The ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ has been an enduring point of public debate and controversy for the entirety of South Africa’s post-1994 history. This is partly explained by the political passions it arouses among communities and interest groups that have an affinity with one side or the other. But another element is that it signifies something about South Africans’ expectations of their country on the global stage.

Recently, this was put into sharp relief by a column in Business Day by SA Zionist Federation national chairman Rowan Polovin. In it, he took issue with South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, who had declared – yet again – the government’s wholehearted endorsement of the Palestinian position. South Africa, she said, had a ‘moral responsibility’ to act on this. Under these circumstances, relations between South Africa and Israel could not be ‘business as usual’.

South Africa, Polovin accurately noted, felt no such obligation to act on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. (Not noted in his article was that South Africa’s navy is gearing up to conduct joint naval exercises with Russia and China. ‘Business as usual’ there…) The double standards – if indeed standards of any sort are being applied – are glaring.

Polovin went on to remark that by taking this stance, the ruling African National Congress and the government it heads was turning it back on its own past achievements in reaching a negotiated settlement in South Africa. It was also forfeiting a constructive role in the world:

The ANC could be positioned to act as mediators between warring factions, people and states given its own experience of pain and suffering at the hands of a political authority that abused SA human rights in ways we are only beginning to come to terms with today.

Here, Polovin repeats a long-standing assumption about South Africa: its history positions it to assist others in resolving their own conflicts. This has always made some intuitive sense, for didn’t South Africa pull itself back from the brink, confounding the (very reasonable) scepticisms of observers as to the dark and bloody fate that awaited? That the transition produced a government headed by a global icon – a sort of reflection of the best of all of us – demonstrated something truly exceptional about the country. The South African miracle as more than a few commentators put it.

To be sure, post-apartheid South Africa was determined to be an active global citizen. Nelson Mandela had written a much-noted 1993 article pledging that promoting human rights would be the ‘light that guides our foreign affairs’. Mandela himself could be outspoken on human rights issues, and South Africa became active in conflict mediation and peacekeeping. This was not entirely altruistic, since any developmental agenda needed stability, so it was firmly within the country’s interest to invest in this. Its global role was well received, as South Africa was the continent’s colossus and because of its particular moral authority.

Within this context, the prospect of a role for South Africa in dealing with the Middle East arose from time to time. Polovin’s remarks stand within this line of thinking.

They are also misplaced.

The role of ‘third parties’ in negotiated conflict resolution – those not directly involved in the conflict – can be important. On one level, they might be able to mediate, as Polovin suggests. That is to say, they can act as honest brokers, assisting competing groups to find common ground and to make the necessary compromises to reach agreement. This was the role that President Ramaphosa fancifully indicated South Africa might play between Russia and Ukraine.

To play this role, the mediating party would need to be well respected and trusted by all the participants; it might also help if it can bring along incentives or enforcement capability. In the later 1990s, post-transition South Africa was reasonably well positioned to do this in Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo. The country and its president had formidable moral authority, and despite enormous domestic problems, it remained Africa’s foremost power.

On the other hand, similar efforts in Cote d’Ivoire a decade later were less successful. South Africa’s unique moral position had declined – as it inevitably would – and it found itself accused of favouring particular parties and of being ignorant of the politics and culture of Francophone West Africa.

Another role, less direct, is for a third party to offer support to an ally in negotiations, sometimes communicating the need for sacrifices of the latter’s interests, or making them more palatable – for example, by offering security guarantees in exchange for relinquishing a military advantage.

All of this is a non-starter for South Africa in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. South Africa is not respected by all parties – the Israelis have no reason to trust a country whose public stance is obsessive condemnation – and lacks any real influence. There is as good as no incentive that it can offer either party.

South Africa has also chosen a path that makes providing support for a settlement of the conflict unlikely. Its approach is one of solidarity, pretty much uncritical solidarity, in which right and justice is entirely on the Palestinian side. It is hard to see from South Africa’s perspective Israel, an inveterate abuser and effective outlaw state, being able to claim to any legitimate interests. There is nothing that South Africa would do, or would regard as necessary, to influence any Palestinian positions, only to endorse them. South Africa has taken a stance that envisages not a mutually acceptable settlement but a Palestinian victory.

Besides, South Africa’s transition is simply not a template for the Israelis and Palestinians. Once the Nationalists gave up on territorial separation, the big question became how a future South Africa would be structured, and how a common citizenship would be organised. Tough issues, certainly, but decidedly different from those facing a conflict defined by rival nationalisms and the nature of the states – note the plural – that would arise from them.

In fact, South Africa’s own painful history and the sense of having endured unique historical wrongs, may well act less as an enabling condition for a constructive role than as a hindrance. There is a real risk of transposing inapplicable experiences and inappropriate lessons on other contexts because of superficial similarities or political sympathies – rather than hard analysis. The ‘Israeli Apartheid’ analogy is a prime example of this; it is a smear, a politically powerful one perhaps, which falls apart on any rational inspection. It is a tool for mobilization, not for understanding.

Besides, the faultlines in South African society were fundamentally different from those prevailing in that part of the world. ‘Different religions, traditions and languages were not barriers to our social cohesion, but rather a celebration of our diverse, yet collectively shared humanity,’ writes Polovin. To a degree, certainly, though ethnic and racial entrepreneurship was always a part of South African politics, and remains so today, a malignant practice that finds its way into some of the highest offices in the country. More to the point, religion – a common and widespread adherence to Christianity in particular – acted as a major unifying impulse in South Africa; among Israelis and Palestinians, religion plays the opposite role, raising the stakes in some quarters to a point that denies the very legitimacy of the other.

Tim Hughes, a South African academic, wrote in 2006, the context being an invitation to Hamas to visit South Africa:

South Africa can teach Israel and Palestine nothing. It has no experience in territorial, religious, or fundamentalist struggles. For South Africans, suicide bombers are a TV image, not a daily threat. It cannot mediate, cajole, nor persuade. It has neither the leverage, nor the political repertoire, to influence the deep and stark realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With all his charisma and credibility as a figure of reconciliation, not even Nelson Mandela could make the desert of Israeli-Palestinian relations bloom.

It’s past time that South Africa accepted that there is very little of value it can offer to this intractable conflict.

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Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think tank promoting individual and societal freedom. Readers are invited to support the IRR by sending...

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