Johannesburg — When Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s new president, appeared before the country’s premier Jewish umbrella group in late August, the audience before him was concerned about the tack his government might be taking not just toward Israel, but also toward South African Jews who support it.
Just two weeks before the August 29 meeting, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee of South Africa lodged war crimes charges with the police and the Justice Ministry against 70 South Africans for their alleged involvement in Israel’s military campaign in Gaza last winter.
Unlike the United States, where both the group and its charge might be seen as marginal, here the action attracted the backing of Ronnie Kasrils, a Jewish hero of the South African anti-apartheid struggle who until last year was the country’s intelligence minister. At a press conference tied to the action, Kasrils, who remains a prominent member of Zuma’s own African National Congress party, called on the government “to investigate and, if appropriate, [to] prosecute in South Africa individuals involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead,” as the Gaza campaign has been dubbed by Israel.
But Zuma, in a speech warmly received by his audience, enveloped the community in a pragmatic embrace that explicitly eschewed the anti-Zionist tendencies of some parts of his own base.
“This country has a massive skills shortage as a result of decades of neglect and deliberate underinvestment,” Zuma said in his address to an audience of about 800 at the 54th National Conference of the Jewish Board of Deputies. Consistent with broader initiatives to encourage South African ex-patriates to return to South Africa and help build the country’s nascent democracy, Zuma alluded to the shrinkage through emigration of the South African Jewish community to 80,000 today from 120,000 a generation ago. Noting “the emigration of skilled people” from South Africa, he said, “We must work to reverse the trend. The message we want to send to people who have left the country to live and work abroad is that South Africa will always remain their home, and I will always welcome whatever contribution they can make to building this nation.”
When it came to policy, in his speech, Zuma
pointedly rejected any hint of support for dismantling Israel or staking out a militant stance against it.
Instead, he reconfirmed his government’s commitment to Washington’s goal of a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
“We support the position of the United Nations and the Middle East Quartet that the only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that ends the occupation that began in 1967,” Zuma told the Jewish gathering. “It is a solution which fulfills the aspirations of both parties for independent homelands through two states for two peoples — Israel and an independent, adjoining and viable state of Palestine living side by side in peace and security.
“We will continue to offer whatever assistance we can towards the resolution of this matter, including sharing our experience in ending apartheid through negotiation,” said Zuma. “In this respect, we would like to work together with the South African Jewish community.”
For South African Jews, Zuma’s message was clear: You are safe and welcome here. “As president,” he stressed, “I regard as one of my duties the need to preserve the unity of this nation, and to cultivate its diversity. We must remain on guard against any manifestations of antisemitism and other intolerances.”
But in a country where charges of “apartheid” against Israel for its policies toward Palestinians carry enormous emotional punch, it remains to be seen whether the president’s message—delivered within the Jewish community and not more broadly—will be enough. For many, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee of South Africa’s action revived memories of other recent tactics designed both to pressure Israel and to discourage South African Jews from supporting it.
Last February, workers affiliated with the Congress of South African Trade Unions— an important component of the ANC — refused to offload a ship carrying Israeli goods in the harbor of Durban. Working in partnership with the PSCSA, COSATU, which helped lead the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, announced the beginning of an anti-apartheid style sanctions campaign against Israel, saying it would pressure the government to sever diplomatic and trade relations with Israel.
The next day, 200 supporters of COSATU and the PSCSA demonstrated outside the offices of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Addressing the protesters, Kasrils, again, compared “Israel’s massacre in Gaza” to genocide. The former government minister insisted that the demonstrators were not targeting South African Jewry but rather Zionism, the Israeli government and its supporters. But the march on the Jewish communal organization’s headquarters rather than the Israeli Embassy signified to many Jewish observers an attack on the Jewish community itself.
One month before this, many Jews were also unsettled when then-deputy foreign minister Fatima Hajaig told a cheering crowd, “The control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money.”
Hajaig apologized to the Cabinet for her statement after the Jewish Board of Deputies lodged a complaint of hate speech against her with the South African Human Rights Commission. Due to the legacy of apartheid, South African constitutional protections of free speech do not extend to hate speech. The board of deputies then withdrew its complaint.
But Zuma, in contrast to such instances of hostility, altered his original schedule on the night of his speech before the Jewish Board of Deputies in order to stay for the entire evening’s program. As a consequence, the line-up was altered so that other speakers appeared earlier, in accordance with protocols that call for the president to always conclude an event.
Among other things, this allowed Zuma to hear the evening’s second keynoter, former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler — a prominent human rights lawyer and notable advocate for Israel. Cotler, who met with Zuma and Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Jeff Radebe before the opening of the conference, stressed that, through the history of anti-apartheid struggle that had shaped it, South Africa could be a moral force in the international community.
Citing South Africa’s constitution, Cotler said, “I know of no other charter of rights in the world that speaks so comprehensively about rights, because it was anchored in the inequality that was previously experienced.”
In a separate interview with the Forward, Cotler said: “I think they are giving expression to this [human rights commitment] on the domestic level. I found both President Zuma and the minister of justice committed to doing the right thing for the South African people. The country has a lot to teach other democratic rights-protecting societies, including Canada, about what they are doing in the justice agenda, in gender equality, in protecting the vulnerable and in anti-discrimination law and policy.”
Cotler wondered whether South Africa’s leaders would exercise their moral authority similarly on the world stage. The government, for example, recently refused to admit into the country the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan exile leader, due to pressure from China. “South Africa has to take its place on the world stage and speak with moral authority on the great issues of the day to advance the international human rights and justice agenda,” Cotler said. “I believe that they will have the moral voice to provide that moral leadership internationally.”
In his earlier talk with Zuma, Cotler asked the president for South Africa’s support in censuring Iran at the U.N. The censure motion, co-sponsored annually by Canada at the U.N. General Assembly, has not been supported by South Africa in the past. But in the wake of the beatings, mass arrests and allegations of torture by Iranian government agents after Iran’s disputed election last June, “I would hope to see a change not only in South Africa’s voting patterns at the U.N., but also in its public advocacy,” Cotler told the Forward.
For now, Zuma largely impressed his South African audience. “The most positive thing, which particularly impressed people, was that Zuma stayed the whole night,” said Zev Krengel, the board of deputies’ national chairman. “It showed people he is prepared to engage.”
Marlene Bethlehem, a past chair of the umbrella group, agreed. “Listening to Cotler, his body language was totally engaged,” she noted.
Avrom Krengel, chair of the South African Zionist Federation, added: “His speech was as balanced as any you would get out of a government official. It was a very carefully calibrated statement of South African government policy designed for our audience, neither to cause offense nor to divert from South Africa’s stated policies. It spelled out South Africa’s support for a peaceful settlement, said that the occupation must end, there must be a two-state solution and that South Africa is here to help.”
It was also notable to some that when he named the many Jews prominent in the anti-apartheid struggle, Zuma omitted mention of Kasrils.
Still, some were concerned by his failure to comment directly on the fact that a former government official was promoting prosecution of South Africans for war crimes.
“He should have addressed the war crimes situation more explicitly,” Bethlehem said.
But Krengel did not agree. “The war crimes thing was a big story in our lives, but nothing in the life of the nation where you have taxi drivers striking and soldiers mutineering,” he said.
Contact Claudia Braude at [email@example.com]