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Op-eds

Embassy downgrade is South Africa’s loss

  • Howard Feldman 2018
It’s a strange thing. The news that South Africa will be downgrading its embassy in Israel upset me for reasons I hardly expected. As a vocal supporter and advocate of Israel, I expected to be hurt by the injustice and the hypocrisy and the unfairness of it all.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Mar 14, 2019

I expected to feel protective and outraged and saddened by the damage that it would do to the country that is my spiritual home.

I fully expected to point at the horror of abuses of Iran and China and Syria, and the persecution of gays and women in the Gaza area. I was ready to shake my head as I pointed out the magnificence of what Israel has contributed to the world in areas of medicine, science, environment, and sustainability. And I thought that I would want to list the occasions when Israel has sent its citizens all around the world to assist when tragedy struck.

Instead, what I felt is overwhelming sadness for the country that is doing the downgrading.

The story of Israel is an inspirational one. In its short 70 years since independence, it has achieved success incomparable to almost any other country. It has done so while facing a real and tangible existential threat. First the threat came from all its Arab neighbours, who attacked the vulnerable and infant state days after the United Nations voted on the Partition Plan, then from terror groups, and more recently from Iran. With one eye on its enemies, it has managed to offer the world arguably more than any other country of its size.

South Africa, on the other hand, is in many respects not a success story. It is a country with rampant and heartless corruption, an unacceptable crime rate (even outside parliament), blundering and directionless economic strategy, and flagrant disregard for its poor and vulnerable. It can ill afford to downgrade a relationship that offers tangible and real solutions to many of its challenges.

It is a classic example of shooting oneself in the foot. The worst part is that South Africa doesn’t even seem able to recognise that this will cause pain. Even worse is that, in doing so, it absurdly believes that it has gained the moral imperative, when the truth is exactly the opposite.

Why President Cyril Ramaphosa feels he needs to do this (while continuing to woo the Jewish community) is a matter of speculation. It is well accepted that he leads a precariously and dangerously balanced ANC.

He needs to weigh up each decision carefully in order to determine what is the best strategy in the medium and long term. It is highly possible that he had to follow a decision made by his party in December 2017. It is also possible that the practical implications are nought and that the optics are more important than the substance.

The past few months have been interesting in that, for the first time – and with increasing frequency – South Africa’s Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) strategy has been openly challenged by those who actually care about the country.

The pushback from the BDS movement over deals that would bring billions of rand as well as a significant number of jobs to the country exposed it to many. It could not have been more apparent how little the organisation cared for the country, and how its only goal was to damage Israel.

The above considered, I believe that the downgrade, although extremely disappointing, is a legacy issue from the corrupt Jacob Zuma era, when any diversion from his theft was welcomed. I believe it will make no practical difference, and that South Africans fully understand the absurdity and hypocrisy of this move.

I believe that Ramaphosa knows full well that Israel doesn’t need South Africa, and that the contrary is true.

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