South Africa’s diplomatic relations with Israel have not been restored, says International Relations Ministry

South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, will not be resuming his diplomatic duties in Israel and is still recalled, says Pretoria.
South Africa’s diplomatic relations with Israel have not been restored, according to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO). In a statement issued on Monday, DIRCO clarified that South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, has returned to Tel Aviv to deal with urgent family and personal issues – not to resume his diplomatic duties. This is in response to Israeli media reporting that South Africa had “quietly returned its ambassador to Israel.”

A widely-circulated photograph of a diplomatic note issued by the South African embassy in Israel dated September 20 suggested Ngombane had returned to Israel, normalising relations between the two countries.

However, DIRCO confirmed that “the South African Ambassador is still recalled for consultations and has not resumed his duties as an Ambassador for South Africa in Israel.”

South Africa withdrew Ngombane from Israel on 14 May in protest against Israel’s massacre of over 100 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during the Great Return March protests. DIRCO says the conditions that prompted Ngombane’s recall have not changed.

International Relations Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu’s announcement in July that Ngombane would not be sent back to Israel and that the government had no intention of appointing a new ambassador to Tel Aviv – was, in effect, the first step in government’s implementation of a resolution passed at the ANC’s December conference, according to Na’eem Jeenah, Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC). That resolution called for the downgrading of the South African embassy in Tel Aviv as a means to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end its occupation of Palestine.

“Last week, Ngombane was allowed to return to Tel Aviv only to attend to personal matters in preparation for his return to South Africa. He was not mandated to act in an official ambassadorial capacity, nor to resume his previous duties,” Jeenah said in an interview with the Afro-Palestine News Service.

“South Africa has no ambassadorial representation in Israel. The ANC and SA government policy stands. The diplomatic note issued by Ngombane through our embassy in Tel Aviv does not change that policy,” Jeenah explained.

Ronnie Kasrils of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) was outraged by Ngombane’s diplomatic note. “If the note was not sanctioned by the ANC and the government, then it means that Ngombane has gone rogue and we expect both his boss, Minister Sisulu, as well as his party to discipline him in the strongest manner possible. He has shamed the South African government and the South African people. His actions are intolerable,” Kasrils said.

The South African branch of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is frustrated that nine months after Nasrec, the downgrade resolution has still not been implemented. According to BDS spokeperson, Kwara Kekana, civil society groups have been stonewalled when they tried to meet directly with DIRCO to discuss its implementation. “The delays are insulting and the good faith between civil society, the electorate and government is disintegrating,” warned Kekana.

Media reports suggesting that Ngombane had returned to Israel to restore relations between Pretoria and Tel Aviv sparked outrage in South Africa. ANC parliamentarian, Mandla Mandela, called Ngombane’s alleged return an insult to his grandfather’s legacy.

The Economic Freedom Fighers’ Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, accused the ANC of abandoning international solidarity through boycotts. This is an important legacy that made South Africa’s freedom possible, added Ndlozi.

Since his tenure in Tel Aviv began in 2013, Ngombane’s actions have been viewed as anti-Palestinian and in violation of both ANC and government policy. At a press conference in 2016, Ngombane blamed Palestinians for Israel’s attacks on Gaza that left over 2100 civilians dead. He has also undermined South African and ANC policy by encouraging official visits and a strengthening of trade relations with Israel.