South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (Anadolu Agency)

South Africa has taken several escalatory steps recently towards Israel because of its war on Gaza, the latest of which was the International Criminal Court's call for the need to intervene to investigate Tel Aviv leaders on charges of committing war crimes and genocide in the Gaza Strip, despite its prior knowledge that Israel is not a member of the court and does not recognize its jurisdiction.

This step was preceded by other steps, including President Cyril Ramaphosa blaming Israel for the escalation for not implementing international resolutions on the two-state solution, as well as wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh in solidarity with the people of Gaza, and expressing his country's readiness to mediate between Hamas and Israel to reach a humanitarian truce that would allow the cessation of the war and the entry of aid.

The question arises: why this escalation? Is it only related to the recent war on Gaza, or does it have historical backgrounds?, and does it constitute a new turning point in the country's foreign policy under the current president, or is it the same approach that his predecessors became after the end of the apartheid era in the early nineties of the last century, starting with Nelson Mandela, passing through Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, and even Ramaphosa himself!

Strong relations during apartheid

It can be said that this latest approach of South Africa is not new, but is linked to the end of the apartheid regime in the country in the early nineties of the last century, which is a milestone in the relationship with Tel Aviv.

During the country's racist rule (white minority rule), there was a great rapprochement with Israel even before its inception, starting with Pretoria's support for the 1947 UN partition resolution establishing the State of Israel on 56 percent of Palestine, to its rapid recognition in 1948.

It is not surprising that two weeks after his release from prison in February 1990, Mandela met with the Palestinian President, the late Chairman of the PLO at the time, Yasser Arafat, and stressed during the meeting held in Zambia, that there is a great deal of similarity between the struggle of the National Congress Party and the struggle of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Then relations witnessed a greater rapprochement with the refusal of Pretoria to cut its relations with it, like many African countries; in solidarity with the Arabs in the 1973 war, which Tel Aviv exploited through a set of measures to try to split the African ranks, so Shimon Peres, the first Minister of Defense after the October War, paid a secret visit to Pretoria, followed by one year "1974", raising the level of official relations to the level of embassies, instead of consulates, with the transfer of headquarters from Johannesburg to the capital, Pretoria, and then the signing of a security agreement. In the following year (1975), Israel sells tanks, fighter jets and long-range missiles to South Africa.

The agreement reportedly included an offer to sell nuclear warheads as well, and Tel Aviv began to play the role of mediator in buying weapons on behalf of the racist regime from countries that refused to deal with it, in compliance with the Security Council resolution banning the sale of weapons to it.

This rapprochement between the two sides was justified at the time, as they saw in each other the unity of origin and destiny, as both were based on the idea of racism: "white and Semitic", in the face of others: "blacks - Arabs", and both live in an inappropriate regional neighborhood: "Arab encirclement with Israel, and African encirclement with whites, and therefore there must be "cantons" ghettos that isolate this "pure" minority from the majority.

Shifts in the relationship after the end of apartheid

However, this close rapprochement between the two regimes witnessed several differences with the end of apartheid by the African National Liberation Movement, led by Nelson Mandela, and the emergence of black majority rule for the first time in the country's history. It is the majority that has declared its support for all remaining national liberation movements in the world to get rid of all forms of colonialism.

Therefore, it is not surprising that two weeks after his release from prison in February 1990, Mandela met with the Palestinian president, the late Chairman of the PLO at the time, Yasser Arafat, and stressed during the meeting held in Zambia, that there is a great deal of similarity between the struggle of the National Congress Party and the struggle of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

It is true that he did not agree at the time to the Charter of the Organization before its amendment, which provides for the destruction of Israel, but he took a balanced approach expressed in 1993, a year before he took office: "We insist on the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure borders, but with the same force we support the right of the Palestinians to national self-determination", which he reaffirmed after assuming the presidency in his speech in 1997, on the occasion of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People organized by the United Nations. "Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians," he said.

It is this balanced approach of Mandela that followed by his predecessors after him, and it explains why Pretoria criticized Israel in all its previous wars against Gaza, starting in 2008 and beyond 2012, 2014 and 2021.

Not only that, but the regime in South Africa was keen to communicate with the Palestinian resistance movement. In October 2015, the ruling Congress Party hosted a Hamas delegation led by then-leader Khaled Meshaal, during which President Zuma signed a letter of support for the Palestinians, and a senior ruling party leader described Israel's policies toward the Palestinians as a "state-sponsored crime."

The most important step in the relationship with Tel Aviv was taken by the regime at the end of 2017, by reducing the diplomatic representation with Israel from an embassy to a liaison office in response to the Trump administration's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Pretoria has also placed itself at the forefront of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel for its practices against the Palestinians, and has led the Arab and African rejection camp to accept Tel Aviv as an observer in the African Union.

South Africa's escalatory approach, despite the fact that it has not fully severed diplomatic relations with Israel, and although it has acknowledged that its recent move to recall its diplomats from Tel Aviv is part of consultation and familiarity with the matter, reveals two key things:

First, the regime has taken practical steps, regardless of their effectiveness, to express its rejection of the war against Gaza, whether by proposing mediation or demanding that Israel be referred to the International Criminal Court.

Second: This escalatory stance of the regime is not only based on government demands, but also popular, and therefore the regime, with these "symbolic" steps taken, contributed to increasing its popularity significantly, which may reflect "positively" on it in the elections that the country is witnessing next year.

Perhaps the most important question at the end of the article: Why do many Arab regimes – which suffer from popular decline due to many internal economic and political failures – not take advantage of the war against Gaza, to get closer to the demands of their peoples who reject normalization and demand the continuous opening of the crossings to bring in aid?!

There is no doubt that responding "even partially" to these demands will contribute to raising their popularity, similar to the model of South Africa, and will make its peoples turn a blind eye – even temporarily – to their internal suffering, as long as the suffering of the people of Gaza is at the forefront of the scene.