“Breaking Off Diplomatic Relations with Israel will be Counterproductive,” Claims South Africa’s (Unreliable) Foreign Minister

Naledi Pandor with the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken in September 2022. Photo: US State Department.


By late November, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, there were 15 000 recorded Israeli murders of civilians, of which more than 6 100 were children. More than 7 000 Palestinians (including 4 700 women and children) are, additionally, feared to have died under rubble from Tel Aviv’s bombing of 55 000 buildings, including scores of schools and hospitals.

The case for genocide charges against Israel’s political-military leadership is stronger every day. On the surface, this case is being at least partially led by South Africa’s eloquent, impassioned Foreign Minister, Naledi Pandor, who has served in that role since mid-2019 and in Cabinet since 2004. Her party, the African National Congress (ANC), long enjoyed exiled relationships with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Pandor and her impressive Director-General at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), Zane Dangor, are among the most committed anti-Zionist foreign ministers and officials.

The question now is whether Pandor and Dangor can draw energy and momentum from last week’s overwhelming parliamentary vote – 248-91 – endorsing expulsion (albeit temporarily) of the Israeli ambassador from Pretoria. Pandor is also asking – alongside foreign ministries in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Comoros, Djibouti, Colombia, Algeria and Turkey – the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute Benyamin Netanyahu. And the next logical step is invoking The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

“The South African government has paved the path, globally, for the proper reaction to an unfolding genocide,” The Cradle columnist Pepe Escobar claimed. “South Africa, for its part, had the courage to go where few Muslim and Arab states have ventured. As matters stand, when it comes to much of the Arab world – particularly the US client states – they are still in Rhetorical Swamp territory.”

But the ICC does not look promising, as journalist Sam Husseini reports, because the Hague-based court “has been dragging its heels for years on prosecuting Israelis. It has been called a ‘white man’s court’ after only going after Africans, and, after letting Israel off the hook during an earlier assault on Gaza, ‘a hoax.’” Husseini continues, “If the Iranian, Venezuelan, South African and other governments think that Israel is committing or threatening genocide, they should invoke the Convention.”

But the danger lurking in the South African ruling party, as in many nationalist movements, is a tendency to talk left but walk right. Symbolic narratives within the rhetorical swamps of parliament and diplomacy are one thing, but hitting the Tel Aviv regime where it hurts – such as the Genocide convention and economic sanctions – would be another.

In 2021, SA-Israeli trade was about 40% lower than at peak during the 1990s but still close to $500 billion annually. Palestine-solidarity consumer boycotts are tackling many retail imports but the main categories are polished diamonds ($22 million in 2021), tool plates ($19 million) and scrap copper ($17 million).

South Africa’s main exports to Israel are coal ($100 million), rough diamonds ($78 million) and grapes ($11 million) – the first of which should tap into emerging (Western-financed) ‘Just Transition’ plans to decarbonize South Africa’s coal mines to lessen the climate crisis but without harming communities and workers. Even though it is still to get off the ground and has many conceptual flaws, a labor-community-centric approach to sanctions against Israel is needed. And that requires a committed state with a forthright, solidaristic ruling party.

A U-turn on breaking diplomatic relations?

ANC ambivalence on Israel is a long-standing problem, for as Pandor remarked on Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) against Israel to the 3rd International Dilemmas of Humanity Conference here in October,

“We need a strategic approach to the search for a better international order, one that is equitable, just, humane, inclusive, and democratic. So while I agree with BDS and the focus it has, I think we need to discuss how do we activate this in a manner that allows us to achieve the outcomes we desire and not as an illustration of our ability to organize. And I haven’t yet had that strategic advice. With the BDS intervention at the ANC conference in 2017, we did indeed remove an ambassador from Israel. But I haven’t seen it advance the peace agenda. So how do we act together to make gains in the struggle rather than to have illustrations of action? This is the kind of strategic discussion I hope we could have at some time.”

However, instead of having that discussion in an open manner so that costs and benefits are clearly understood before a November 29 Cabinet meeting decides matters, Pandor simply announced, “Breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel will be counterproductive as it will also affect our Representative Office in Ramallah, Palestine, and by implication weaken the meaningful role that South Africa can play in the Palestinian cause.”

This caution overlaps to some extent with the Zionist position, articulated by a centre-right opposition Democratic Alliance spokesperson:

“By withdrawing diplomats from Tel Aviv, our government has left more than 25,000 South African citizens to fend for themselves in a war zone, without access to emergency consular services. Given that the South African embassy in Ramallah is entirely dependent on our mission in Tel Aviv, South Africans in the State of Palestine now have no access to consular services, either. Where civilian casualties occur, families will have no available channels through which to arrange repatriation of remains in line with traditional and religious rites. Citizens will now have to travel to Jordan or Egypt, at great cost, in order to access emergency services from our government. The poorest of our citizens, who cannot afford to travel into neighbouring countries, will remain trapped and voiceless.”

(Actually, the road trip from Ramallah to Tel Aviv takes an hour, and the trip from Ramallah to Amman, Jordan takes just over two hours – although border crossing times and checkpoints are difficult to predict. And as for the 25 000 South Africans, those are the estimated residents of Israel not Palestine, including those with dual citizenship serving in the Israel Defense Forces.)

So on the one hand, the activist balance of forces within South Africa is shifting quickly. Since mid-October there has been an encouraging upsurge of protest in major cities in solidarity with Palestine.

Comfortable Zionists

In contrast, the SA Jewish Report reports on the far smaller, less frequent rallies of Johannesburg and Cape Town Zionists – amped by the SA Zionist Federation, SA Friends of Israel, and their allies in Christian fundamentalist churches – and opposed especially by South African Jews for a Free Palestine.

These rallies still focus on the October 7 Hamas attack and ignore Israel’s settle-colonialism and subsequent genocidal policies. The Times of Israel remarked last week on how “government’s anti-Israel sentiment is a secondary nuisance in comparison to the country’s apparent infrastructure collapse, high crime and economic malaise”; how “Many of us still have a comfortable life here,” and how “We’ve had no physical incidents of [anti-Semitic] violence.”

Notwithstanding South Africa’s November 6 closure of its Tel Aviv embassy, Israeli passport holders are still granted a 90-day free visa, which is far better treatment than the Department of Home Affairs’ ‘Fortress South Africa’ gives citizens from the rest of the African continent, a group which has suffered both official and societal xenophobia for at least 15 years.

To be sure, such tolerance is not the result of a power bloc similar to the U.S. in which wealthy influencers within the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee are allied with Christian Zionists and neo-conservatives to dominate a crucial terrain of foreign policy, as explained in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by professors John J. Mearsheimer of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard.

South Africa’s Zionist lobby does have important personalities, however, who worry about ‘nasty’ consumer sanctions, especially against the Cape Union Mart retail chain because its founder Philip Krawitz “received the Yakir Keren Hayesod award in Cape Town, raising the largest amount of funds per capita for apartheid Israel during the 2014 Israeli ‘Protective Edge’ war on Gaza in which 2 251 Palestinians, including 551 children, were killed,” recounts BDS coordinator Roshan Dadoo.

Rob Hersov is another high-profile pro-Israeli business tycoon with a loyal ‘Smutby Group’ (i.e., ‘rugby, smut and philosophy’) following. His November 12 ‘F*&# these guys!” swearing at Palestine solidarity activists in Cape Town quickly went viral, resulting in boycotts of padel sporting facilities (since he is Africa Padel board chair).

However, the South African government regrettably still takes its economic-relations cue not from solidarity movements in Palestine and South Africa, but from the Palestinian Authority (PA), whose 2013 rejection of BDS was celebrated by Zionists and opposed by local activists. (That led the PA to clarify its partial support for BDS, to be applied only to a handful of goods imported to South Africa from the occupied West Bank such as Sodastream.)

Leading ANC officials, including Zuma as well as foreign policy bureaucrats, then felt it was legitimate to reject full-fledged BDS on the grounds that so did the PA. Today, Abbas is once again considered to be a Quisling-type ally of Washington and Tel Aviv.

The quality of South African representation in Palestine is difficult to determine, compared to the self-described ‘vast’ information – and foreign-investment invitations – that DIRCO offers visitors to its Israel-embassy website. (To be sure, South Africa’s Ramallah office website shows a 404 notice, but there appear to be legitimate mirror sites here for Israel and here for Palestine, and the difference is remarkable.)

Zionist influencer

There is another factor: Pandor’s party, the ANC, is now facing asset seizure and could soon be declared bankrupt, after it lost a massive lawsuit to a campaign-paraphernalia supplier in the Supreme Court last week. The single largest reported donor to the party in 2023 was the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, an officeoften used by pro-Israeli arms dealer Ivor Ichikowitz for self-promotion.

The Ichikowitz Family Foundation is also an enthusiastic financial sponsor when Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) troops need the spiritual attire known as tefillin, as disclosed on 19 November and openly advertised at a causematch.com site. Ichikowitz family support for IDF soldiers in “battle” against Gaza “terrorists” dates to at least the 2014 Israeli attacks, and the family’s international tefillin marketing has been extended to many other countries.

Income for the foundation is rooted in Africa’s largest military equipment firm, the Paramount Group, set up by Ichikowitz in 1994. Although the company has gone through ups and downs, and although after a November 10 protest at an armaments factory its spokesperson denied directly supplying arms to the Israeli military, Paramount nevertheless:

+ boasts of having opened an office in Tel Aviv in 2021 (months after Donald Trump facilitated the Abraham Accords with Arab countries), because as a Paramount official explained, “This comes at a historic moment as the geopolitical landscape is shifting. The region has begun to speak with one voice”;

+ enjoys a 2022-25 joint venture with the largest Israeli arms company, Elbit, to improve Paramount’s Mbombe militarized troop carrier for use by Ecuadorian security agencies (likely against their own people, Human Rights Watch warned a month before the deal was signed);

+ now provides customers a new ‘loitering munitions’ product that reflects recently-hired Paramount VP (and former IDF Lt) Col Shane Cohen’s own specialization in what are often termed kamikaze drones; and

+ moved its world headquarters to the United Arab Emirates, in part reflecting long-standing tax-haven considerations, although Barclays Bank filed a secret (later leaked) report to U.S. financial regulators in 2015 concerning “USD wire transfers involving Paramount … and its chief executive officer and beneficial owner, Ivor Ichikowitz” which “appeared to be suspicious” because “Ichikowitz may have been involved in a potential bribery and foreign corruption scheme involving South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma” – similar to concerns about his role in military equipment sales to Malawi.

No doubt, just as in 2014, there’s extensive behind-the-scenes lobbying by Zionists to prevent the broke ruling party – facing a tough 2024 election – from fully cutting diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv. Some Zionists appear truly frightened, angry and full of threats, according to the SA Jewish Report, citing Sara Gon of the (right-wing) Institute of Race Relations:

“South Africa will have no influence whatsoever with whatever may pan out from here onwards. He [Ramaphosa] also knows that the relationship with the Jewish community is over, and he daren’t ask anything of it. The South African mission in Ramallah is likely to be left adrift without a South African embassy in Israel, which has to be a necessary consequence of his decision. He must know that the decision doesn’t just affect the rights of South African Jews; it will affect South Africans of all stripes negatively. All of this is likely not to override the need to save his presidency.”

The behind-the-scenes battle may reflect how such threats are being expressed at a time of acute financial hardship in Ramaphosa’s party. Financial and in-kind relationships with Ichikowitz have often proven lucrative to South African politicians, e.g. Zuma and his predecessor as president, Kgalema Motlanthe, no matter the embarrassments. Ramaphosa himself owes a debt of sorts to Ichikowitz for his apparently-catalytic role in the ill-fated African Peace Mission to Kyiv and Moscow in June.

The more durable problem associated with these leaders’ self-interest, Samir Amin concluded in his 2019 posthumous autobiography, was that in Pretoria, “Nothing has changed, South Africa’s sub-imperialist role has been reinforced.”

It is with all these opaque factors weighing in, that regrettably, at least for some in the ANC leadership – reminding of Pandor’s tragic conclusion – “Breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel will be counterproductive…” Only rising South African grassroots solidarity activism can restore morality to Pretoria’s foreign policy.

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: pbond@mail.ngo.za