Gen David Petraeus, former commander of US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a former CIA director, commented that the slaughter of 1,400 Israelis and kidnapping of 203 hostages by Hamas on October 7 was “far worse than 9/11”.
As he explained, the attacks on the Israeli targets, all within the borders of the Israeli state demarcated by the UN in 1947, killed a far greater proportion of Israel’s much smaller population. “This is the equivalent of the US having experienced 40,000 losses, rather than the 3,000 terrible losses we sustained.”
When the world was shocked and shaken by the events of 9/11 22 years ago, there were two responses from the ANC in SA. One of the first statements was offered by the then ANC premier of the Eastern Cape, Makhenkesi Stofile, who told an interviewer that the 9/11 attacks were “not cowardly acts” and that “America had to look into itself” for the cause.
However, president Thabo Mbeki was having no truck with this opinion and his office issued a statement expressing outrage at the attack and support for the victims, in forthright and unambiguous terms. The statement read: “On behalf of the people and government of SA the president condemns these dastardly deeds, the SA government joins the world in unreservedly denouncing these senseless and horrific attacks … the government calls on the international community to unite against global terrorism.”
Stofile, an ordained Presbyterian minister and former University of Fort Hare theologian, was forced by the ANC to retract his statement, and spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama (today SA’s ambassador to Japan) explained that “he accepted that his views were not in line with the party’s position”.
Well, the party line has apparently changed dramatically, along with the changes in the presidency. In terms of their savagery, the “dastardly deeds” perpetrated by the Hamas terrorists at 20 different sites inside Israel, from murdering babies to people being burnt to death in safe rooms inside kibbutzim and music festival attendees being shot and raped, were — even in a violence-soaked world — in a league of their own.
However, in terms of the charter of Hamas there was a grim consistency to it. As two of Britain’s most eminent jurists, Lords Macdonald and Pannik, wrote last Friday, “Hamas has signalled its intention to destroy Israel and all Jews living within its borders … this is the horrifying context.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC response to this carnage was in sharp contrast to Mbeki’s reaction to 9/11, and nothing has essentially changed in its latter iterations from the party’s knee-jerk response immediately after October 7.
On October 8 ANC national spokesperson Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri said the events the day before were “unsurprising”, describing it as “a decision by Palestinians to respond to the brutality of the settler Israeli apartheid regime”. No word of condolence; no condemnation of the regime of terror unleashed against entirely innocent civilians; no notice that the attacks were not in “occupied Palestine”. In other words, the Jews had it coming to them, and the victims of these atrocities were somehow responsible for the horrors perpetrated on them.
It is worth a sidebar to note that the sites of the carnage were for the most part places where the inhabitants were, as members of socialist-leaning kibbutzim and attendees at a rave music festival, largely keen supporters of the peace process and opponents of the extremist government of Israel headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. But in line with the Hamas view that all Jews and Israelis are justifiable targets, it made no difference to the ANC.
Ramaphosa managed to maintain radio silence for nine full days until offering an equivocal, difference splitting, temporising remark that “the killing of civilians in Israel by Hamas just over a week ago and the ongoing killing of civilians in Gaza by Israeli forces goes against the tenets of international law”.
Doubtless he waited until Israel had begun its right to self-defence against Hamas — which did, inevitably and sadly, entail civilian deaths — until he felt emboldened to say anything at all, truly terrified that any word of support hitherto could be conceived as diluting his government’s pro-Palestinian credentials.
That’s one explanation, and here is another. In his book Jews Don’t Count, English comedian and author David Baddiel notes how the minority status of Jews is viewed differently from other forms of racism. He refers to this as “second-class racism” — or the anti-Semitism that aligns Jews with wealth and power and thus part of the oppressor group, which allows discrimination (or in the case of the Hamas murder spree, killing them) to be overlooked. Or, per Bhengu-Motsiri, essentially justified.
Doubtless Ramaphosa — forever looking over his shoulder — is still haunted by the January 2017 City Press front-page story on the “ANC’s dirty war” in the run-up to the ANC conference where he narrowly won the party presidency. It quoted a major supporter of Jacob Zuma expressing concern that “Ramaphosa would be a liability because of his closeness to the Jews”.
Perhaps I feel this keenly as a secular Jewish South African, just as likely international relations minister Naledi Pandor, a converted Muslim, feels the need to comport with Hamas through telephone diplomacy. But what is inescapable is that far from supporting a two-state solution, rather like a blinded Samson in Gaza SA is entirely sightless on one side of a heavily contested terrain.
Of course, there is a big difference between Hamas and all Palestinians, a line the ANC keeps blurring. It is entirely appropriate to vigorously contest the borders of Israel, but Hamas and its supporters question its very existence.
And Ramaphosa need have no fear with regard to his perceived proximity to the Jews. The chief rabbi of SA, Warren Goldstein, took the unprecedented step last week of rewriting the prayer for SA to exclude reference to the country’s government.
Noting that the prayer will now be for SA as a country and its people, he asks: “How can we pray for a government that supports an organisation responsible for the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust?” How indeed, is the question likely asked by many, inside SA and out — and not just Jews.