.
“It has been made very clear to me that there is no space for a proud Jew to belong to the ANC no matter how hard I tried,” she said in her resignation letter posted on X, formerly Twitter.
“It took the ANC nine days until they condemned Hamas for the atrocities they committed against the Jewish people. When the ANC condemned Hamas in the very next sentence they stated that Israel is committing a genocide,” she said as she stepped down as spokesperson for the ANC Women’s League in the Gauteng region.
The government’s stance has also drawn stinging criticism from Warren Goldstein, chief rabbi of The Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa.
“I want to tell the president and I want to tell the ANC, you are not South Africa,” he told an SA Zionist Federation rally for Israel.
“This president, his party and this government is supporting an evil savagery that has shocked the hearts of all decent human beings in the world. How dare they?”
But South Africa’s Jewish community, believed to number around 65,000, is not united in its condemnation of the government’s support for the Palestinians.
Award-winning cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, who identifies as a “secular Jew”, says it is important to remember that many senior ANC figures during the fight against apartheid were Jewish and they did not support Israel.
“I think Farber must be very blind to the fact that most significant Jewish heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle were to a great extent very much against the Israel colonial project,” Shapiro, better known by his pen name Zapiro, told the BBC.
He pointed to top ANC officials such as Joe Slovo, Arthur Goldreich, Rusty Bernstein, Ronnie Kasrils and Amy Thornton, saying they had a “background as socialists or communists or, in general, people who want to see justice in struggles wherever they are fought”.
He said that Ms Farber could not pretend that “the ANC was somehow neutral on the issue of Palestine”.
During the struggle against white-minority rule, the ANC developed close ties with erstwhile leaders such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi as well as Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).
They all helped with material or moral support and saw one another as fellow liberation movements.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat (r) and the former South African President Nelson Mandela (l) wave to a cheering crowds during their meeting at Gaza International Airport in Rafah – 19 October 1999
A few months after stepping down as president in 1999, Nelson Mandela visited Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza
Arafat was one of the first leaders Mandela met after being released from prison on 11 February 1990.
The late PLO leader was among a group of leaders from South Africa’s neighbours who had helped in the fight against apartheid who met Mandela in Zambia just two weeks after his release from 27 years in prison.
Although Mandela never set any conditions for the meeting, Arafat had already moved to accept Israel’s right to exist and a few years later he signed the Oslo Accords. Under these, the PLO recognised Israel’s right to exist and renounced terrorism in exchange for moves towards Palestinian self-rule for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Foreign Minister Pandor has come under particular fire for having a telephone conversation with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh just a few days after the 7 October attack.
Ms Pandor shrugged off the criticism, telling national broadcaster SABC that the ANC’s experience of fighting the apartheid government was that the only way of finding a solution to a conflict was by talking to your enemies.
“South Africa is always dedicated to finding solutions and to promoting peace. When the Hamas leadership asked to speak to me, I agreed and I conveyed the wish of South Africa that there be peace. This is my responsibility to do.
“When the apartheid state wanted to speak to our leaders we didn’t say: ‘They’ve been harming us, they’ve imprisoned our fathers and grandfathers.’ We said: ‘Let’s talk.’ This is the South African character,” she said.
Mr Ramaphosa, who played a prominent role in securing a negotiated settlement in Northern Ireland, says South Africa is ready to help mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing on its experience of conflict resolution.
However, South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies points out that if it were to expel Israel’s ambassador that would “be a decision contrary to everything that the government claims it stands for, that is talking to both sides of the conflict”.