Picture: Oupa Mokoena / Independent Newspapers / Taken on October 20, 2023 – The ANC leads a march in solidarity with the people of Palestine to Protest at the Israeli embassy. While South Africa, Algeria and have clealy supported the Palestinian cause, other African countries have sided with Israel in the war, protecting their economic interests, the writer says.
By Kim Heller
As the blood spill of the Israel-Palestine conflict intensifies and spreads, the bold green, black, red and white of the Palestinian flag has been the colour of protests across the globe.
The death toll is swelling, and a serious humanitarian crisis looms large. The Red Cross has spoken of the devastating damage to the essential infrastructure of Gaza as battles continue. Access to basics such as water and emergency healthcare is severely impacted.
Latest statistics from the Gaza Ministry of Health show that more than 5,000 people have been killed in Gaza since October 7, 2023. The Ministry affirms that about 62 percent of these deaths have been women and children. Official sources from Israel report that close to 1,500 Israelis have been killed in the conflict.
There have been giant solidarity rallies in support of the people of Palestine over the past two weeks. Worldwide, ordinary citizens have taken to the streets calling for an end to Israel’s unrelenting attacks on Gaza. The chant “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free” has been loud and clear. The scale of these protests, which have transcended borders, religion, race, and language, show a gigantic cry for peace and justice.
Even in many Western countries where governments have sided unequivocally with Israel as it retaliates after the Hamas attack on Southern Israel on October 7, pro-Palestinian protests have fast become the “street-fair” of ordinary citizens.
The plight of the people of Palestine has always found strong resonance with the people of Africa, for her people have also been subjected to land injustice and human rights violations under settler colonialism.
Speaking on the recent Israel-Palestine conflict, Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat said that the “denial of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, particularly that of an independent and sovereign State, is the main cause of the permanent Israeli-Palestinian tension”.
He urged “both parties to put an end to military hostilities and to return, without conditions, to the negotiating table to implement the principle of two States living side by side, to safeguard the interests of the Palestinian people and the Israeli people”.
For now, among African countries, there is no uniform or united position on the current Israel-Palestine conflict. Nor should we necessarily expect such. In the conflict-ridden Continent of Africa, some nations are standing firmly with Israel. These include Kenya, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda has vocalised support for Israel but has nonetheless sent humanitarian aid to Palestine.
South Africa, Algeria and Tunisia have been among African states that are clear that they stand with Palestine. Algeria expressed support for Palestine and expressed deep concern about “the escalation of barbaric Zionist aggression against the Gaza Strip, which has cost the lives of dozens of innocent children of the Palestinian people, who have fallen as martyrs to the stubbornness of the Zionist occupation in its policy of oppression and persecution imposed on the valiant Palestinian people”.
At Saturday’s peace summit in Cairo, Egypt, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said “Our people waged a brave and courageous struggle to achieve their freedom and were subjected to untold suffering just like the Palestinians are going through. The nightmare of apartheid was only brought to an end by the relentless struggle of our people and the courage and foresight of leaders who put aside their differences and sought peace rather than revenge.”
Tanzania has taken a neutral stance saying that they “mourn” with the families of Israelis and Palestinians who lost their lives and called for restraint to stem further loss of human life. Nigeria has encouraged de-escalation and ceasefire. Many African countries have yet to find their voice.
For countries like Sudan, which is in the midst of its own war, the plight of Palestine is a faraway land. The conflict in Sudan, venturing into its seventh month, has seen an estimated 9,000 people lose their lives and more than 5 million have been forced to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
Africa is not a homogenous mass. Each country, faced with its own peculiar set of geo-political and economic characters and challenges, will respond uniquely rather than united to the Middle East crisis. Rwandan constitutional lawyer, Louis Gitinywa, recently told Anadolu Agency that it is not surprising that the “Israel-Palestine issue has divided the Continent because African nations do not have a common stance when it comes to foreign policy”. Gitinywa said, “African countries have taken different positions on the matter, based on their political and geopolitical interests. This is nothing new. States have interests, they don’t have friends.”
Aljazeera’s Shola Lawal recently examined why Africa, which has suffered “the worst ravages of colonialism and racism for centuries” and which has historically supported Palestine, is now divided on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Lawal referred to the historical and emotional relationship Africa has with Palestine.
“African countries shedding the pain of brutal colonial rule in the 1960s were cold to a newly formed Israel and were sympathetic to the struggle of Palestinians uprooted from their land and homes in 1948,” writes Lawal.
But relationships change in the ever-fluctuation dynamics of modern-day politics. Many African countries today have solid ties with Israel, diplomatically, economically. Some extend to military assistance and/or humanitarian aid. World Bank figures show that in 2021, trade between Israel and Sub-Saharan African countries exceeded $750m.
The politics of self -interest, survival and sustainable development will undoubtedly influence African country stances on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The same pattern of political decision making is apparent across much of the world.
Political solidarity and sympathy are noble, but they often fade and falter in the reality of day-to-day struggle for economic well-being and country prosperity.
Aljazeera’s Lawal writes: “On the one hand, there are deep-rooted ties with the Palestinian movement; on the other, the offer of cutting-edge technology, military assistance, and aid from Israel. Which wins out could determine how Africa tilts if this conflict drags on – and in the future.”
While South Africa has vocalised much support for Palestine, it has yet to take any real material action against Israel. At EFF’s march to the Israel Embassy on Monday, the party’s national chairperson, Veronica Mente said that if the ANC government was indeed committed to supporting Palestine, it would distance itself from Israel both economically and politically. This is unlikely and South Africa’s words of support are more likely to float above rivers and seas than be actioned on the ground.
Too often it is the politics of interest rather than the politics of solidarity that prevails in the end. History has taught us that in economic warfare, the currency of political comradery is weak. The sound of money is often the loudest reverberation in the world, drowning out even the most high-pitched voice for justice and humanity.
Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.