The SA and Israeli governments are closer than you may think

Wits graffiti of Israel and Palestine relations South Africa

Civil society group Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions-South Africa (BDS-SA) had strong words for the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) this week after pictures emerged of a Dirco official giving the departing Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk, a farewell gift. The Daily Vox unpacks the seemingly contradictory behaviour of the ANC and South African government.

It may seem like a trivial matter, but BDS-SA didn’t pull any punches when it released a statement about Dirco’s gift giving on Thursday. “Dirco is insulting the people of South Africa as well as the ruling party’s members, resolutions, directives and policies,” BDS-SA said in the statement. It said this was more insulting given the Israeli embassy’s “unprecedented attack” earlier this year, in which it accused the ANC of being hateful and anti-semitic.

South Africa’s relationship with Israel is complicated. Government has always maintained that it recognises the people of Palestine and wants an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories by the Israeli government. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly just this week, President Jacob Zuma reiterated the South African government’s stance on Palestine and called for international support of the Palestinian people.

Despite this vocal support, the South African government maintains cordial relations with Israel. South Africa still has an embassy in Tel Aviv and Israel has an embassy in Pretoria. The ANC has called for South Africa’s embassy in Israel to be downgraded to an “interests section” as a show of support for the Palestinian people.  but this call was made at party level and the proposal has yet to be formally ratified by government.

And although the ANC is always quick to condemn the DA for its close relations with the Israel, the ANC-led government doesn’t exactly have a frosty relationship with Israel either.

Last year, the South African ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane reportedly made “pro-Israeli” comments and said Israel was justified in its attack on Gaza. At the time, the deputy minister of international relations, Luwellyn Landers, said Ngombane should be recalled for his remarks. Yet, Ngombane still holds his position.

Earlier this year, the Dirco director-general Jerry Matjila met with his Israeli counterpart, Dr Dore Gold to a South Africa and Israel partnership working on national policy issues such as water, agriculture, trade, and science and technology.

And in August, presidential hopeful, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma met with a delegation of Israeli lawmakers and leaders to discuss Israeli ties to the South African Jewish community.

The BDS-SA statement this week implies that the primary problem South Africa’s relationship with Israel lies with Dirco, and that it wants Dirco officials to toe government’s line. But how can the actions of a government department be separated from the ideals of government itself? And who should we believed when ANC government officials like Zuma, Baleka Mbete and Gwede Mantashe call for the support for Palestine while other party stalwarts continue to forge closer relations with Israel?