Alignments pose risks: SA foreign policy may incur costs – Tony Leon

South African governments have in the past supported the Palestinian people and their struggle for their own homeland, but have managed to balance that with cordial relations with Israel. There has however been a noticeable shift from this policy during the Presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa.  President Ramaphosa remained silent on the Hamas attacks and only commented after Israel started a bombing campaign in Gaza.  Added to this, was a call by his Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor to Hamas and her subsequent visit to Iran. Not only did the ruling party come out strongly in support of Pandor, the ANC  organised a march near the Israeli embassy in Pretoria calling for the embassy to be closed down. ANC deputy-secretary-general Nomvula Mokonyane also called for “an end to Zionism.” In an interview, former leader of the opposition and political commentator, Tony Leon described the response to the attacks as a low watermark for South Africa and warned that alignments pose risks. He said South Africa’s foreign policy does not matter in the Middle East, but it may incur costs in the  West.  Western governments, he said, are taking notes. He also commented on the increased support for opposition parties in South Africa saying that it is encouraging but they needed to keep on moving forward, like a shark. He warned against an ANC/EFF coalition saying the EFF would devour the ANC and it would be ruinous for South Africa. – Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introductions
  • 00:56 – On Rampahosa’s Israel-Hamas stance
  • 04:23 – On the ANC’s lack of distinction in speaking about Hamas/Palestinians
  • 06:51 – On the ANC’s foreign policy
  • 11:28 – On AGOA
  • 12:19 – On the West taking note
  • 12:43 – How opposition parties can capitalise ahead of 2024
  • 17:43 – On possible coalition partners for the ANC
  • 20:44 – On Cyril Ramaphosa
  • 22:17 – On the Multi-Party Charter
  • 25:56 – A lot could still happen before 2024
  • 26:52 – Ends

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Excerpts from the interview

SA’s response to Hamas attacks is a low water mark for South Africa 

There is an extraordinary disconnect between what Mbeki said after 9-11 when he called it a dastardly deed and the world needs to unite against this form of terrorism and Ramaphosa’s radio silence for the first nine days of the Hamas massacres and atrocities in 20 different locations inside Israel. The attacks took place inside the 1947 borders of Israel. This wasn’t the contested occupied territory and Gaza itself from which the attacks were launched that has been unoccupied by Israel since 2005. But, these subtleties and distinctions were nothing compared or the omission of them compared to the fact that the ANC’s first response was basically to blame Israelis and Jews for their own atrocities committed against them by Hamas. There was no reference to Hamas in the ANC statement.

There was no acknowledgement of the victims. There was no empathy for the scale of the atrocities, which as the Chief Rabbi of South Africa pointed out, are the worst in a single day committed against any community of Jews since the Holocaust in 1945. There was nothing like that. There was just the bold assertion that the Israelis had it coming. President Ramaphosa, who normally is always found to emote on any issue ranging from people who lose their lives in floods to events very far away from South Africa, which requires some kind of empathy, was completely silent.

He was silent for the first nine days. Interestingly, he waited until Israel had basically embarked on its own campaign of self-defence against its attackers, which incidentally is completely allowed under public international law, which he keeps on quoting. Not that I at all rejoice in any of the loss of life in Gaza, but that unfortunately is one of the casualties when you launch attacks from sites that are embedded with civilian populations, which is exactly what Hamas does. So, only when Palestinians started to become casualties did Ramaphosa issue a statement of such mealy-mouthed equivocation that one wonders why he bothered. 

Then the ink had barely dried on that statement when Naledi Pandor was comporting with Hamas over the telephone before her current visit to Iran, which America has branded as basically a terrorist regime, not a moment before the ANC had marched on the Israeli embassy in Pretoria last Friday, demanding its closure and at the same time, in one of its many acts of doublespeak saying South Africa should be a trusted party to lead negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. You can’t make it up, except of course, I think for not just Jews in South Africa, but people everywhere, this is just a real low water mark for this country and particularly by the standards on which it is judged in the wider world, never mind at home.

Read more: The mess that is SA’s foreign policy: A minefield of contradictions, isolating from the West – Katzenellenbogen

Western leaders are taking note of ANC government’s pro-Hamas, pro-Iran policies 

I completely accept the distinction between Hamas, which is a terrorist movement, and all Palestinians. They’re two distinct entities. The fact that Gazans have voted in significant numbers for Hamas to govern them is perhaps another matter, but not everyone should be held responsible for the misdeeds of a group which practises jihadist terrorism.

As Gideon Rachman said in the Financial Times, it’s an unfortunate reality that you’ve got on the one hand, acts of unspeakable horror committed by the same people who also have a government function because they are the elected government of Gaza. So, it’s a difficult situation. But quite clearly, not every Palestinian, most Palestinians, I suspect, I don’t know, support the unbridled butchering of babies and the decapitation of people simply because they’re Jewish or Israeli. 

On the other hand, of course, there’s a lot of anger in the Palestinian territories, and I fully understand that as well. I’m a staunch critic, let me say, of the policies of the current government of Israel and a few predecessor governments who have gone out of the way not to reach a settlement on the outstanding issue of Palestine. 

I think it needs to be resolved. I think it’s way past time and maybe in the horror of this terrible event, there can be a renewed sense of urgency, although I don’t know because I suspect it’ll lead to an even more hardened position on both sides. 

Having said all that, the ANC as an organisation basically is pro-Hamas. I think there are only four countries in the world where Hamas has a representative office and South Africa is one of those four and that tells you something. The fact that Pandor, our Minister of International Relations, sees fit in the middle of this horror show in Israel to conduct telephone diplomacy with Hamas and rush off to Iran, who is the biggest backer of Hamas, I think speaks very loudly about the inclinations, the ideology, and the bias of the South African government. Western leaders are taking notes. How they’re going to act on the notes they take, I’m not in a position to say.

The ANC sees Israel through a crude lens, wants to be a bride at every wedding, corpse at every funeral 

Unlike a lot of other South Africans do not think the ANC is anti-Semitic. I don’t think the ANC hates Jews, for example. But I absolutely think they subscribe to this really childish; I would describe it as no more than a childish trope that Israel is somehow an illegitimate outpost of the West in the middle of Arabia, and really shouldn’t be there at all. The circumstances, the UN resolution of 1947, the many wars of independence that were subsequently fought there are of little account for the fact that the ANC sees in a very crude way that Palestine and Israel somehow represent the coloniser or the colonists.  That’s Israel, the West, Israel, and the rest, and that’s Palestine, the oppressed. I think that’s the lens through which everything is seen, however misguided, however un-nuanced, however historical that might be and Jews can never be victims, in their view. 

That is an anti-semitic trope. I don’t think the ANC realises it. David Baddiel, the English comedian, put it very well in the book, Jews don’t count that somehow, because Jews are seen as being part of the rich and the powerful, most Israeli Jews are not even white, but that’s another matter, and somehow connected to America. They aren’t worthy of consideration the way that genuinely oppressed people are. This is a simplistic view of the world, but I think it’s one the ANC subscribes to. Also, the fact that America is seen as the great Satan, to quote the Iranian friends of Naledi Pandor and of course, America is Israel’s major ally and indeed provider of both arms and ammunition weapons, but also a strategic alliance partner.

It reminds me of what P W Botha said of Harry Schwartz. It didn’t mean it kindly. He said he wants to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. South Africa, in a way, wants that identity and I think one of the reasons there was a reluctance to criticise Hamas, still is, is if they did that, the ANC, whereas Mbeki had no problem with criticising Al-Qaeda because he was more self-confident about his position and South Africa’s place in the world in 2001, than Ramaphosa’s in South Africa’s place in the world in November 2023. If they did that, that would somehow dilute their pro-Palestinian, their anti-colonialist credentials. I think that’s how the ANC sees it and this is the result. But, people are taking notes. It is not a cost-free exercise. 

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SA’s position on the Middle East does not matter to them, it matters in the West

In all reality to be brutally honest about it, South Africa’s position on the Middle East matters very little to the Middle East. It’s not going to move the dial there one jot one way or the other. But South Africa’s position might matter a great deal when it’s looking for a renewal of things like AGOA. It also reminds me of the fact that I think the South African government loves the donations, but they don’t like the donors.  This unilateral free trade agreement is great in terms of what it does for our industries. I’m a big fan of AGOA, what it’s done for our citrus exports, what it does for our automotive industry, and the very existence of the latter’s larger co-dependence. I’m not for a moment suggesting it be closed down. In fact, I hope it’s renewed. But you’ve got to be prepared to take some costs for this and I’m not sure the South African government actually is always aware of the costs of the exercises it indulges in.

I’m not going to suggest anything other than that I hope it gets renewed. But there’s an AGOA summit, I think it’s taking place early next month in November in South Africa and I think we’ll see. There’s a much bigger global picture here, never mind Africa’s trade preferences. There’s China, there’s Taiwan, there’s the ongoing situation in Ukraine, and in a way, South Africa is aligning itself on the one side of that, and it’s not on the western side. I think alignments can be very costly exercises. The West is absolutely taking notes. How they’re going to act on the notes they take, I’m not in a position to say.

Non-EFF Opposition vote remained static at 32% from 1994 to 2023, new poll is encouraging

In politics, it can be anywhere in the world, Poland, Argentina, South Africa. They’re only two narratives in politics. The one is: It’s time for a change and that’s a very powerful call. You’ll see in Britain, given the results of the bi-elections last week where the Tories got trounced in two heartland seats, it’s very difficult for the party of government, especially a long-standing party of government, to become the agent of change, which Rishi Sunak is trying to do and not very successfully on the latest by-election results. The other trope in politics is the other side is worse. So, however much you think of us or how little you think of us, the other crowd can be worse.

I think what’s happened in opposition politics in South Africa, it’s been static for a long time and earlier this year, and I think it was an imaginative and necessary step, the leader of the opposition, the DA, my party, well it’s still my party but I mean I used to lead it for a long time, decided they had to try and change the mood music by starting this multi-party charter. I think, collectively, when people see at least the opposition is trying to cooperate, it creates more enthusiasm in the opposition base. That’s why if the Brenthurst poll is correct, the opposition the non-EFF opposition is moving towards about 40% of voter support. 

Until now, it didn’t really matter whether I was the leader of the opposition or F.W. de Klerk was the leader of the opposition or others, Helen Zille and so on, all my successors, the opposition total vote more or less remained unchanged in South African election results between 1994 and now, at about 32%, of which the DA got the most, but the others took the rest. Any advance of 32% is a material advance. Now, whether it’s going to be enough to enter the Union Buildings is a big question mark. On the same poll the ANC will under almost any set of circumstances, remain the largest party. But, clearly, they are going to be in a much more vulnerable position than they’ve ever been. That’s the national picture. Provincially, the same poll suggested they’re going to lose power and be kept out of power again in the Western Cape and they could lose power in KwaZulu-Natal. 

If all three of those scenarios happen, I’m not saying they will, the ANC will become largely a rural party. It will not be in control of the urban heartlands of South Africa. That would exclude it from Durban, Cape Town, I don’t know about PE, maybe not. They will still keep the Eastern Cape. But, Joburg, Pretoria, all those would basically, also now on provincial level will follow the municipal election results and return non-ANC governments, which would put the ANC in a very, very problematic position because it’s hard to govern a modern industrial economy when actually your support is entirely, or not entirely, but largely focused in the non-urban areas given that 66% or so of South Africa is urbanised. 

EFF/ANC coalition would devour the ANC and be road to ruin for South Africa

News24 wrote that there had been secret talks between the ANC and the DA and the ANC would govern the country and the DA would take over parliament.  So, the DA would get the speakership and the leader of government business posts and the ANC would cobble together a coalition with the small parties and provide a national cabinet. Well, I don’t know if that’s achievable. So, that’s one outcome of a sort of DA-ANC pact. It’s probably not very popular in the rank and file of the ANC and arguably not in the DA rank and file either, but maybe for the country that’s a good outcome. 

The easiest outcome if the ANC does poorly, but not that poorly will be to do a deal with these so-called rats and mice parties, the 1% party who will be happily bought off with a cabinet seat or a couple of committee chairmanships or something, an ambassadorship, dare I say it, and they would then be able to carry on as before, although not as strong as before. Certainly, I don’t think it’d be very good news for the economy. I don’t think there’d be any change or any necessary reforms under that situation. It’d be a kind of paralysis.

The worst outcome, which I think is favoured by quite a few people in the ANC, would be to bring the EFF into government. Not that the ANC executive might have that view, although some of them will because the EFF will devour the ANC and government. A lot of Cyril Ramaphosa’s close confidants say within six months they would destroy us. That’s actually what’s being said by some ANC-insiders. If you let the EFF in, game over.

The ANC’s experience with the EFF at the local government level appears to be a very unhappy marriage, at least in Ekurhuleni and the East Rand of Joburg and in Johannesburg itself, and that’s just at a local level. So, that would give them the numbers to form a stable government, but I think, at an enormous cost to the country. It really would be the road to ruin for South Africa.

We’re in a very bad situation, largely the consequence of ANC policies and poor governance. If you add to that the toxic brew of EFF politics, that is game over. Now, I’m not being an alarmist. I think you must take the EFF very seriously, at face value what they say. Given the feebleness of the ANC about anything, or most things, except trying to win elections, I think the EFF would have the field clear to implement the most ruinous policies this country has seen in generations.

Ramphosa the unenthusiastic lead-from-behind governor, Enoch Godongwana is Horatio on the bridge 

Someone who used to be very close to Ramaphosa, who I saw the other day, said to me, that he doesn’t understand why he gets up in the morning and is president; What does he want it for? He’s got it on his CV now. He certainly doesn’t seem a very enthusiastic governor. He doesn’t give a sense that he is enthused about governing. He’s certainly not backing up his finance minister in any meaningful way. Enoch Godongwana often reminds me of Horatio on the bridge, the one man who’s holding back the populist forces. You don’t see the president of South Africa standing alongside him as indeed, despite all my criticisms, Mbeki did for Trevor Manuel, for example, in implementing reasonably market-friendly macroeconomic policies and decisions and in what was a very successful presidency and finance ministry from a macro-economic point of view. You don’t see any of that. 

Ramaphosa is just kind of a lead-from-behind kind of person, and that’s not what the country needs now. So, would he stick around if the ANC does very badly? No, probably not, and the ANC is rather unforgiving of presidents who they perceive to have failed them. Other than Mandela, who has stood down after one term, not a single of his successors have completed their second terms of office.

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President and leader of MPC could be an outsider

What I understand is they’ve kept open the presidential nomination. They’ve made that very clear. John Steenhuisen has ruled himself out, which is probably correct in terms of the demographic situation as the president. I think the DA’s idea from what I understand is to draft in someone from outside of the existing parties as a presidential candidate. So, there would be an outsider who’s got credentials to become president. 

There is one name I have seen bandied around recently. I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not but the advantage of that is, that leader could conceivably span together very different parties because it doesn’t come from any one of them in particular. Whether that’ll excite the voters will depend on the personality of the candidate and what he brings. I don’t know how that’s going to work out. That’s the thinking.

Let’s see, it might just be the necessary juice that you need to really get the show on the road. On the other hand, this has been tried before. You remember that catastrophe when Helen Zille brought in Mampela Ramphele which lasted all of five days. So, I mean, hopefully, the choreography and the sequencing are going to be a bit more watertight than that exercise. But you’ve got to keep trying. 

Opposition politics is like being a shark, if you stay still, you will die

I used to say this when I was the leader of the opposition, and it’s worth repeating now because this fundamental truth remains, opposition politics here and everywhere is like being a shark. You’ve got to keep moving forward. If you stay still, you will die. There are a lot of political parties in South Africa who have stagnated, who have not advanced and most of them are found on the opposition side. So, there’s a warning there, and it’s something that needs to be remembered. 

That is why these moves, however difficult they are and however controversial, are important.. It’s like after the rugby on Saturday, Monday morning, we’re all experts… But the truth is, it’s easy to sit in an armchair and make critical comments, be an armchair general, strategist, or coach. But in the field, which I can say I’ve been in, and having been in those weeds, it’s so important that you keep trying to find a refreshment of your purpose. You can’t just keep doing the same thing in the hope that someday your ship will come in. You’ve got to be creative and you’ve got to be purposeful and you’ve also got to stick to your core principles. That’s what I hope the DA is doing. I see some signs of it and I wish them great success because whether you are a DA or not, the future of this country can only prosper if at some point, and hopefully sooner or later, there’s a change of government. Because another five years of this show that we’ve had for the last 29 years is very bad news.

I think there’s a lot of work to do for the opposition still, and they haven’t closed the argument. Maybe they only opened the argument, but I think it’s more hopeful than it’s been in terms of change than certainly the elections in which I was head of the opposition.

ANC is banking that voters will forget

Obviously, what the ANC is trying to do is to keep the lights on and I suspect it’s one of the great cynical ironies of political life and thought that they will look to be rewarded for fixing the mess that they created at ESKOM. So, if there’s an improvement in energy transmission or more of us have gone off the grid, so ESKOM can provide more electricity with less pressure, the ANC will say, look what we’ve done. Well, look what we’ve done indeed. So those are arguments, but I thought the poll was encouraging.

A lot can change in the next few months. I think that that’s what the ANC leader are banking on is that people, voters will forget how terrible the situation’s been. They’ll forget about the corruption. They’ll forget about the electricity disaster. They’ll forget about the inequality. They’ll forget about unemployment. I lived in Argentina for four years and in Argentina, not all of them, but the plurality of them on Sunday voted for the Peronists again. I mean, this is a country that’s got an inflation rate of 168% that’s had multiple currency crashes, and economic recessions. People often vote for the devil they know. So, the opposition’s job is to create an alternative that people can respond to.

I think there’s a lot of work to do for the opposition still, and they haven’t closed the argument. Maybe they only opened the argument, but I think it’s more hopeful than it’s been in terms of change than certainly the elections in which I was head of the opposition.

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