South Africa’s charge of genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has provoked a war of words between the two states over the Gaza conflict.
In putting its case, Pretoria has stated that “genocidal attacks on the whole of Gaza ... with the intent of destroying them cannot be justified.” In reply, Israel has accused Pretoria of a “profound distortion” and offering a “deeply flawed picture.”
International allies have waded in. Germany immediately insisted that there was “no basis whatsoever” for the genocide accusation, a position echoed by Israel’s other Western allies such as the US and UK.
On the other side, prominent states from the global south, including Malaysia, Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, Bolivia, Colombia, and Brazil, offered their support to South Africa, reflecting their own condemnation of Israel since the Gaza war began.
South Africa, however, is not simply taking the lead in expressing what many non-western nations feel about the Gaza conflict; the Palestine-Israel conflict occupies a special place in South Africa’s foreign affairs.
Despite being over 7000 kilometres away, South Africa has played an oversized role in the Israel-Palestine conflict for decades, and the ICJ case should be seen as the latest development in what is a deep, intertwined, and complicated set of relationships.
ANC forges ties with PLO
During the Cold War, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), then an outlawed rebel movement fighting the Apartheid regime in Pretoria, developed close ties to the Palestinian cause.
In an era when anti-colonial movements from different countries regularly expressed solidarity with each other, the ANC grew close to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), whom many saw as fighting a similar foe in Israel to their own enemy, the white majority Apartheid regime.
Importantly, ANC leader Nelson Mandela took up the Palestinian cause. Soon after his release from prison in 1990, he met PLO leader Yasser Arafat, with whom he forged a close relationship, describing him as a “comrade in arms.”
He would later wear the Palestinian Kaffiyeh scarf on several public occasions, and in 1997, three years after being elected president of a free South Africa, Mandela famously stated, “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
Mandela smiling warmly & wearing a keffiyeh in visible solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
His spirit will surely be present at tomorrow’s World Court hearing, keeping a vigilant eye on the court’s handling of South Africa’s case against today’s apartheid state.
Amandla! pic.twitter.com/U0jw4T4WLW— David Álvarez (@El_Arvare) January 11, 2024
Mandela, who, ten years after his death, remains revered in South Africa, especially within the ruling ANC party, set the tone for post-Apartheid governments to remain close supporters of the Palestinians.