Thursday, February 1, 2024

The case against (and for) South Africa

 Michael - Thursday

The Peace Palace in The Hague

I’ve been very loath to post anything on this issue, because feelings are running very high on both sides and that's not usually a good setting for reasoned discussion. However, on the world stage at least, this is the most important issue in which South Africa has involved itself recently. By taking Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), South Africa made few friends that it didn’t already have and annoyed a variety of important trading partners that it could ill afford to upset. Germany was so disturbed by the term "genocide" - perhaps the most loaded term in all of international law - 
that it joined the case supporting Israel.

So what’s it all about?

Well, there are, as always, conspiracy theories. The governing ANC has been very short of money over the past few years, even defaulting on some debts. This was no problem in Zuma’s day when he and the party had their hands in most tills. Recently, however, the gravy train has had difficulty making its usual stops, and most of the gravy has already been enjoyed. Then, suddenly and without explanation, the ANC announces that it's resolved its financial issues and that all is well. Since a national election is due this year, that’s very good news for the party. The announcement pretty well coincided with the announcement of bringing a case against Israel to the ICJ. That has led to the theory of a (very) large payout from Iran to the ANC to do its dirty work for it. However, at the moment there's no evidence for this theory.

Certainly there are political issues aplenty. The National Assembly (parliament) called for the government to break off all relations with Israel. The government took this under advisement and nothing happened until the ICJ case was brought. No doubt that will keep the Palestinian-supporting wing of the ANC quiet for a while.

The ANC started life not as a political party but as a liberation movement, and retains close ties with states that assisted it during its years in exile and retains some hostility towards those that supported the apartheid government. The ANC remains a very broad church. Views range from communists at one extreme to the president at the other. He rose, quite legally, from a trade union leader to one of the richest people in the country (before he became president). No doubt some views within the party were that the ICJ move was a way of pandering to various elements in the party without doing much damage and perhaps doing some good. If so, the government lost sight of how irritating the move would be to most western countries, which include most of its largest trading partners. The US is currently considering the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives favorable trading status to a variety of African countries including South Africa. The matter has to be supported by Congress, and Congress is not pleased with South Africa right now.

As for cementing support from its BRICS partners, South Africa really had little to gain. Any one of them could have done this for themselves, and they now include Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Apparently they didn’t want a high profile. Hmm…

There are also accusations of double standards and hypocrisy. If the ANC is so concerned about the injury and death of innocent civilians in war, how have they been unable to support resolutions calling out Russia for the Ukraine invasion? Putin is, according to the International Criminal Court, a war criminal, yet South Africa’s only acknowledgement of that has been to avoid a direct conflict with its international obligations by quietly arranging for Russia to send a stand-in for Putin to the recent BRICS meeting held here. It seems to me that if one is to take the high road, then it’s important to avoid detours through canyons.

Yet, there was some value to the whole exercise. The ICJ has issued a slate of interim measures. Israel may take no notice of any of these. By the same token, Israel could have ignored the whole case, but it chose to defend itself, presumably to do so in the court of public opinion. I know nothing about the legal niceties of the case, but international commentators suggest that South Africa did a good job of presenting its arguments under the leadership of John Dugard, who is an international law scholar of high standing.

Perhaps I’m being naïve, but perhaps Netanyahu will feel pressure – only one strand in pressure already developing from Israel’s major supporters including the United States – and ameliorate some of his most unattractive plans and strategies. Just as South Africa only listens to the plaudits of its allies, Israel only listens to those its own. Maybe both can learn from this experience.

One thing is clear. Hamas has achieved its stated aim of bringing the Palestinian cause back to the center of the world stage. They had no problem with sacrificing thousands of innocent Israelis and Palestinians in order to achieve that.


  1. You're right--as usual, Michael--passions are running very high on this. But for many of us your post ads a keen new perspective that I much appreciate you providing.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. It is an issue that's hard to grasp. No blacks and whites...

  2. Agree, I don't know how to think about this let alone what I think and appreciate your perspective.

  3. Thanks, Ovidia. One just hopes that somehow the situation can be resolved in some way. But I have no ideas on that.

  4. Just catching up on last week's posts, Michael, and, like Ovidia, the situation and the emotions here are so complex, I really value your thoughts on this. Thank you.