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Ramaphosa slams ‘Israeli occupation’: Why South Africa is sympathetic to Palestine | Explained News

On Saturday (October 14), Cyril Ramaphosa, surrounded by his colleagues from the ruling African National Congress (ANC), spoke to the press draped in the traditional Palestinian scarf. “(We) are all standing here pledging our solidarity with the people of Palestine. We stand here because we are deeply concerned about the atrocities that are unfolding in the Middle East…We have a full understanding of how the people of Palestine have taken up this issue, because they are people, as many countries and leaders in the world have opined, that have been under occupation for almost 75 years,” Ramaphosa said.

He also called upon international bodies to make sure that peace is restored in Palestine.

South Africa is Israel’s biggest trading partner in the African continent. Why has it then spoken out against it? How have Palestine-Africa relations changed over the years, and why is Ramaphosa’s statement significant?

Traditional solidarities

Like many countries that bore the brunt of colonialism and occupation — such as India — South Africa has traditionally been sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. It formed diplomatic relations with Palestine soon after its own Apartheid government was thrown off in 1990.

Festive offer

South Africa’s solidarity for Palestine came from many reasons. First, of course, was its own experience of discrimination and disempowerment, which made it sensitive to what was happening to Palestinians dominated by the Israelis. Like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela spoke up strongly for the rights of the Palestinians.

Also, Israel was widely seen as a state propped up by the West’s support, and South Africa had not forgotten the West’s role in perpetuating apartheid. It had reasons to align positions with Russia, which had provided military training to those resisting the Apartheid regime.

For many years after the creation of Israel, South Africa’s position was largely the same as many other African countries.

Changing relations

However, over time, many African nations, including South Africa, softened their stand towards Israel. As more Arab countries recognised the Jewish state, Africans saw little reasons to continue with their opposition. Another crucial factor was what the prosperous and technologically advanced Israel had to offer — new technologies, including in agriculture, aid money, and military training.

According to Al Jazeera, “In 2021, trade between Israel and Sub-Saharan African countries reached over $750m. Israel exports machinery, electronics, and chemicals to the continent. Of that, nearly two-thirds were traded with South Africa, followed by Nigeria, with which Israel traded goods worth $129m in 2021.”

Thus, few African countries have joined South Africa’s full-throated condemnation of Israel, except the Muslim-majority Algeria. In fact, Kenya, Zambia, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have supported Israel, according to Al Jazeera.

South Africa sticking to position

One reason South Africa has stayed steadfast in its support of Palestine is the ANC’s deep links with anti-discrimination activism. In fact, ANC leaders and other opponents of apartheid have long compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to what the White government did to Black South Africans.

In 2002, prominent anti-apartheid activist Bishop Desmond Tutu had said in a speech in the US, “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”

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Another has been to resist a world view governed by the West’s stand on important matters. This was also clear when the African nations were being pressured to align against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, and South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, had questioned why the Western powers would not condemn Israel.

On Saturday, hours before Ramaphosa’s statement, Pandor had said, “Despite the fact that the root cause of this conflict is illegal occupation, we have heard a tirade of criticism of Palestine from Western powers and unflinching support for the occupying power. These types of double standards are the result of a global system which is skewed in favour of the powerful to the detriment of those fighting for their rights and self-determination.”

Last year, South Africa had said Israel should be declared an apartheid state. In March this year, it downgraded its embassy in Israel into a liaison office.

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