25 years ago this week, democratic South Africa severed defence ties with Israel.

Then Defence Minister Joe Modise issued a statement – announcing the end of the decades long special relationship with Tel Aviv on 14 July 1994. Modise compared Israel’s Palestine policy with that of the apartheid regime.

Afro-Middle East Centre Executive Director Na’eem Jeenah says government’s decision was guided by the nation’s values.

South Africa advocates for a just and equitable world order that values all human life.

Israel ties with apartheid regime

The ANC government’s move was seen as a natural progression in some quarters as Tel Aviv was in bed with Pretoria at the height of apartheid, snubbing the international community’s concerted effort to put an end to the administration’s discriminatory and brutal policies.

The two countries’ controversial military collaboration began around 1976 and reportedly blossomed into a force to be reckoned with in the international arms trade. Despite a United Nations arms embargo against apartheid South Africa, Israel went ahead and worked together with Prime Minister John Vorster’s administration. They sold military hardware to each other, collaborated in intelligence services and shared nuclear weapons technology, among other things.

South Africa voluntarily ended its nuclear weapons programme in 1989.

ANC’s solidarity with the Palestinian struggle

The governing ANC’s relationship with Palestine is historic and the party has always been vocal about its support for the struggle of the Palestinian people. ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Chief Albert Luthuli, are on record expressing grave concern over the Israel-Palestine issue.

Mandela once referred to the Palestinians struggle as the greatest moral issue of our time, while Luthuli at the opening conference of the ANC in 1953 declared that; “Our interest in freedom is not confined to ourselves only. We are interested in the liberation of all oppressed people in the whole of Africa and in the world as a whole … our active interest in the extension of freedom to all people denied it makes us ally ourselves with freedom forces in the world.”

Watch video of Mandela explaining the ANC’s position on Palestine and Cuba at a meeting in New York in 1990:

The South African government is supporting the Palestinians call for an independent state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Jeenah says despite this however, government’s has over the years been sending mixed messages on the matter. “One on the one hand that was the attitude and on another – diplomatic relations between the two countries (SA and Israel) remained strong from 1994 through the 2000. Trade relations were static and began to increase from around 2003 when Israel and South Africa signed a trade agreement and it has been growing since then.”

However, Jeenah adds that the governing party seems to have since realised its mistake, a move evident with its 2017 decision to downgrade the Israeli embassy into a liaison office.

Watch discussion on current relationship between Israel and South Africa:

The office is currently operating without a political mandate, a trade and development cooperation one. Consular services are, however, still in place.

Time to shine again

Jeenah says while President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration has its work cut out to restore government’s credibility – South Africa’s refusal for its foreign policy to be influenced by Israel’s staunch ally and the world’s superpower, the United States, on the Middle East conflict is commendable.

The Afro Middle East Expert believes South Africa’s international image had been illustrious until at least the past decade.

Watch related video on the withdrawal of the SA ambassador from Israel:

President Cyril Ramaphosa answering questions on the downgrading resolution of the ANC: