In October, the African National Congress dropped all pretense and announced its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. The declaration came at the third International Solidarity Conference, a conclave of left-wing groups that was hosted by the ANC in Pretoria and overwhelmingly endorsed the call. Baleka Mbete, ANC chairperson and former deputy president, stated that Israel is “far worse than apartheid South Africa.” The move comes shortly after the South African government promulgated a policy mandating that goods originating from Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem be labeled as having been produced in “Israeli Occupied Territories.”
South Africa’s ruling party has always been predisposed to the Arab side of the Middle Eastern conflict, seeing the Palestinian cause as identical to its own erstwhile struggle against white minority rule. But, at least while under the tutelage of former president Nelson Mandela, the ANC had attempted to adopt a neutral face, supporting the international consensus of a two-state solution based on the proposition of “land for peace.” Such gestures of impartiality are now moot.
The official shift comes after the culmination of years’ worth of anti-Israel agitation by ANC and other former anti-apartheid figures. In August, South African Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim called upon South African citizens to refrain from visiting Israel. In May, Archbishop Desmond Tutu penned an open letter to the United Methodist Church urging it to boycott Israel, alleging that the Palestinians “are being oppressed more than the apartheid ideologues could ever dream about in South Africa.” (Tutu also suggested that the extermination of European Jewry was actually to Jews’ benefit, writing that “the Jewish Holocaust, engineered and implemented primarily by Europeans, gave some ideologues within the Jewish and Christian community an excuse to implement plans that were in the making for at least 50 years, under the rubric of exceptional Jewish security.”) In 2009, the ANC’s deputy foreign minister alleged, “The control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money.”
Absent from this debate has been any consideration of the ideas or temperament of the greatest figure to grace not just the ANC, but also South Africa: Mandela. The former president, who is 94 years old, rarely makes public appearances or comments on important matters. But it is not merely Mandela’s voice that is sorely missing from the country’s arguments over the Middle East — it’s his legacy.
To be sure, Mandela was critical of Israel throughout his political career, and he defended fellow Third World liberation leaders like the late Moammar Qaddafi and Yasser Arafat. Yet Mandela also had a deep appreciation for Judaism, his feelings influenced by the countless South African Jews who supported him in his resistance to apartheid and then during his term as the country’s first democratically elected president. With their virulent attacks on Israel and aspersions cast on their Jewish countrymen as disloyal, Mandela’s political heirs are tarnishing the values of reconciliation and democracy for which their hero stood. And with Mandela in his twilight, the situation will only get worse.