South African Parliament's vote to cut ties with Israel criticised

Pemmy Majodina, chief whip of the ruling African National Congress, addresses members of parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, Nov. 21, 2023. [AP Photo]

South Africa’s largest opposition party and main Jewish representative body have slammed parliament’s decision to cut diplomatic ties with Israel. A majority of lawmakers voted for the motion to close Israel’s embassy in Pretoria because of Israeli actions in Gaza.

During a heated session in South Africa’s parliament on Tuesday, all members of the governing African National Congress – which has a long history of solidarity with the Palestinians -- voted in favor of cutting ties with Israel.

Many wore Palestinian scarfs and burst into song after the motion – originally brought by radical opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters -- passed.

The vote is non-binding, but it is now up to the government to decide whether to act on the motion. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesman, Vincent Magwenya, read a statement.

“The president notes and appreciates parliament's guidance on our diplomatic relations with Israel, particularly with respect to the status of the Israeli Embassy in South Africa," Magwenya said. "The president and Cabinet are engaged over the matter, which remains the responsibility of the National Executive.”

On the day of the vote, Ramaphosa chaired a virtual meeting of leaders of the BRICS group of developing nations – which include Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - on the situation in the Middle East, where Gaza health officials say at least 11,000 people have been killed by Israeli military operations.

At the BRICS meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping described Israeli actions as “collective punishment” of people in Gaza, with Ramaphosa going further.

“The deliberate denial of medicine, fuel, food and water to the residents of Gaza is tantamount to genocide," Ramaphosa said.

South Africa’s main opposition, the Democratic Alliance, voted against the motion. Emma Powell, shadow minister for international relations and cooperation, warned afterward that cutting ties would leave thousands of South Africans in Israel without access to emergency consular services and affect South Africa’s representative office in Ramallah.

“The ANC have rendered our own citizens entirely trapped, with no way of accessing diplomatic assistance from their government," said Powell.

The Israeli Embassy in Pretoria was not available for comment. Israel’s ambassador was recalled to Israel for consultations ahead of the parliamentary vote.

However, Mary Kluk, vice president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, an umbrella organization representing the country’s sizeable Jewish community, deplored parliament’s decision.

“This vote had nothing to do with peace, and it was confirmed for me when I was watching on television, the chanting of ‘From the River to the Sea,’ a clear call for the destruction of the Jewish state," said Kluk.

South Africa recently referred Israel to the International Criminal Court for potential war crimes in Gaza.

Israel says it is acting in self-defense after gunmen with the militant group Hamas killed an estimated 1,200 people on October 7th in the deadliest single attack on Israeli civilians in the history of the State of Israel.