By Benji Shulman
Observers of South African politics have been questioning whether the country is changing its Middle East policy after a recent high-profile visit of Hamas and its leader Khaled Mashaal to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.
The move resulted in spontaneous protests outside the country’s parliament by pro-Israel Christian groups and was condemned by opposition parties and the South African Zionist Federation. The latter took the unusual step of taking out an advertisement in a widely read Sunday newspaper addressing the ANC directly on the issue and urging the party “to act as a credible mediator for peace in the Middle East and not to embrace a violent Jihadist organisation, by welcoming them into our midst.” The ANC had clearly been concerned about such a reaction, as the visit was kept a secret until the last possible moment.
South Africa enjoys an unusual relationship with Israel. The countries maintain full diplomatic ties and engage in considerable trade. South Africa also supports the international consensus for a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. On the other hand, relations remain cold, with regular diplomatic controversies. South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to propose the labeling of Israeli goods coming from the West Bank, and Israel recently denied South Africa’s Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande a visa. Nzimande has issued several aggressive anti-Israel statements in the past and has used his position to advocate for ceasing co
–operation between Israeli and South African universities.
After the announcement of Hamas’ visit, Israel summoned South Africa’s deputy ambassador for a reprimand—but it was not only Israel that was unhappy with the turn of events. Media reports suggested the Palestinian embassy in South Africa had also expressed its displeasure with the move. The embassy is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and is generally seen as representing the interests of Fatah, Hamas’ main rival in Palestinian society.
The ANC has a long history of cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, which it views as a fellow liberation movement. The South African government supports the Palestinian Authority both materially and diplomatically, and the embassy is funded in part by South African taxpayers. Last when, year the South African government invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for a full state visit to the country, bilateral agreements were signed and a commission of joint cooperation was established. Unlike the Hamas visit, the Palestinian Authority visit was seen as much less controversial. Members of the Jewish community were even invited to convey their concerns to Abbas directly.
Although the ANC has had informal liaisons with Hamas for a long time, this visit represents a significant dialing up of its relationship with the movement. Although it was not officially a state visit, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal received red carpet treatment during his stay and was introduced to many of the important players in the country’s political matrix, including President Jacob Zuma.
The question being asked is why the ANC would risk all the negative publicity and potential for friction with its long-time Palestinian allies in order to involve itself with Hamas.
The party said in a statement, “There are those who think that by ignoring any of the players it will bring the region closer to a peaceful solution. Our experience in South Africa was that the process of negotiations involved all players irrespective of their views and beliefs.”
This suggests that the ANC, which tends to sympathize with parties engaged in “resistance,” is beginning to see Hamas less as a marginal part of Palestinian society than it once did. While the Palestinian Authority works peacefully with Israel behind the scenes in the West Bank and is seen as increasingly corrupt, Hamas’ frequent violent confrontations with the Israeli state have enhanced its reputation in the ANC as a defender of Palestinian rights. While the Palestinian Authority’s international standing means that it cannot be replaced as the representative of the Palestinian people, the view inside in the ANC seems to be that Hamas should at least be given a seat at the table.
This dovetails with a trend in ANC foreign policy of moving steadily away from the West. One result of this move has been the growing strength of the country’s relationship with Iran. Since the lifting of sanctions, several high-level delegations have visited the Islamic Republic. Guests on these tours have included the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation as well as Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. The strengthening of Hamas, which Tehran supports, may also be a natural consequence of Iran’s increasing influence in the region.
Apart from international concerns, there are also strong domestic factors driving the Hamas visit. Muslim lobby groups that have never been particularly enamored with the secular-minded Fatah have been pushing for a visit by Hamas for nearly two decades. They have been abetted in this process by the extreme left wing of the ANC, which would like to see ties between Israel and South Africa severed. The Hamas visit helps to fuel tension between Pretoria and Jerusalem and strengthens more extremist attitudes inside the ANC.
With a local government election coming up next year, the move also plays well with the conservative Muslim population that lives in the Western Cape province. The province is run by the official opposition, a liberal party called the Democratic Alliance, and is the only one in the country not controlled by the ANC. Since the ruling party’s loss of control of the Western Cape in 2009, provincial officials of the ANC have ramped up anti-Israel sentiment as a means of trying to gain the support of this important constituency. At times the strategy has gotten ugly and several ANC officials have had cases brought against them for inciting anti-Jewish hate speech.
So what does this visit mean for South African policy regarding Hamas in the future? The answer, currently, is very little. A recent and authoritative ANC policy conference made no mention of a shift in the status of relations between South Africa and Israel, and its resolutions regarding the Palestinians were virtually unchanged. In the short term Hamas’ supporters will hope this visit goes a small way toward reducing the group’s isolation in the international community. In the long term, however, they hope this visit will serve as a basis for the ultimate goal of getting the South African state to adopt Hamas’ maximalist positions by ceasing its diplomatic recognition of Israel and its support of peace through the two-state solution framework.
Benji Shulman is the host of Johannesburg’s Israeli in Focus on 101.9 ChaiFM.[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]