South Africa vs. Israel: A Litmus Test for BRICS Unity and African Diplomacy

The silence from other African nations over Israel, the balancing act within the African Union, and the internal divisions within BRICS underscore the difficulties in presenting a unified front on contentious global issues.

3 mins read
Dr Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations of South Africa [File Photo]

South Africa’s unprecedented decision to drag Israel before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) extends beyond a mere legal challenge, and is certain to upset the current global order long after the gavel is slammed in the Netherlands.

However, the immediate focus turns to the uncharacteristic silence from Africa, which for decades, has been a steadfast advocate for justice and self-determination in Palestine, however, since 7 October 2023, South Africa seems to be barking in the dark.

In its daring 84-page submission to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) South Africa bluntly accused Israel of having committed atrocities that “are genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group”.

Analysts, however cautions that, South Africa’s audacious decision to report Israel, comes at a challenging time as member states within the African Union (AU) and BRICS, traditionally seen as allies, are facing internal challenges due to a severe economic crisis and turbulent geopolitics.

The African Union (AU) is dealing with some serious issues – internal disputes among member states, its own financial struggles, and a growing number of conflicts and coups, that might impede its ability to substantially support South Africa in their quest for justice.

The African Union’s (AU) suspension of Israel’s observer status, initially granted in 2021, underscores the internal disputes within the AU and the delicate diplomatic balance African nations must maintain.

Analysts argues that Israel’s influence in Africa, demonstrated with trade relations across the continent including much needed aid and military aid, further complicates the diplomatic landscape.

Numerous African countries have greatly benefited from Israel’s ‘generosity’ since the establishment of the State of Israel,  from humanitarian aid and much-needed support in its agricultural sectors, an area that is particularly crucial for nations that have long grappled with persistent famine.

It could be that this targeted intervention was an act of pure philanthropy, but it could very well be a strategic use of aid for exerting ‘soft power’ with the hope that these African nations “remembers Isreal” when it matters most.

In reality, the continent finds itself in a diplomatic cul-de-sac, backing Israel is certain to strain its relations with China and Russia, while openly siding with Palestine will jeopardize its ties with the West.

In North Africa, nations that signed the Abraham Accords in a bid to persuade Israel to end its occupation face internal challenges while Tunisia, that was in talks to sign the accords, is now considering a law to sever ties with Israel completely.

Morocco on the other hand is under sever public pressure to distance itself from Israel amid pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and Sudan restored diplomatic relations with Iran a bitter enemy of Israel.

Moving southward, the unity within the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) bloc, positioned as a counterbalance to traditional Western influence, is called into question.

Russia, that has just assumed the BRICS presidency, has notably failed to publicly support South Africa in its pursuit of justice for Palestine, bringing the question of unity in sharp focus.

The BRICS, representing over 40% of the world population and a quarter of the global economy, grapples with internal divisions, particularly as some member states, including India, still maintain solid ties with Israel.

During the virtual summit chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa with BRICS leaders to address the Israel-Hamas conflict, they were already divided and failed to reach a consensus on a joint declaration on the matter.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attributed the crisis to the shortcomings of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. Meanwhile, China adopted a neutral stance, emphasizing the imperative for all involved parties to cease violence and attacks against civilians, release captive civilians, and take proactive measures to prevent further loss of life and alleviate additional suffering.

In an interview late in 2023, with Russia TV,  Sergey Lavrov Russian foreign minister draws attention to the absence of criticism from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu towards Russia, despite the  despite the numerous critical statements from Russia.

“We should be very careful about our shared history with Israel, particularly our history of fighting Nazism. This is the main element that unifies us in terms of history. It is a fundamental element of our genetic code, so to speak.”

In conclusion, South Africa’s decision to take Israel to the ICJ serves as a litmus test for BRICS unity and African diplomacy. The complexities and challenges faced by African nations in navigating this diplomatic minefield highlight the intricate web of economic, geopolitical, and historical factors that influence international relations.

The silence from other African nations, the balancing act within the African Union, and the internal divisions within BRICS underscore the difficulties in presenting a unified front on contentious global issues.

The ICJ proceedings and the responses of major players will determine not only the fate of South Africa’s quest for justice but also the efficacy of international institutions in addressing geopolitical power dynamics.

South Africa’s bold stance, regardless of the outcome, challenges the narrative and underscores the importance of standing up for justice, even in the face of diplomatic complexities and global power dynamics.

Jemima Beukes

Jemima Beukes is a Namibian journalist with a passion for analysing the diverse narratives that shape our world. As a descendant of the victims of the 1904-08 Nama and Ovaherero genocide by Germany, Jemima is deeply committed to amplifying voices, fostering dialogue, and advocating for justice.

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