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Israeli-Palestinian conflict tests SA’s foreign policy

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Picture: AFP – Gaza has been burning for the last few days since Hamas launched an attack on Israel.

By Prof Bheki Mngomezulu

The architecture of South Africa’s foreign policy was crafted between 1990 and 1994. ANC documents envisioned how the country’s post-apartheid foreign policy posture would be reconfigured.

In 1993, former president Nelson Mandela released a paper in which he spelt out how South Africa’s foreign policy would look like under the new political dispensation. Human rights, and respect for other countries’ political sovereignty were at the centre of this foreign policy agenda.

The ANC preferred the “soft power” approach that was premised on a negotiated settlement in conflict situations. This was juxtaposed with the “hard power” approach which sees military intervention as the first response to conflict.

This policy stance was put to the test on two occasions. In 1996, Mandela called for the ostracisation of General Sani Abacha in Nigeria after he had executed Nigeria’s renowned author Ken Saro Wiwa and the Ogoni 9. To Mandela’s disappointment, his fellow African leaders blamed him for making the call. In this incident, South Africa’s foreign policy agenda was put into question.

The second incident happened in 1998. First, Laurent Kabila ousted Mobutu Sese Seko but soon found himself being challenged by rebel forces. African leaders agreed to mobilise an urgent SADC military response. South Africa refused to do so, arguing that the country’s foreign policy stance did not encourage military intervention or the use of force to address conflict.

Second, in the same year, Lesotho faced political upheavals occasioned by political intolerance in the country. This time around, South Africa intervened militarily.

The incidents left South Africa vulnerable. Some argued that the country’s foreign policy posture was inconsistent. Others somewhat changed the narrative and defended South Africa by advancing the view that the country embraced “soft power” which borrows from hard and soft power. There is no consensus on which view prevails.

Against this background, the conflict between Israel and Palestine places South Africa in a tight corner. When the Russian invasion of the Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, it shook the entire globe.

The issue was discussed at the UN General Assembly. When voting took place, South Africa was among the few countries that took a neutral position and refused to side with either Russia or Ukraine. An accusation was levelled against South Africa for failing to take a clear stance. Those who defended the position cited South Africa’s foreign policy agenda and the country’s historical and current relations with Russia and Ukraine. Taking a side would have robbed South Africa of an opportunity to mediate between the two countries.

Now, with the Israel/Palestine debacle, South Africa is, once again, pressed between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it must stick to its foreign policy agenda by refusing to condemn either party but call for a peaceful solution to the conflict. On the other hand, it has strong historical ties with Palestine.

To make matters worse, under apartheid, South Africa had strong ties with Israel. The two countries shared arms and conducted trade between them. The political leadership in South Africa is more aligned to Palestine than Israel. However, South Africa has kept trade ties with Israel.

Given the situation, South Africa is faced with a serious challenge. Those who were critical about South Africa’s neutrality stance on the Russia/Ukraine expect the country to be neutral on this issue too. Conversely, those who see South Africa as Palestine’s friend expect the country to come out clearly in support of Palestine in the same manner that America has openly declared her support for Israel.

Another factor that complicates South Africa’s position is the UN’s inconsistency in handling issues at multilateral level. The veto power enjoyed by the P-5 countries or the five permanent members of the UN Security Council means that what other countries say or do amounts to nothing. The final decision resides with the P-5 countries.

As things stand, South Africa is torn. On the one hand, there is the country’s BRICS membership that portrays it as an enemy of the West. On the other hand, there is South Africa’s respect for multilateralism. Each of thee identities demands that South Africa must take tough decisions.

In the context of realism, the political leadership must decide what will be in the best interest of the country. If the neutrality stance will portray the country as being indecisive and leaving the people of Palestine in the lurch, the leadership must pick a side, like America has done.

On the other hand, if being neutral will confirm South Africa’s consistency in embracing the foreign policy agenda, this is the position the country must take. Taking a position simply to appease other countries would amount to political suicide for South Africa.

*Prof. Mngomezulu is the Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at the Nelson Mandela University.