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Russell Pollitt, S.J.October 18, 2023
A man sits outside his building which was destroyed during Israeli bombardment in Rafah refugee camp in Gaza Strip on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)A man sits outside his building which was destroyed during Israeli bombardment in Rafah refugee camp in Gaza Strip on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress affirmed its position on the conflict in the Middle East on Oct. 14. During a high-level meeting of the party’s national executive committee, members of the A.N.C. leadership, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, wore black with Palestinian scarves draped around their necks as they addressed the media.

Mr. Ramphosa said that the A.N.C. remained steadfast in advocating for peace between Israel and Palestine. He said the A.N.C. stood with Palestine and its citizens, who have been oppressed for more than 70 years. “As the A.N.C., 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,” the president said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa: “As the A.N.C., we have always pledged our solidarity and have always insisted that the only solution is a two-state solution.”

“We stand here because we are deeply concerned about the atrocities occurring in the Middle East, and we have passed our condolences to the people of Israel just as we are passing condolences to the people of Palestine,” Mr. Ramaphosa said.

Mr. Ramaphosa harshly criticized Israel, however. He said that many have come to view Israel as an apartheid state that continues to oppress the Palestinian people. He told the media that the A.N.C. pledges “solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

He said that the A.N.C. found similarities between South Africa’s history of apartheid and the experiences of Palestinians. The president said that the Palestinians are struggling for justice, adding, “Their human rights are being violated.”

Mr. Ramaphosa said that South Africa was willing to mediate in the conflict, drawing on South Africa’s own experience with conflict resolution. He also called for the revocation of the order issued by Israeli Defense Forces to evacuate northern Gaza, for a cease-fire and for humanitarian corridors to be opened so that the people of Gaza could get the aid they urgently needed.

A day after Mr. Ramaphosa pledged support for Palestine, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies wrote a public letter condemning the president’s position. It accused the president of “hypocrisy and double standards.”

The letter said that there has been no condemnation from the president’s office and that instead “we have had to endure members of your administration and your party who have dared suggest that somehow these murders were the victims’ just desserts and justified.”

Mr. Ramaphosa said that many have come to view Israel as an apartheid state that continues to oppress the Palestinian people.

The letter said that the silence from the government on the Hamas attack and “the hostility of your party is stunning…tantamount to complicity.” The board told Mr. Ramaphosa that during the time of the greatest need within South Africa’s Jewish community, “you have ignored us.”

Board members said the president had no “inkling of the depth of the pain and trauma” Jewish people in South Africa were feeling as well as their “palpable sense of betrayal.” The letter ends by saying that despite South Africa’s lauded constitution guaranteeing the rights of all, “we feel like second-class citizens.”

On Oct. 17, the president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, released a statement appealing for “a ceasefire and a humane way of dealing with the present situation.” He requested an immediate “restoration of food supply, electricity and health care to the Palestinian people in Gaza, which are the basic necessities of life.”

Bishop Sipuka affirmed in the statement Israel’s obligation to protect its citizens. He said that southern African bishops noted the bombardment of Gaza “causing suffering and death to a huge number of civilian Palestinians with no connection to Hamas.”

Bishop Sipuka said, “Hamas’s killing of ordinary Israeli citizens cannot be justified even by the cause Hamas claims to be fighting for.” He continued: “The hurt, anger and sense of obligation by the Israeli government to avenge Hamas’s acts and prevent it from causing further harm does not justify the means they apply towards this end as it results in the suffering and death of innocent Palestinians. Two wrongs don’t make a right; the innocent lives of both the Israelis and Palestinians are precious and must be protected.”

Asked about the South African government’s claim that Israel is an apartheid state, Bishop Sipuka said, “The bishops have not discussed the government’s position on Israel.”

The president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, appealed for “a ceasefire and a humane way of dealing with the present situation.”

Many in the West struggle to understand why some African states support the Palestinians. But since the dawn of its own democracy in 1994, the South African government has consistently supported the Palestinian struggle for statehood. South Africa has also been one of the most prominent voices criticizing Israel’s policies globally, especially in Africa.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the country’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, famously said that South Africa’s freedom was incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians. He drew parallels between the struggle of Black South Africans against white rule and Palestinians against Israel’s occupation.

In July 2022, South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor, asked the United Nations to classify Israel as an “apartheid state” because, she said, “The Palestinian narrative evokes experiences of South Africa’s history of racial segregation and oppression.”

Ms. Pandor said: “As oppressed South Africans, we experienced first-hand the effects of racial inequality, discrimination and denial, and we cannot stand by while another generation of Palestinians are left behind.”

In March 2023, South Africa’s Parliament voted to downgrade diplomatic ties with Israel from an embassy to a liaison office. South Africa’s history with Israel is long and complicated.

Both the A.N.C. and its primary ally in the struggle against apartheid, the Pan-Africanist Congress (P.A.C.) considered Israel an ally. From 1940 to 1960, they expressed support for the State of Israel. The P.A.C. received financial help from Israel until the 1970s.

Cardinal Stephen Brislin: “With Pope Francis, we call for the release of hostages. We also pray for those in Gaza who have been held under siege for so many years in what is effectively the world’s largest open-air prison.”

The relationship began to change in the 1970s and 1980s. The A.N.C. objected to Israel’s support and collaboration with white minority rule, especially after Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime. This, together with the emerging perception that Palestinians suffered an apartheid-like oppression, has shaped South Africa’s relationship with Israel.

The A.N.C. also had strong ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization from the 1960s. In the 1980s, this relationship developed into a strategic and operational alliance. When the P.L.O. weakened, the A.N.C. was accused of moving its support toward Hamas.

The Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 was, for the South African government, the consequence of decades of Israeli occupation. While some might try to hinge the current conflict on those attacks alone, South African leaders view them as an outcome of the ongoing occupation.

The director-general of South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation Affairs, Zane Dangor, told local news channel eNCA that “the fact that an attack has taken place is not that surprising given the events of the last year, the cruelty, the inhumanity, the violence against civilians, the repression, all that accompanies an illegal occupation that has been taking place for close to five decades if not more has led many to believe that given the lack of accountability, and the lack of voice from Palestinians that some kind of counterattack would be imminent.”

In a letter to the Archdiocese of Cape Town, the newly created Cardinal Stephen Brislin said, “While there are those who seek facile interpretations of the conflict, there is no single narrative that captures the full context of what is presently happening in the Holy Land.”

Cardinal Brislin said, “With Pope Francis, we call for the release of hostages. We also pray for those in Gaza who have been held under siege for so many years in what is effectively the world’s largest open-air prison. Our prayers need to accompany all who find themselves hostage.”

In 2024, South Africa will hold a general election, and the ruling A.N.C. knows that the Israel-Palestine issue is close to the hearts of many South Africans. Some in the congress are feeling pressure to break ties with Israel.

Muhammed Desai, director of the South African advocacy group Africa4Palestine, told Al Jazeera News that “as civil society, we are advocating for our government to do more: All relations and trade with Israel should be boycotted, both at a public level but also by the private sector.”

Although South Africa—together with Sudan, Algeria and Tunisia—supports the Palestinian cause, not all African nations are in agreement. Leaders of Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have pledged their support for Israel. Other African countries, like Nigeria and Uganda, have taken a neutral stance since the beginning of this most recent Israel-Hamas conflict. Other African countries have chosen not to speak on the conflict at all.

Perhaps the continent’s most unambiguous statement came from President William Ruto of Kenya: “Kenya joins the rest of the world in solidarity with the State of Israel and unequivocally condemns terrorism and attacks on innocent civilians in the country.”

He went on to say: “There exists no justification whatsoever for terrorism, which constitutes a serious threat to international peace and security.” He called for the perpetrators of the attack to be brought to justice, describing the events of Oct. 7 as “criminal acts of terrorism.”

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