South Africa's genocide case is a diplomatic win, whatever the verdict

26 January 2024 - 12:15 By Tim Cocks and Anait Miridzhanian
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International relations and co-operation minister Naledi Pandor. File photo.
International relations and co-operation minister Naledi Pandor. File photo.
Image: GCIS

South Africa's genocide case against Israel may have ruffled feathers in the capitals of vital Western trading partners, but it has boosted the country's standing as a champion of the downtrodden Global South.

That gamble is likely to pay off, thanks to renewed rivalry for Africa's minerals and UN votes between the West, China and Russia, turbocharged by Russia's war on Ukraine.

Regardless of what the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rules on Friday, the case is clearly embarrassing for Israel and its allies in Washington, Brussels and London.

And grumble they might, but they can scarcely afford to alienate Africa's industrial and diplomatic heavyweight — especially with the US's main superpower rival, China, wooing the continent with money, railways and tech transfers.

“If you start punishing South Africa for going to the ICJ, you're going to have to start punishing a lot of other African countries [for supporting the Palestinians],” director of South Africa's Centre for the Study of Democracy Steven Friedman said.

“If you do that, you might as well send [Chinese President] Xi Jinping a letter saying 'you've won'.”

Underscoring the point, on a visit to Angola on Thursday US secretary of state Antony Blinken said of South Africa's ICJ case: “Whether we have a disagreement, one particular matter doesn't take away from the important work we're doing together in so many other areas.”

South African officials often compare their erstwhile struggle against white minority rule to the Palestinian cause — a comparison Israel strongly disputes.

South Africa projects itself as critic of a world order it sees as mainly serving the interests of the US and its rich country allies, who promote international norms they enforce on foes but often not on friends or themselves.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa who denounced the rich world for hogging the vaccines, notes analyst and editor of World Politics Review Chris Ogunmodede.

South Africa was instrumental in marketing Brics — the forum led by Brazil, Russia, India, China and itself — as an alternative to Western hegemony, with 40 nations queuing to join last year.

"[The ICJ case] is ... another indication of the important place South Africa seeks to occupy as [one of] the continent's leading voices on global affairs,” Ogunmodede said.

This aim will be enhanced by taking a firm stand on the Gaza war, which has displaced about 1.9-million Palestinians, killed at least 26,000, according to Gaza officials, and inspired global outrage.

That South Africa took no such unequivocal moral stance on Russia has raised eyebrows. Last year, the government unsuccessfully sought a waiver from its obligation to arrest President Vladimir Putin for alleged war crimes in Ukraine so he could attend a Brics summit.

"[An] elementary principle of morality is that it can’t be selective. South Africa did not do right by the Ukrainian people,” author and columnist Ferial Haffajee wrote in the Daily Maverick this month, but she praised South Africa for picking a first-rate legal team to fight the ICJ case.

South Africans are proud of the strong rule of law that emerged from their anti-apartheid struggle, which often resolves rancorous domestic political disputes.

“Seeing their judges on the bench of the ICJ wearing South African scarves is like watching the Springboks [national rugby team] win the World Cup,” said senior Southern Africa researcher at Chatham House, Chris Vandome.

“It's a point of pride.” 


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