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ANC MP demands that SA shut down embassy in Israel

  • Tandi Mahambehlala
The chairperson of the South African International Relations and Cooperation Portfolio Committee, Tandi Mahambehlala, went on a tirade against Israel in a briefing last week, demanding that the South African embassy be shut down.
by TALI FEINBERG | Nov 28, 2019

“It’s high time that the mission [which is in fact, the South African Embassy in Israel] is closed,” she ranted. “[The] recalling of an ambassador alone isn’t enough. You must be brave. Recall the ambassador, and close the office.”

Her comments were made at a briefing on 20 November by the department on its performance and financial report and that of the Africa Renaissance Fund for the first and second quarters of the 2019/2020 financial year.

Mahambehlala is a minister of parliament (MP) for the African National Congress, and is also the ANC national youth task team (NYTT) convener. The NYTT was established to rebuild, rebrand, and strengthen the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). Essentially, she replaced former ANCYL president Collen Maine in July 2019.

According to transcripts, the discussion began when Economic Freedom Fighters MP and commissar Thembi Portia Msane said that “the issue of Israel and Palestine was discussed in the fifth Parliament [2014 to 2019] ... as much as we are administrative, we also need to participate in global politics”.

DA MP Darren Bergman, the party’s shadow minister of international relations and cooperation, responded by saying, “If we are talking about Palestine and Morocco, DIRCO [the department of international relations and cooperation] and the committee should also discuss Hong Kong and Zimbabwe.”

It was at this point that the chairperson began an emotive and seemingly nonsensical tirade against Israel. “One thing that we must know [is] that the US [United States] and Israel they have been causing mayhem throughout … the Middle East, South America, and what have you (sic).”

She went on to claim that somehow, Israel (and America) “poses a threat to our own people in those countries. And the aggression by Israel, it can never be correct at any point, and we will never support it.”

She said she had received a message “the other day that an explosion happened 200m from a house of one of our own there. And we must say it’s correct? We are going to speak against it, and the whole world is against Israel (sic).”

It was unclear exactly what she meant about an explosion, but she went on to say, “The referred incident was at Harvard when the ambassador was vehemently rejected by the students of Harvard and that thing went viral and it was brave of those students to deal with that ambassador of Israel like that (sic).

“But ourselves as South Africa, it cannot be correct that we recall an ambassador from Israel but we don’t close the mission. We must close that mission. Why do we have a mission there in Israel? What’s the purpose of us having a mission when we have an ideological position on Israel as a ruling party? Which policies are you implementing? The policies of the ruling party. So you must close that mission ... You are opening the office there for who if the ambassador is here recalled? Who is operating the office, who is in charge?”

She concluded by once again emphasising that the office should be closed. “We’ve got power now with the legislation, with the bill, we passed it. The president must sign that bill so you must close that mission.”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Bergman said that the chairperson was not basing her argument on facts, and that she showed “no understanding of any of these conflicts. This is dangerous for international relations. The committee needs to hold this minister to account.”

Mahambehlala’s statements directly contradict President Cyril Ramaphosa’s comments to the SA Jewish Report in May this year, when he said that the decision to downgrade South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv had “not been considered yet by cabinet”.

“Once the cabinet has fully engaged and come out with a view on this matter, it will be communicated to the public. In other words, we remain seized with the modalities of downgrading the South African embassy in Israel, and this matter has not been finalised,” Ramaphosa said.

“South Africa is playing a constructive role in the Middle East,” the president continued, “and we use every opportunity that avails itself to engage with all states in this region, including the Palestinians and Israelis. We continue to host high-level talks and receive numerous delegations from Israel and Palestine. We hope to intensify this in the future.”

Asked if he still welcomed foreign direct investment by Israel, the president said, “South Africa welcomes investment in our economy from any investor that respects our laws and supports the development of our economy.”

When the SA Jewish Report approached DIRCO spokesperson Clayson Monyela for comment, he said, “In all fairness, you can’t ask the department to comment on statements of lawmakers. Members of parliament belong to a branch of government that is above us. Please direct your questions to the chairperson.”

At the same time, he shared a statement from 24 November, in which DIRCO condemned Israel’s building of settlements, but asked both sides of the conflict “to respect [United Nations] Security Council resolution 2334 and all other UN resolutions aimed at resolving the conflict … to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace.”

On the same day that Mahambehlala made her comments, ambassador Jerry Matjila (the permanent representative of South Africa to the UN) spoke during the UN Security Council Briefing on the Situation in the Middle East. There, he also condemned Israeli settlements, but said that peace could be achieved only “through sustained dialogue, negotiation, and mediation by both sides respecting one another and through compromise and understanding”.

He concluded by saying that, “South Africa is fully committed to ensuring that the two-state solution, and the agreed peace processes aimed at ensuring two viable states with the possibility of coexisting side by side to the mutual benefit of all peoples in the region, become a reality. We are ready to play our part to assist the parties to find durable peace for the sake of future generations.”

The SA Jewish Report’s calls, messages, and emails to Mahambehlala went unanswered.

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