Pretoria politics

South Africa’s Israel-’obsessed’ ANC poised to lose majority for first time since end of apartheid

The results of the election are unlikely to change Pretoria’s anti-Israel posture


A voter casts her ballot during the special votes at the Glebe Community Hall voting station in Umlazi on May 28, 2024, the day ahead of the South African elections scheduled for May 29, 2024.

South Africa is holding what is set to be a historic election on Wednesday but even as analysts are anticipating a landmark outcome, the results are unlikely to change Pretoria’s anti-Israel posture.

The African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela that has long dominated South African politics, is expected to lose its parliamentary majority for the first time since it played the pivotal role in bringing down apartheid in 1994. This would require the ANC to form a coalition in order to stay in power, since it is still leading the next-largest party, the opposition Democratic Alliance, by about 20 points, according to polls. 

In the early post-apartheid years, the ANC was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but South Africa maintained friendly relations with Israel. However, those relations deteriorated starting in the late 2000s, when ANC officials began accusing Israel of being an apartheid state. By 2015, ANC leader and then-president of South Africa Jacob Zuma was meeting with a Hamas delegation. South Africa downgraded its embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office in 2019.

Since Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and the subsequent war in Gaza, South Africa has been hostile to Israel, with its parliament passing a resolution to close Israel’s embassy and Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor threatening to jail any South Africans who fought with the IDF in the war in Gaza. The height of that hostility has been South Africa’s case filed to the International Court of Justice in December, accusing Israel of war crimes.

At an election rally on Saturday, South African President and ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa chanted “from the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free,” sparking an uproar in the South African Jewish community. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies noted that the slogan “is widely regarded as a call to genocide of the Jewish people” and said it evidenced “the president’s contempt for South African Jewry.”

Whether the ANC’s potential shift to a coalition government would change Pretoria’s position towards Jerusalem depends on its coalition partners and whether the ANC would relinquish the Foreign Ministry.

Asked whether the makeup of a possible coalition could dilute the intensity of the ANC’s fixation on Israel, South African political commentator and radio host Howard Feldman told Jewish Insider that “there are basically two parties that are anti-Israel and the others basically don’t care.” 

The “nightmare scenario,” Feldman said, would be for the ANC to work with the Economic Freedom Fighters – internationally infamous for singing a song calling to kill white people at their rallies – but that “seems unlikely because [the ANC] is quite threatened by them.” 

A more likely party to join the coalition is the conservative Inkatha Freedom Party, which Feldman said “would be good in terms of Israel.” 

Feldman thought there was a fair chance that the Democratic Alliance, which is popular with South Africa’s roughly 50,000 Jews, would join a coalition with the ANC, “and hopefully things would run better and they would focus the ANC on the country and not on its Israel obsession.”

Former Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Arthur Lenk, however, predicted that the most likely scenario was that the ANC would team up with more radical parties.

Feldman said he thought “it will be psychologically hard for the ANC to wake up and not have the majority. They run the country with complete arrogance. Every law they wanted could be passed in parliament.”

Lenk argued that Wednesday’s election would have little effect on South Africa-Israel ties.

“In the short and medium turn, the relationship is going nowhere as long as the war continues and the case in The Hague continues,” he said. “There’s no reason it would change… The genocide case is not going away, and from a South African perspective, it’s humming along, going exactly as they would like it to go.” 

An anti-Israel position fits with the ANC’s broader foreign policy, which has always been aligned with anti-Western causes to varying degrees. Lenk pointed out that Pretoria sees the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as a key international grouping, leading it to unofficially support Russia in its war against Ukraine – abstaining from votes against Moscow at the U.N. – and deepen its relationship with China.

Feldman said that the ANC “always had close associations with the Palestinian cause, Cuba, Russia and China. They see themselves as revolutionaries.”

However, Feldman said, “it’s only in the last year or two that we’ve seen this obsession [with Israel].”

The ANC’s slipping popularity among South Africans has little to do with foreign policy.

Lenk pointed out that during the struggle against apartheid, many Jews were members of the ANC, but “now there are none, nada. Not because of Israel, but because it’s become a corrupt party that has no place for whites in general and Jews in particular.”

The main election issues for South Africans are rampant corruption and deteriorating infrastructure and government services.

As Feldman put it: “We have more than 80 murders a day, unemployment is one of the highest in the world, our health care, education is struggling…The general feeling is the ANC is dishonest and corrupt.”

Feldman posited that the ANC’s recent position on Israel is for electoral reasons, “a way to divert attention” from domestic problems.

As for reports that the ANC was paid by Iran to file the case against Israel and the ICJ, Feldman said “there is a lot of discussion and speculation, but to date there isn’t any proof.”

Lenk argued that the ANC is trying to court South Africa’s Muslim population, which mostly constitutes people of Indian or Pakistani descent and makes up one of the largest non-Black minorities in South Africa, whose population is 90% Black or mixed-race. The Muslim community is mostly concentrated in the Western Cape, which includes Cape Town, and tends to vote for the Democratic Alliance, which has long governed the province.

“The bet that the ANC is making now is that, given everything that is going on, perhaps a percentage, some of the Muslim voters in the Western Cape, might flip to the ANC,” Lenk said.

However, Feldman said that “Muslim voters in the Western Cape who are right now being [governed] by the DA might be grateful to the ANC for what they’re doing in terms of Israel, but still want to live in a province that is well-governed. None of the polls suggest that the ANC will even come close to winning in the Western Cape; the DA is polling at over 60% there.” 

Lenk said the ANC’s fixation on Israel is “not crazy antisemitism; it’s cold and calculated…They’re literally representing Hamas, but it serves a purpose; it matches the ANC foreign policy and their electoral hopes.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.