Sleeping giant has a role to play

By Alana Baranov, March 17, 2013
Follow The JC on Twitter

Living at the tip of the African continent, it is easy to feel disconnected from the pulse of global affairs. But, while I may not have grown up in one of the world's financial or political capitals, as the 21st century progresses, it is clear that Africa matters. And as the "sleeping giant" awakens, her geopolitical importance will shape world events. Long overlooked by political analysts for its strategic importance and influence in relation to other regions, Africa's stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be ignored forever.

Recent developments in Africa on the Middle East issue call for serious consideration. December's vote by South Africa's ruling party to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel has immense symbolic importance. The ANC declared it was "unapologetic in its view that the Palestinians are the victims" and called on "all South Africans to support the programmes and campaigns of the Palestinian civil society which seek to put pressure on Israel to engage with the Palestinian people to reach a just solution". The latest in a series of party and government decisions, including that of the trade minister to introduce labelling of settlement goods, it has served to bolster the BDS campaign worldwide.

Historically, the Jewish state and Africa were natural allies, with the shared experience of gaining independence in the aftermath of the Second World War. There have been three distinct phases since then. We went from close solidarity in the 1960s to the collapse of diplomatic ties after the Yom Kippur War, and finally to the gradual resumption of relations in the 1980s and '90s. In recent years, there have been visits by Israeli and African officials to each other's countries as well as limited trade and skills exchanges.

Yet it is the Palestinian struggle that has increasingly won over African hearts and minds. A perfect example is the UN vote on upgrading Palestine. Comprising more than a quarter of the UN's membership, Africa overwhelmingly backed the resolution: 46 African states voted in favour, while five abstained and three were not present. Pan-African pundits have noted the significance of this in the light of the economic and political ties most of these countries enjoy with the West, especially Israel's traditional ally, the US.

How did Africa fall out of love with Israel?

How did Africa fall out of love with Israel? We can look to the collaboration between African and Palestinian national liberation organisations, or to the strain of the Yom Kippur War and subsequent oil crisis. More recently, rumours of Israeli air strikes on weapons facilities in Sudan's capital last October and outrage over unrelenting settlement expansion have strengthened African-Palestinian bonds. Even those African states that abstained from the UN vote all subsequently extended diplomatic acknowledgment to Palestine, suggesting that their votes were self-interested rather than shows of support for Israel. Other factors include Arab influence in Northern Africa and the spread of fundamentalist Islamist movements, a common anti-imperialist world-view, and African sympathy for regimes that supported liberation. Resentment towards states perceived to be less supportive of national movements, as well as the association of Israel with apartheid South Africa, cannot be underestimated.

As the nations on either side of the Middle East conflict grow weary of a seemingly intractable dispute, Africa's unique ability to relate to both Israelis and Palestinians, through shared histories and current concerns, could be invaluable.

Lessons from Africa's tumultuous past, and from South Africa's peaceful transition, could be extrapolated to the Middle East to provide a sustainable solution. My generation of young African Jews has an obligation to call for change and support activists on our continent who are working for peace.

Alana Baranov is an activist based in Durban

    Last updated: 10:45am, March 17 2013