When it comes to Israel, the South African government seems to employ a schizophrenic foreign policy. At times it portrays itself as a potential honest broker, wanting to share its successful experience in conflict resolution and contribute to fulfilling the hopes of moderates everywhere - to establish two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.
But the South African government has also on numerous occasions exhibited a more sinister Middle East foreign policy agenda by warmly embracing the enemies of the Jewish people and expressing rabid anti-Zionist positions.
South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC,) has a long history of ambivalence towards the State of Israel. Nelson Mandela in his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom," for example, credits Jewish paramilitary organizations, such as the Irgun, with having partly inspired the formation of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.
But Israel's close ties with the apartheid regime led many ANC activists to view the Palestinian cause as a sister struggle. This position was clearly articulated by ANC Secretary General Oliver Tambo in his 1979 pledge that "the struggle of the fraternal Arab people of Palestine, led by the PLO, will always be assured of the support of the African National Congress and the entire fighting people of South Africa."
Since coming to power in 1994 in South Africa's first democratic election, the ANC has at times shown remarkable pragmatism towards many issues, including its relationship with the Jewish state. Despite strong Leftist anti-western ideological tendencies among its political base and its coalition partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU,) the South African government has sought stronger economic ties with Israel.
In 2004 Ehud Olmert (then minister of trade and industry) at the invitation of the government led a high-level business delegation to South Africa and signed a historic investment protection agreement. A reciprocal visit by an influential South African business delegation to Israel took place the following year. Today Israel is one of South Africa's largest trading partners in the Middle East with trade between the two countries estimated to be worth over $700 million per year and growing. Eight hundred Israeli companies currently operate in South Africa and the two countries have plans for future collaboration in the areas of mining, telecommunications, agriculture, engineering and water.
The post-apartheid South African government has been eager to engage with Israel not only in the economic sphere but on a political level as well. To the surprise of many, representatives of Ariel Sharon's then ruling Likud party were invited in 2004 on an official visit to share ideas on the peace process. They met with several politicians who featured prominently in the negotiations that resulted in the peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa. Furthermore, following Israel's painful disengagement from Gaza, President Mbeki sent Prime Minister Sharon an unprecedented letter of support.
However, despite this semblance of warm relations, South Africa is one of Israel's fiercest detractors, rivaling even Arab and Muslim nations. Without doubt, the main proponent of this anti-Israel agenda is the Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, who, perhaps somewhat conveniently, is of Jewish descent. Shortly after the Palestinians initiated the Intifada, Kasrils, using the South African parliament as his platform, launched his own campaign - "not in my name" - designed to pressure the Jewish community into publicly denouncing Israel. Its strident rejection by mainstream South African Jewry has served to only goad him on.
In an anti-Zionist propaganda blitz, reminiscent of the former Soviet Union (where he in fact underwent military training,) Kasrils has used his ministries' official websites (previously, Kasrils was the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry,) international conferences, state visits, the ANC journal Umrabulo and of course the media to demonize the Jewish state. He has called Israelis baby killers, likened IDF actions in the Territories to those of the Nazis, declared Israel worse than apartheid and charged the "Zionist regime" with committing a creeping genocide against the Palestinian people.
It would be a mistake to view Kasrils as the only radical anti-Israel element within the South African government. His virulent rhetoric has been ably matched by Willy Madisha, president of the ANC's coalition partner COSATU. Last year at an international trade union conference in London, for example, he described South Africa's apartheid policies as "a Sunday picnic" in comparison to Israel's "brutal" treatment of the Palestinians. He has on other occasions denounced Israel as an "evil state" and called for an anti-apartheid type sanctions campaign to bring it to its knees.
Despite the hopes of many in the Jewish community that this is just rhetoric designed to placate radical Islamist and hardcore leftist groups in South Africa, the government has shown time and again its willingness to back up these anti-Israel words with anti-Israel actions.
It has voted for a litany of United Nations resolutions condemning Israel, on occasion even co-sponsoring. It opposed Magen David Adom's inclusion in the international Red Cross/Crescent Society. And it was one of only 15 countries to make a legal submission to the International Court of Justice in The Hague against Israel's security barrier, commonly referred to by the deputy foreign minister as the "apartheid wall."
Perhaps more worrying than South Africa's hostility towards the Jewish state is its unconditional support for Israel's enemies. South Africa has in recent years strengthened its ties with Iran's genocidal regime, defending Tehran's right to develop nuclear technology and allegedly offering to supply it with uranium (this is detailed in the Jan/Feb edition of the Arms Control Association journal Arms Control Today.)
Following the latest United Nations Security Council resolution against Iran's nuclear program, Kasrils was sent to the Islamic Republic on what was seen by many in foreign policy circles as a solidarity visit to reassure the increasingly isolated regime of South Africa's continued support. To date South Africa has never officially condemned Ahmadinejad's call "to wipe Israel off the map" or Teheran's hosting of the Holocaust Denial conference despite pleas from the Jewish community to do so.
In addition to Iran, South Africa has also been squandering its political capital on defending the Hamas-dominated Palestinian unity government. Kasrils made international news headlines last month when on an official visit to the Palestinian territories he issued an invitation to Prime Minister Haniyeh to lead a Palestinian delegation to South Africa. This was the first such invitation by a non-Muslim country.
In response to the outcry that followed, South Africa took the ludicrous position that Haniyeh's regime had "gone a long way to meeting" the three international requirements (recognizing Israel; denouncing violence and adhering to past agreements) and that the embargo should be lifted. Thus this invitation was designed to strengthen the international legitimacy of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian unity government, even at the cost of South Africa's credibility in the West.
This schizophrenic Middle East foreign policy is by no means haphazard: it has served as a successful way for the ANC government over the last 13 years to straddle the diplomatic fence. It certainly helped South Africa earn its United Nations Security Council seat in January this year. But with its now enlarged international stature and the increasingly polarized nature of geopolitics this strategy cannot continue indefinitely.
South Africa in the near future will have to choose, as George W. Bush crudely put it after 9/11, if they are either "with us" or with the terrorists. Given its recent behavior towards Israel and the Middle East in general, it looks increasingly likely that they will side with the latter.
Michael Kransdorff and Steven Magid are authors of the South African Jewish blog, Its Almost Supernatural (http://supernatural.blogs.com/)