Will Israel’s war on Gaza sway South Africa’s election?

Governing ANC is vocally pro-Palestine while main opposition DA remains neutral on the Gaza war, which may affect voters on May 29.

Cyril Ramaphos
'We want Palestine to be free,' South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, right, said at a May Day rally in Cape Town [Esa Alexander/Reuters]

Cape Town, South Africa – “We cannot allow supporters of baby killers to talk to us,” a furious resident of Surrey Estate in Cape Town shouted as he heckled the speaker at the podium.

The man was one of hundreds of residents of the mostly Muslim suburb who had gathered for a pre-election panel discussion early in May, where representatives from 10 political parties sought to lobby support.

When Riad Davids, the representative for the Democratic Alliance (DA) – South Africa’s liberal, centrist main opposition party that is considered a steadfast supporter of Israel – took to the podium to make his pitch to residents, he was booed.

The audience shouted and jeered, preventing him from delivering his message and seeking to force him off the stage.

The South African government’s support for Palestine has become a common theme in debates leading up to the May 29 general elections and expressions of solidarity with the people of Gaza have featured during the campaigns of various political parties.

The governing centre-left African National Congress (ANC), which has historical links with Palestine, has publicly condemned human rights violations under Israeli occupation and has taken Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) accusing it of genocide in its war on Gaza.

The official opposition DA, however, did not support the government’s decision to haul Israel to the ICJ and has been criticised by some for its stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict since the war began in October.

Although the DA has historically shown support for Israel, it says its position is one of neutrality.

“The DA stands in solidarity with both Palestinians and Israelis who seek a two-state solution. The DA stands against radicalism and violence. We reject any sentiment that seeks to annihilate either Israel or Palestine. We embrace rationality based on peaceful co-existence for both a secure Israel and a free Palestinian state. We embrace the right of both Palestinians and Israelis to statehood and sovereignty,” the party said in a statement following the October 7 attacks.

Pro Palestine rally in South Africa
People participate in a ‘Free Palestine’ family walk in Durban, South Africa [File: Rogan Ward/Reuters]

In the Western Cape, where the DA has governed for the last 15 years, the party has enjoyed support from working-class majority Muslim areas like Surrey Estate.

But in this instance, the disdain from the community was palatable as angry residents insisted that the DA was complicit in condoning genocide in Gaza.

“It is sad that in a Muslim area, where we have a Muslim audience, you want to deny someone the opportunity to speak,” Davids pleaded with the audience.

As he persisted, the angrier the crowd became with loud chants of “free, free Palestine” ringing in the community hall. Two Palestinian flags were waved every time the crowd heckled him.

‘ANC stands in solidarity with Palestine’

While the angry residents of Surrey Estate were venting their frustration at the DA representative, a few kilometres away in the suburb of Rylands, another working-class majority Muslim suburb in Cape Town, President Cyril Ramaphosa was addressing residents at a public meeting.

There, the president arrived wearing a keffiyeh and maintained an unapologetic position for the ANC’s support for the people of Palestine.

Ramaphosa said his government will look at visa waivers to make it easier for Palestinians travelling to South Africa.

“We will make an exception so that our brothers and sisters from Palestine can come here, not only as refugees but for a variety of reasons,” he said to applause.

In the question and answer session with the president, ANC member of parliament and grandson of former president Nelson Mandela, Mandla Mandela, asked Ramaphosa why local authorities have not arrested South Africans who have been found fighting in the Israeli army. The president pledged that his government would take action.

The community’s fervent support for Palestine was also on full display with many in the crowd wearing Palestinian colours as they listened to Ramaphosa wooing them.

“The ANC stands in solidarity with the people of Palestine,” read the banners on stage behind the president.

It was not an unusual sight. The ANC has consistently expressed its solidarity with Palestine during election campaign events.

South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor and South African Ambassador to the Netherlands Vusimuzi Madonsela speak on the day the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rule on emergency measures against Israel following accusations by South Africa that the Israeli military operation in Gaza is a state-led genocide, in The Hague, Netherlands, January 26, 2024. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, left, and South African Ambassador to the Netherlands Vusimuzi Madonsela speak at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) following accusations by South Africa that Israel is committing state-led genocide in Gaza [File: Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters]

This past weekend, the ruling party and government representatives also participated in the first Global Anti-Apartheid Conference for Palestine held in Johannesburg, which aimed to hold Israel accountable for its crimes against the Palestinian people.

At the event, international relations and cooperation minister, Naledi Pandor, reiterated the government’s view that Israel perpetuates apartheid against the Palestinians and called for tougher action against it.

“There can never be peace if the Palestinian people are not free … We should be ashamed that 35,000 people have been killed in Gaza,” she said during the conference attended by government representatives and activists.

Days earlier, during a national May Day rally commemorating Workers’ Day, the ANC led a march in Cape Town in solidarity with Palestinians.

“You, as workers, need to join this fight to fight for those who are oppressed around the world. And today as South Africa, we have stood up for the rights of those in other parts of the world [who] are currently being subjected to torture, to violence and genocide,” Ramaphosa implored the country’s workers.

“And that is why as a country and yes, as an alliance, we have stood firm in our support for the people of Palestine. And that is why we say ‘we want Palestine to be free’,” he said to applause.

‘This is not Palestine’

The ANC has long compared Israel’s policies against Palestinians to the brutal apartheid regime’s actions against Black South Africans before democracy in 1994.

However, some have more cynically suggested that the party was further leveraging the issue this time around to help it gain support among certain groups of voters.

While the ANC may benefit electorally from its support of Palestine, its position on the issue has been consistent, an analyst told Al Jazeera.

Imraan Buccus, an academic and researcher at Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute, said the ANC’s vocal support for Palestine was a principled stance and part of historical solidarity between the two countries’ liberation movements.

“The ANC is not opportunistically trying to use the genocide in Palestine for votes.

“That is an irresponsible narrative,” he added.

Pro Palestine rally in South Africa
South Africans attend a rally in support of a free Palestine [File: Rogan Ward/Reuters]

However, Herman Mashaba, an opposition leader with ActionSA – a right-leaning political party – disagreed, saying the ANC was hypocritical and its attempts to focus on Gaza were a distraction from the myriad problems facing South Africa.

“The ANC motive is not about the Palestinian people. It’s about diverting attention from the issues facing South Africa,” he said, noting that more than 80 people are killed every day in South Africa, which is one of the most violent countries in the world.

“It does not make sense. If I look at the energy they [are] providing to domestic issues compared to the energy they have on international issues it does not add up.”

Regarding ActionSA’s position on Palestine, Mashaba said that while he called for a solution to the conflict, he believed South Africa should not focus its attention on international crises while its own house “was on fire”.

This sentiment was expressed by another opposition party leader, Gayton McKenzie, who heads the Patriotic Alliance (PA) – described by analysts as a right-wing populist party.

He angered Cape Town residents at another election town hall meeting when he pointed to South Africa’s crime rates when asked about his support for Palestine.

“Hey, our children die more than in Palestine. Do not tell me about Palestine here. Go to Palestine; this is not Palestine,” he said, prompting anger from the audience.

McKenzie has unapologetically supported Israel and was quoted on social media as saying: “My Bible commands me to stand with Israel, my Bible tells me if you curse Israel you are cursing himself. I will listen to the Bible.”

The far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party and former President Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party have meanwhile vocally supported Palestine while the right-wing Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) has remained neutral on the matter.

A small Muslim-focused party, Al Jama-ah, which has one seat in Parliament, has centred its election campaign around its support for Palestine.

Analyst Buccus said in previous elections, South Africa’s foreign policy did not determine voting patterns.

However, this election was different given the persisting “genocide” in Gaza.

“It will definitely impact this election,” he said, adding that working-class Muslim voters in Cape Town and other areas who often proudly voted DA may now rethink their support.

Source: Al Jazeera