South Africa and Israel – Time to Set the Record Straight

As Israel expands its relations with African countries, South Africa remains antagonistic, mostly because of a warped interpretation of history

Nelson Mandela with Ezer Weizman, President of Israel (photo- GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu last week completed his third visit in 18 months to African nations. Netanyahu has made improving ties with Africa one of his top foreign relations priorities. Israel’s expanding and mutually beneficial relations with African countries lies in stark contrast to the antagonistic relations it has with South Africa.

As Apartheid came to an end in South Africa in the 1990’s, the country moved to correct the ills of the apartheid regime. Over the years, they sought to rid the country of all the racially discriminating policies and attitudes. All it seems, except the attitudes of the apartheid leadership towards Israel.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the State of Israel was never an ally of the Apartheid regime. It had relations as did many other countries.  A simple review of the history of the two countries proves that and even reveals facts that are often overlooked.

In 1947 the South African government, under the leadership of Jan Smuts, was one of the countries that voted for the establishment of the state of Israel at the U.N.

Keen to establish diplomatic relations after it’s inception, Israel hoped to be invited to the Badung conference in 1955 in which 29 African & Asian countries participated. The objective of the conference was to formulate a strategy against colonialism.

As often was the case, Israel’s efforts to cooperate with third world countries was met with a fierce Arab opposition. The Arab league, founded in 1945, threatened to boycott the Badung conference if Israel was invited and were successful in their efforts. Most notorious among the participants was Haj Amin el-Husseini, the ex mufti of Jerusalem who was an intimate of Hitler and one of the planners of the extermination of the Jews.

In an attempt to overcome this diplomatic isolation, Israel sent Golda Meir to Africa in 1957. Deeply moved by the challenges facing the young nations of Africa, Meir establishes Israel’s international development program known as MASHAV. The objective was to confront the problems of health, education, malnutrition, development of resources and the low status of women. As a consequence of the program, Israeli experts were sent to 33 African states.

In 1961 Israel voted against apartheid at the U.N. Oliver Tambo, the then head of the A.N.C., sent a letter to the president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben Zvi, thanking him for Israel’s actions.

This stand against apartheid by Israel angered Hendrick Verwoerd, the prime minister of the South African Nationalist government at the time. He dismissed Israel’s opposition to apartheid and declared Israel itself to be an apartheid state, maintaining that the Jews took the land from the Arabs “who had lived there for thousands of years.”

It is ironic that this historically distorted accusation, made by a racist prime minister of the apartheid regime, would be adopted today and repeated by the very people he oppressed, for the purpose of vilifying Israel.

A few months prior to his arrest in 1962, Nelson Mandela underwent military training by Mossad operatives in Ethiopia, using the non de plume David Mobsari. Nelson Mandela was in no way a lone participant in this Israeli covert program. Other anti apartheid movements and individuals were involved, including Potelkako Leballo the head of the P.A.C. (Pan Africanist Congress) military wing.

At the time of the Rivonia trial (1963-64) where Nelson Mandela and others were convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment, Golda Meir, Israel’s foreign minister at the time called for leniency at the trial and the commutation of any death sentence.

The relationship between African nations and Israel came to an abrupt end after the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur war in 1973. This change was a direct result of the Arab threat to impose an oil boycott on all countries that had ties to Israel and severe all aid to those liberation movements that showed support for the Jewish state.

During the 1980’s Israel was singled out as being the pariah in the international community because of her trade with South Africa. The figures however paint an entirely different picture. South Africa’s main trading partners in the 80’s were the U.S.A. $3.4 billion; Japan $2.9 billion; Germany $2.8 billion; the U.K. $2.6 billion. Israeli trade was a mere $200 million, which amounted to roughly 1% of South Africa’s G.D.P.

More revealing was South Africa’s $2 billion annual oil imports, none of which came from Israel obviously. So called supporters of the liberation struggle, namely Saudi Arabia, supplied $1 billion worth of annual oil imports. Barter deals with Iran and Iraq supplied $1 billion and $750 million annual oil imports respectively.

It is therefore puzzling that the post-apartheid South Africa can reconcile with all of these regimes. They can even amend relations with the perpetrators of apartheid. Yet, just like the racist Afrikaner Verwoerd did, they single out Israel for condemnation.

Israel has also been falsely accused of being the apartheid government’s major arms supplier. The main arms suppliers were actually the U.S.A., France, Britain, Canada, West Germany, Belgium and Italy. In addition, an extensive article written by the physicist David Albright concluded that “available evidence argues against significant cooperation” by Israel with respect to the nuclear program. The main players having been the U.S.A., Germany and France.

In fact, no evidence has ever been presented to verify cooperation or indicate a joint South African-Israeli effort in nuclear military development, as Israel is often accused of.

Despite this whole scenario, Israel in 1986 developed a community development and leadership program on the Bet Berl campus situated near Kfar Saba, a town in Israel. The program accepted clandestine groups that included leaders from both the A.N.C & A.Z.A.P.O.(Azanian peoples organization)

It certainly would have been preferable had Israel not associated with the apartheid government in anyway. However it must be remembered that the liberation movements at the time shoulder a large part of the blame, as they sold Israel out for oil. Did these movements and today’s political leadership really expect Israel to put their interests above her own after having been treated so badly?

For western countries, the focus on Israel is very convenient for diverting attention away from their involvement with the apartheid regime and the financial benefits they reaped from that relationship. Arab countries along with anti-Israel forces in the west certainly have what to gain by fostering antagonism towards Israel among South Africans.

Yet, as the people of other African countries reap the benefits of the growing relations with Israel, it is unfortunate that the people in post-apartheid South Africa, those who so desperately need the many skills, expertise and abilities that Israel has to offer, are denied this because their leaders have a warped understanding of history.

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Ron Traub is a former South African living in Israel and an Israeli tour guide.

[Find this article interesting? You can find more in depth articles on Israel and the Middle East @en.mida.org.il]

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2 comments on the article

  1. I agree with everything that Ron has said and feel that he should have added one more fact.
    Of all those “Whites” in South Africa, who took an active part in the anti-apartheid movement, Jews played a non-proportionate part and as one who was arrested by the South African Police for anti-apartheid activities, I can vouch for this fact.
    I spent a short time in jail in Grahamstown and was sentenced to a heavy fine in those days.

    1. That is an important fact and valid but in the article he is centering on official activity of Israel as a State and not the behavior of individuals. The point you raise should in the very least, have the post-Apartheid government be considerate of that sacrifice and effort and recognize it in respect to the relationship with the State of the Jewish people.