The decision to downgrade relations overshadowed other international issues at the party’s national conference.
Much has been made this past year of "state capture", which is the comprehensive control of the policy-making powers of the executive branch of the government by wealthy private actors, in collusion with public servants and politicians, to engineer and benefit from preferential contracts with state-owned entities.
In SA, it took the form of the notorious Gupta family allegedly controlling almost every aspect of the executive branch’s decision making and consequently having dominion over state-owned enterprises such as Eskom.
However, another more subtle form of state capture has manifested in SA, and will invariably pose more challenges in the next few years. It is not driven by corruption, but by knowledge deficits in the government, and populist rhetoric and policies often open to varying interpretation and therefore implementation.
This form of capture elicits power and control over state entities, but its end result is the permanent delegation of the policy making abilities of the government to a specific entity — usually an interest group, pressure group or consultant. The benefits may be purely political or policy related, but sometimes coincide with profit. While the process relies on public servants and politicians as enablers, they are usually unaware of the capture.
This is evident in the ANC’s recent announcement that it will seek to downgrade the South African embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel. On the face of it, the decision seems a pronouncement to be expected from the ANC — since 1994 the party and its government have had a fractious but stable relationship with Israel. However, on close examination, there are traces of capture — the delegation of policy making to an entity, in this case the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) lobby against Israel.
BDS has found fertile ground in SA. The country’s apartheid history makes its people naturally supportive of oppressed groups around the world, particularly those whose suffering is due to perceived western imperialism. Additionally, and more specific to the Israel-Palestinian issue, Israel’s insistence is on not only a two-state solution, but two states for two different peoples. Some South Africans, not least those in the ANC and black South Africans, fundamentally reject the notion that differences can exist between two peoples to the extent that a separate state is needed to accommodate them. For them, not only can several ethnic groups exist in one state, but also white, Indian and coloured groups can coexist with the majority black population.
Why the Israelis and Palestinians can’t have one state with guaranteed sociopolitical rights, is a question increasingly being asked in SA. The outcome is that the majority black population is almost by default pro-Palestinian — if not anti-Israel — with Israel often cast as the sole culprit of the decades-long conflict.
Despite this, successive administrations of the ANC chose a more pragmatic path, and elected to maintain full relations with Israel. The relationship, although challenging, was largely incident-free until the global BDS movement saw SA as a target for increased anti-Israel activity.
Although there existed a tiny pro-Palestinian, and at times anti-Israel formal grouping, it largely comprised loose groupings of mostly Muslim South Africans. In 2009, the then newly formed BDS working group sought to expand its appeal beyond Muslim groups to influence the ANC, its structures in the trade union fraternity, the student movement, churches and civil society.
Resources — mainly donations from the Muslim population, the Palestinian embassy in SA (which the government supports with more than R1m each year) and a few other Sunni Muslim countries — were poured into the BDS working group, which would later rename itself BDS South Africa, with the multipronged purpose of increasing its appeal to all — particularly the black and governing majority. The intention was to eventually alter SA’s foreign policy towards Israel — with the severing of ties between SA and Israel, to "send a message", being the ultimate prize.
Such a message was sent on December 20, when the ANC resolved to call for a downgrade of the relationship between SA and Israel.
BDS SA has over the years convinced trade unions including the largest federation Cosatu, to delegate their views and support international solidarity campaigns launched by the so-called progressive BDS movement.
South African youth movements do the same, and often provide numbers for the constituency-poor BDS, and in the process the organisation has appropriated the liberation struggle phraseology of the ANC, in order to operate without suspicion in the party and to cast itself as a progressive movement endorsed and supported by the ANC, and therefore the majority of black South Africans. This is despite the fact that Muslims, who are mainly Indian, do not vote for the ANC, nor have much appetite for social causes other than the Palestinian one.
The crowning moment came at the Nasrec conference not because of organic change within the ANC, but due to an orchestrated charade, driven and controlled by BDS.
Even in the supposed intensive deliberation in the international relations commission at the conference, which lasted all of two hours, speaker after speaker with nonvoting delegate badges (BDS was apparently brought in as an expert on the matter), called on the ANC to downgrade the South African embassy in Israel.
All other international relations issues were cast aside, nothing was said about South Sudan, not a word about Syria or instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or other human rights violations all over the world — because international relations in the ANC now means overtures only against Israel and conceding to every Palestinian request, because the party believes "it is what Palestinians want us to do".
Senior members of the ANC in the commission (including former president Kgalema Motlanthe and International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoane-Mashabane) and the hapless chairwoman of the commission Edna Molewa were spectators at their own "policy-making platform", and marvelled at how the ANC had changed.
But some, such as International Relations Deputy Minister Luwellyn Landers, the most senior BDS operative in government and the rapporteur in the commission, ensured that BDS was bold enough to propose the decision to the ANC plenary, which promptly adopted it.
This matter is far more important and goes far deeper than the ideological subscription of the ANC. The economy, the rights of South Africans with business interests in Israel, religious pilgrims and students, to mention a few, will suffer not only from an ANC that failed to apply its mind on this issue, but also from the permanent delegation of South African policy on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to BDS — an unelected entity with vested anti-Israel and antisemitic persuasions.
• Mpolase is managing director at Political Analysis South Africa.
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