This past week, South African-Israeli relations sunk to one of their lowest points since the “new” South Africa began in 1994. The only other incident that caused such a fuss was the 2010 Gaza flotilla debacle when Israeli Ambassador Dov Segev-Steinberg received a dressing-down from then-deputy minister of international relations, Sue van der Merwe, and South Africa withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv for a period of time.
The latest conflict, which is more specifically between the South African Jewish community and the South African government, involves the cancellation, announced August 10, of a visit to Israel by mayors and other members of municipalities in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province.
Similar trips for representatives from eight of the country’s nine provinces have been organized over the years by the South Africa-Israel Forum to promote agricultural and technological cooperation between the countries.
Following the cancellation, Deputy International Relations Minister Ebrahim “Ibie” Ebrahim said in the Mail & Guardian newspaper, “We discourage South Africans from visiting Israel, we don’t ban them.”
Ebrahim, now in his late 70s, was badly tortured as a political detainee in the 1980s and spent many years as a political prisoner on Robben Island (South Africa’s political Alcatraz), including 10 years in the same communal cell as current South African president Jacob Zuma. Ebrahim, who claims not to be anti-Israel but merely anti-occupation, denied that his comments represented a toughening of the government’s attitude toward Israel.
“This is not a new position,” he said in the City Press newspaper on Sunday. “Israel is an occupier country that is oppressing Palestine, so it is not proper for South Africans to associate with Israel. We discourage people from going there, except if it has to do with the peace process.”
Referring to the latest incident, as well as to the brouhaha caused by the government’s proposal to label goods from the occupied territories as such, Segev-Steinberg said it was now clear that the intention of the South African government was to boycott Israel. “The cat is out of the bag,” he said.
Ebrahim denied that there was any plan to boycott Israeli goods.