The Republic of South Africa, by virtue of its geography and history, may soon become the southernmost country on the continent to make its Jewish citizens think about leaving. Last week, the ruling African National Congress party urged its citizens not to travel to Israel except to promote “solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.” Before commentators and analysts could accommodate the notion that this was just another bout of demagoguery of the sort the ANC indulges in to deflect from its dismal record as a government, the party hosted a delegation from Hamas, led by billionaire Khaled Mashaal. While Jerusalem fumed and summoned South Africa’s deputy ambassador, South African mining magnate Bongani Mbindwane opined that this shocking visit could turn the tide. I will return to Mr Mbindwane’s opinion piece shortly.
By this gesture, South Africa will be joining Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, whose policies precipitated the departure (or aliyah) of nearly a million Jews from North Africa. She will be joining the ranks of Sudan, which has restrictions on travel to Israel. However, while these countries acted out of solidarity with the Arab/Muslim world, South Africa’s actions are out of sync with the rest of Africa, Islamic or otherwise. They are more inspired by the international BDS Movement, and its affiliation to western socialist and left-leaning groups, and Muslim activists.
For a casual observer, it is very easy to form an image of a South Africa where, as in North Africa, anti-Israeli (and anti-Semitic) sentiments permeate the society. The reality is very different. In much of Africa south of the Sahara, attitudes towards Israel and the situation in the Middle-East range from change-the-channel indifference to a Christian-inspired belief that anyone who curses the Jews is evoking the wrath of the Lord Himself. Christians comprise about 80 percent of South Africa’s population.
South Africa has the largest Jewish communities on the continent, and the twelfth largest in the whole world. They may account for less than one percent of the population, but South African Jews have been eminent in every field. If the South African government were to introduce the travel restrictions it is now contemplating, it would be denying the right of 80 percent of its citizens the right to visit a country that is intrinsic to their identity as Christians or Jews.
In the opinion piece I referred to earlier on, Bongani Mbindwane articulates the rationalisation behind the ANC’s stance. As with the Black Lives Matter Movement in America, opposition to Israel and solidarity with Palestine is conflated with African/Black Nationalism. Israel is purported to be a White Settler colonial exercise by White Jews, who came from Poland, Russia and Germany just as other Europeans colonised parts of Africa. It is an outlook that goes to show the capacity of the human mind to expunge conflicting evidence and pretend that what is left is a complete, solid idea worth defending. Associative Dissonance, I believe, it is called.
Only someone who cannot be bothered to learn about Zionism can compare the creation of the State of Israel to the colonisation of Africa by Europeans. The early Zionists, coming from Europe, had no mind at all to imitate in the nascent Jewish homeland what they saw other Europeans do in Africa. In a letter to Arab nationalist Musa Alami, David Ben-Gurion wrote in 1934:
We do not want to create a situation like that which exists in South Africa, where the whites are the owners and rulers, and the blacks are the workers. If we do not do all kinds of work, easy and hard, skilled and unskilled, if we become merely landlords, then this will not be our homeland.
This was not just a view intended to give a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. The Zionists observed firsthand how White Settler socioeconomics in southern Africa were unproductive for decades before the National Party became attentive to this painfully obvious fact. In The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann (published 1983), Israel’s first president notes:
I have learnt something else from South Africa. Something of great value for Zionists. I saw one domain in Rhodesia as large as 12 million dunams. The total area of the National Home is hardly 2 millions. What is being done on these 12 million dunams? They are a home for 90000 cattle. I learnt for instance that unlimited land leads to an unlimited reservoir for cheap labour- not avodah atzmit (“sell-sufficiency”). In addition, there is the fact that the land is not wholly occupied. A farmer in South Africa has a slave, or a half a slave, for every type of work. It is the smallness of Palestine, and the intensification of colonisation and the principle of avodah atzmit rather than cheap labour that has brought about the fact that today little Palestine has exported more oranges than the whole of South Africa, including Rhodesia.
Without ignoring the ANC’s historic ties to Russia and by default Russia’s other allies and proteges, which included the PLO, I contend that the South African party’s latter-day anti-Zionist stance is simply a front for western leftist activism. As with the Black Lives Movement in the US, the trail always leads first to Black “leaders” who do not care about Black people, then to White activists who espouse a mishmash of causes; disarmament, environmentalism etc. And, of course, Palestine.
To illustrate my argument, take a look at South Africa’s neighbour to the north, my native Zimbabwe. Unlike South Africa, Zimbabwe does not have a substantial Jewish population, whose feelings it would have to consider in its policy towards Israel and Zionism. Like South Africa, Zimbabwe is run by a regime with strong ties to the PLO. Ali Halimeh, the PLO representative, was Dean of the Diplomatic Corps. But that seems to be about as far as it goes. Israeli firms, such as Nikuv, do business with the Zimbabwean government. Arab firms are welcome, but certain ideologies from the Middle East and their purveyors are definitely not. It is to be noted that the Zimbabwean regime has tended to hold western leftist movements at arm’s length. There are other ways of deflecting attention from poignant issues and whipping up public emotion.
In allowing itself to be a proxy for western activism and its bizarre alliance with Islamic expansionism, South Africa’s government has further alienated itself from the Black majority. Many are wondering when the ANC will come round to confronting the socioeconomic conditions for which the party was formed over a century ago. Many are also aware that precipitating an exodus of South Africa’s Jews might put a smile on the BDS movement’s face, but it will further deplete the country’s human resources capital.
I reiterate that the silent majority in Africa cannot continue to be silent while our interests are sold away to dubious causes such as BDS. A few years ago, it was easy to shrug off the Middle East conflict as something happening miles away. But, with this gesture — proposing a travel ban on Israel and rolling out the welcome mat to Hamas — the South African government has brought it home and tied it to our issues. Just as in previous decades, where the struggle of the Black majority became the hotter part of the Cold War, we may see the clash between Islamic expansionism and Western civilisation play out on the streets of Soweto.