As South Africans we are huge believers in the power of the United Nations to be a force for good, and an instrument to achieve a more humane and inclusive world. We will never forget the wall of solidarity that generations of UN diplomats built up behind the anti-apartheid movement, which certainly helped to move the tide of global public opinion. But somehow this week, sitting in the UN General Assembly in New York, I felt that the global community of nations had collectively failed those still engaged in bitter struggles for self-determination and freedom.
Solidarity with the Palestinians and Saharawis has not been as solid and robust as what many nations showed to the South African liberation movements in the dark days of apartheid. To be fair, post-apartheid South Africa has consistently been the loudest voice when it comes to reminding the world of these struggles and the need to urgently find solutions to them. But the question is whether we have we shown the same type of resolve that progressive nations around the world showed us when it came to taking a meaningful stand against colonialism and oppression?
Admirably, President Cyril Ramaphosa dedicated a part of his address to the UN General Assembly this week to the plight of the Palestinians, noting that they have endured suffering almost as long as the UN has existed. We know that the Palestinians are in a worse situation than they ever have been in their history, and living under suffocating conditions. In this week in which the UN has paid tribute to the immense contribution of former President Nelson Mandela in his centenary, we can’t help but reflect on how distressed he would have been over Palestine.
Mandla Mandela has taken up the mantle and championed the Palestinian cause as fervently as his grandfather had done, and used this week in particular to highlight the global inaction and lack of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. While the UN General Assembly may have consistently passed resolutions calling for a two state solution, it has failed to move the peace process forward, or to compel the Israelis to withdraw their occupying forces. In fact, the vast majority of Palestinian land has now been annexed by the occupiers. What have we done wrong?
The time has come for brave and bold new moves on the part of the international community to force a rethink in terms of the cost of the occupation. To date our own liberation movement came up with a move that is largely symbolic in nature, but sends a signal that the occupation is unacceptable and the status quo can no longer be tolerated. In December at the ANC National Conference it took a decision to downgrade relations with Israel as a sign of protest. It is what could be done at a minimum under the current circumstances.
What drew the ire of activists across the country this week was the return to Tel Aviv of South Africa’s recalled Ambassador to Israel, although the Department of International Relations clarified that he was only there to attend to family matters, not on official business. The outcry led to cries of betrayal and accusations that the ANC-led government had sold out the cause of the Palestinians by not having implemented the ANC’s decision to downgrade relations almost ten months after the resolution was finalised. Mandla Mandela himself came out guns blazing, calling on the government to implement the downgrade resolution with immediate effect.
The whole fracas left me rather despondent and wanting whole heartedly to believe in good faith that our government did in fact intend to implement the ANC’s decision. So I put the question directly to the President in a press conference on his last night in New York. The response was clear and categorical – that the South African Government was not having second thoughts on implementing the ANC’s resolution but that it was a process and it would certainly happen. This was a clear undertaking by the President of our country who has always showed sincere solidarity with the Palestinian cause, even during his days at the helm of Mvelaphanda. So we can stop throwing mud at each other internally, and focus on the real struggle at hand.
South Africa will be on the right side of history, but it is only one small step on a long road. But then again, it took small steps in the late 1980s to build a momentum towards confining apartheid to the dustbin of history. What we are doing is taking a principled stand, and hoping that the rest of the world will follow course. Whether they do or not we have to continually ask ourselves, what would Madiba have done…?
Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group