Solly Moeng: How ICJ case against Israel impacts South African politics ahead of elections

Solly Moeng unpacks how South Africa’s ICJ case against Israel might impact local politics ahead of a watershed national election in 2024.

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By Solly Moeng

Few people will disagree that the canned lion-style, mass killing of Palestinian civilians by Israel – now counting some 24,000 humans since the October 7, 2023, unexpected attack by Hamas in Israel – cannot be regarded as justifiable revenge. It is indiscriminate collective punishment of innocent civilians much in line with several recorded public utterances by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other leaders. Recent reports of the Israeli army wantonly desecrating Palestinian graveyards doesn’t earn Israel any positive reputational credit in much of the world, especially the global South, even if Israeli leaders and their supporters do not care about any of this.

On the other hand, South Africa’s perennially (mis)governing African National Congress (ANC) might have lost its reputational fortunes on most topics on the domestic side – having single-handedly brought the country’s vital democratic institutions down to their knees and, in some cases, flat onto their bellies, over the past two decades or so – but it struck emotional gold in much of the “global South” by standing up to Israel, with no obvious worry about the hovering spectre of its powerful financial and military backers from so-called established democracies.

Many people from across the world continue to send messages of appreciation to their South African friends, wherever they live. Many of such messages are addressed to “the people of South Africa” in videoclips making the rounds on various social media platforms. But it is all complicated and heart- warming at the same time. The latter is particularly so for those who sympathise with the plight of the Palestinian people on humanitarian grounds without feeling any obvious antipathy towards the state of Israel. To them, it feels good that their government is being recognised internationally for having dared where so many others – especially Arab countries in the Middle East – feared to tread, and to stand upfor the human rights of the Palestinians.

There is, of course, a portion of the South African population, probably a minority, that disagrees with the ICJ steps taken by the South African government and that stands unconditionally in support of Israel. Many of them argue that South Africa should mind its own internal affairs and dedicate its scarce resources to solving its own internal issues which, few will disagree, are increasingly countless. But this is a hard argument to present to people who, during apartheid, relied on the support of people from all over the world to ensure their own plight remained in the headlines. This seemingly intractable Middle Eastern conflict will always create heated debates within the very diverse South African population. The overall South African reality, however, is that there is no love lost between increasing numbers of South Africans and the institutional wrecking ball ANC. Many would even like to see it lose the coming elections and to see a different bunch of leaders take over, repair broken institutions and to progressively implement policies that will set the country back onto a, economic recovery path. A military show-down with American backed Israel would have been unthinkable, but going to the UN’s highest court, the International Court of Justice, was a smart card to play, as it appealed to the moral high ground of protecting fundamental human rights. It was also the right thing to do as, agree with it or not, the step taken by the South African government has created space for the plight of the longsuffering people of Palestine to be ventilated rationally, in open court, and backed by facts, all under the glare of the whole entire world. Israel had a chance to respond to the charges with counter arguments. Now it is up to the 17 judges of the International Court of Justice to consider the arguments and counter arguments placed before them – hopefully not the emotional rants swirling around in the courts public opinion – and to deliver a considered verdict.

Going by a plethora of social media conversations in South Africa, especially in the local Muslim community, there is a concerted drive to make foreign policy a major point of contestation during electoral campaigning. Having, and continuing to fail on domestic issues, ANC leaders and supporters seem ready to have the global aura of Mandela years revived with a focus on what some see as the low hanging fruit of successes on the international front.

They will remind their supporters that South Africa – described by some observers as punching way above its weight in the global arena – came out unscathed after being accused by the US of having sold/given weapons to Russia and led an African delegation to negotiate for peace between Russia and Ukraine, even if no peace has come out of that effort. It was great PR with some embarrassing moments for the South African delegation whose embedded media contingency and a cache of weapons said to be accompanying the president’s security guards got caught-up in Poland. The visit by the South Africa- led African mission generated some needed PR, nevertheless.

They will also mention the role of South Africa in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) formation and recent announcements that the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Egypt, and Ethiopia would soon be joining them. The BRICS is being presented as a possible counterbalance to the US-led Western
dominance of the agenda in world politics and the global economy.

The sad reality is that the 2024 general election in South Africa is not just for the ANC to lose. Importantly, it is for the opposition parties to win. But the confusing and growing number of alternative political offerings only stand to ensure that the existing pie is cut in so many ways that many average voters will find it hard to make informed choices, apart from either staying at home in greater numbers or voting for the devils they already know. It will not help much that the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which is second only to the ANC, is known to be, at best, pro-Israel and, at worst, ambivalent on the matter of the human rights of Palestinians. This will likely cost it many votes in the Coloured and Muslim communities of the Western Cape, the only province it has governed successfully for many years.

The 2024 general elections will be a watershed, no doubt, and play a historic role on whether South Africa continues a proven path of consistent, untrammelled, destruction under failed ANC policies, or chooses to arrest the tentacles of Kakistrocracy and start a possible path towards recovery and socio-economic growth.

Standing for human rights in far-away places is good, but it will never be enough when successive ANC governments have looked away at human rights abuses closer to home, in places like Zimbabwe, Uganda, Sudan, and elsewhere in Africa. The South African electorate should not be fooled and emotionally battered into believing that the otherwise laudable ICJ stunt justifies an ANC re-election in 2024. It doesn’t.

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