South Africa’s decision to take Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on charges of genocide has elicited polarised global responses. Critics accuse South Africa of theatre, political opportunism and double standards, while supporters laud its principled and clear-eyed stance.
The move has catapulted Pretoria into the centre of an international legal maelstrom, and will have significant ripple effects on its international relations. Why has South Africa chosen this course of action amid potentially grave diplomatic risks?
Legally, as a contracting party to the Genocide Convention, South Africa may approach the ICJ if it believes the convention has been violated. Apart from that, Pretoria’s support for the Palestinian cause is deeply rooted in democratic South Africa’s foreign policy. By way of the country’s apartheid history, the Palestinian cause is largely seen as analogous to its own struggle against oppression, occupation and violence.
Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor recently echoed this: ‘South Africa really has a moral responsibility to always stand with the oppressed because we come from a history of struggle, a history of striving for freedom, a history of believing that everybody deserves human dignity, justice and freedom; this is the only reason that we have taken this major step as South Africa.’
By drawing on established international institutions, South Africa’s government is simultaneously asking the ICJ to rule on whether there is an ongoing genocide in Gaza and to clarify the duties of all states to prevent genocide, while testing the legitimacy and consistency of this system. That means the value of the case is not solely about the legal outcome, but about spotlighting concerns surrounding the fairness and accountability of the international justice system.
South Africa should be applauded for working through legitimate global legal instruments in its support of the Palestinian cause. However, Pretoria’s glaring foreign policy contradictions and inconsistencies cannot be ignored, especially if the government believes this ICJ case may help the country rekindle its moral authority on the world stage.
From its 2015 failure to uphold its international and domestic legal obligations to arrest former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, to its muddled response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are many cases where international law violations and abuses of power by other states haven’t received a similar reaction from Pretoria.
The situation is complicated by the country’s troubled relationship with the International Criminal Court, from which the ruling African National Congress has threatened to withdraw – a proposal that’s since been revoked. And foreign policy missteps such as the clumsy handling of the Lady R saga risk the loss of global moral and financial capital.
To be fair, most countries’ international relations are rife with contradictions, and the art of foreign policy may be seen as the business of navigating such inconsistencies towards a defined national interest. However, this may be a tall order for South Africa, given how deeply divisive international responses to its case against Israel have been.
On the one hand, Pretoria’s stance plays well internationally. Amidst rising geopolitical competition, South Africa has sought to position itself as a leading voice of the global south. Its successful hosting of last year’s BRICS summit was a notable step in pursuing a more equitable and just global political and economic system.
The decision to use the United Nations’ World Court to advocate the Palestine cause has generated widespread support among global south countries and has ramped up pressure for a ceasefire. Following South Africa’s actions, Indonesia has brought a separate case against Israel to the ICJ, while Chile and Mexico intend to refer Israel to the ICC for alleged war crimes. And this month, the Non-Aligned Movement summit adopted a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.
Government positions towards South Africa may become more entrenched after the ICJ’s imminent ruling on provisional measures, and over the coming years when a decision on the merits of the genocide case is expected.
This will test Pretoria’s bilateral relations with numerous major Western partners opposed to the case. In particular, the United States (US) dismissed the legal action as a ‘meritless’ distraction, and Germany intends to join the legal proceedings as a third party supporting Israel.
In better managing South Africa’s foreign policy contradictions and relations with leading states, Pretoria must recognise that the country largely sits outside the intricate patchwork of geopolitics and security interests that plague the Middle East. That means South Africa is not burdened by the immediate concerns of regional and major powers with vested interests in the outcome of the conflict.
While this distance from the Middle East affords South Africa a unique opportunity to pursue a fundamentally normative approach towards the Palestinian cause, the country’s leaders still need to engage in the realpolitik at play.
South Africa now needs clear, unambiguous foreign policy positions on Hamas, Israel, Iran and the US and its allies – with actions that match its rhetoric. This necessitates a foreign policy as well versed in the discourse of geopolitics, violent extremism and religious fundamentalism, as in progressive internationalism, oppression and occupation.
As the world awaits the ICJ’s decision, South Africa’s international relations will require careful recalibration regardless of the outcome. How Pretoria seizes the current momentum will be a critical test of the country’s next government.
Ronak Gopaldas, ISS Consultant and Director at Signal Risk and Priyal Singh, Senior Researcher, Africa in the World, ISS Pretoria
Image: © Remko de Waal / ANP / AFP
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