South Africans fear damage to standing with West as country awaits outcome of genocide case against Israel

South Africa’s attempt to have impact on events in Middle East is latest in a series of diplomatic disagreements with western powers

As South Africa awaits the outcome of its genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), political discourse at home is focusing on whether the country is damaging its standing with the West through its stance on the Gaza war and other issues.

The African nation has won praise from human rights groups at home and abroad for standing up for Palestinian rights at The Hague-based ICJ, where it accused Israel of genocide and asked judges for an order calling for an end to its assault on Gaza. The court is expected to respond to that request in the coming days, though it may take years for a final ruling on the genocide claim.

With Israel’s main western allies continuing to defend its right to attack Hamas in Gaza, many South Africans fear their government’s position could worsen already strained relations with the United States and some EU nations, with which South Africa has crucial economic ties. South Africa’s attempt to have an impact on events in the Middle East is the latest in a series of diplomatic disagreements it has had with western powers, which increasingly see it as being too close to Russia and China.

The emergence of these difficulties for Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC)-led administration stem from its refusal to condemn Russia for its 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Ramaphosa’s government says it is remaining true to its non-aligned foreign policy position.


South Africa’s president says his country subscribes to a multipolar world order rather than one dominated by the US, and it will not be bullied into cutting ties with nations the West views as a threat. Although most South Africans support the Palestinians’ plight because of their own apartheid history, many suspect the ANC of putting its own interests on the international stage in advance of its mandate to fix the country’s flatlined economic development and mass unemployment problem.

In line with this public view, the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation has questioned the ANC’s motives for taking the ICJ case, suggesting they betray its deep bias towards historical allies over the need to maintain international investment inflows and ensure trade access with these rich markets.

“It will indubitably be celebrated in parts of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China South Africa) group, especially in those countries too savvy to launch such an action themselves, mindful of the inevitably costly consequences,” the think-tank wrote on its website this month.

The foundation added that if human rights were a central tenet of South Africa’s foreign policy, it would have “brought cases to the ICJ over genocide in Sudan and Ethiopia’s Tigray – both much closer to home”.

However, international law and human rights advocate Ottilia Anna Maunganidze has expressed support for South Africa’s approach to the ICJ. She told The Irish Times the case was supported by many of the world’s less powerful nations, which should help to shield it from negative international fallout. Turkey, Jordan, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Pakistan, and Malaysia are among the countries to have publicly supported South Africa’s case, while many more have condemned or expressed concern around Israel’s destruction of Gaza.

“I also think bringing the case has challenged the current world order to some degree. It has enabled smaller countries to stand strong and be forceful on their beliefs and standards,” Maunganidze, who is head of special projects at the Institute for Security Studies, said.

She added: “Take Ireland and Spain: their positions on the case challenge the notion that ‘the West’ is a homogeneous group of countries that agree on everything.”

Maunganidze said a good example of a small country opposing Western powers in defence of Palestine was Namibia’s decision to publicly criticise Germany for asking the ICJ to join the case in support of Israel.

Earlier this month, Namibian president Hage Geingob urged Germany to reconsider its involvement, citing the historical context of its 2021 acknowledgment that it had committed genocide in Namibia from 1904 to 1908. Considered the 20th century’s first genocide by many historians, German colonisers massacred more than 70,000 indigenous Herero and Nama people in the southern African nation during the period.

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