14 August 2007 - South Africa's ambassador to Israel
There were two major points that emerged during my interview yesterday with South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, Major General Fumanekile Gqiba. The first is that South Africa is committed to a diplomatic strategy of reaching out to rogue states. Despite the importance of sanctions in pressuring the apartheid regime, the ANC is opposed to sanctions, and force, against anyone under any circumstances.
The second point is that South Africa believes it can conduct this strategy while still upholding values of human rights and democracy in its foreign policy—or, more precisely, while keeping up strong relations with states that find themselves having to defend such values. Thus while the opponents of such values may use violence to attack them, the supporters of such values may never use force to defend them.
This came out in questions I asked the ambassador about Iran, for example. He saw no contradiction in South Africa developing closer relations with the Iranian regime while maintaining its relations with Israel. He also did not think that the radical forays of South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should have any bearing on the South Africa-Israel relationship.
Basically, the ANC government wants all the benefits, but none of the burdens, of membership in the family of democratic nations. Behind its universalist idealism and moral relativism lies a profound double standard. In the interview, I did not even get to the third prong of South African foreign policy—the revival of Cold War hostility to the West, which seems to dictate South Africa’s alliances.
That said, Ambassador Gqiba is really an outstanding representative of his country, He has a strong attachment to Israel as well. We talked a bit about his Christian faith: he is ordained in the Anglican church, and traces the roots of his religion to Jerusalem. At the same time, he once held deep suspicions of Israel, due to its image in the media and its past connections with the apartheid government.
Ambassador Gqiba seems as concerned about presenting a positive image of Israel to South Africans as he is about presenting an optimistic outlook on South Africa to Israelis. I asked him about the Israel-apartheid analogy, and he declined to endorse it, saying that it was easy enough to draw facile equations from abroad, but quite difficult to do so once one had actually seen the situation in Israel for oneself.
I also asked him about a specific quote that appeared in an article by Eddie Molefe in the Sowetan on 16 March 2005. The ambassador is quoted—without quotation marks—as having said: “The accusations are unfounded, the term "apartheid" is uniquely South African and devalues the struggle of the black population against one of the worst forms of oppression known to man.”
I once used this quote in an article in the Harvard Law School Record in which I criticised a discussion held by the campus “Justice For Palestine” group on the Israel-apartheid analogy. The leader of JFP accused me of misrepresenting the quote—which he had not been able to find himself, and which I sent him.
Later, the outgoing leader of JFP agreed to meet with me, but insisted first that I admit I was wrong about the quote. At that time, I had no way of knowing, since it is quite common among South African journalists to use direct quotes without indicating “inverted commas. Several e-mails to the ambassador himself had not yielded a clear answer. The leader of JFP pulled out of our meeting on that pretext—I suspected he never wanted to have a proper dialogue, anyway.
Yesterday, the ambassador told me himself that he had not actually been the source of the quote, and said his staff had traced it to Reverend Malcom Hedding of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. So I was, indeed, wrong about the quote—but not about Ambassador Gqiba’s feelings. He is clearly reluctant to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa, which is the reason I had referred to him.
One comparison the ambassador did make was between the methods used by the Palestinians and by the ANC. For the ANC, he said, violence had primarily been a political tool, aimed at pressuring the apartheid regime into negotiations. For the Palestinian leadership, he said, violence had become an end in itself. There’s much more to the interview: when it’s published, I’ll provide the link here.