South Africa should avoid importing foreign conflicts—and reflect on how it resolved its own. We could actually help if we quit our addiction to virtue-signalling activism.

As we approached the last registration weekend before our next election, I was reminded of what happened at the previous one: a few of us manning a table for the DA were mobbed by a family of Palestinian supporters—aggressive father, angry mother and daughter.

Alive with ‘righteous zeal’, they brandished what appeared to be pictures of dead babies, carefully laid out to resemble the posters of the Israeli hostages. Caught unprepared, I at first attempted to debate the issue with them, but that quickly proved to be a dead end: they knew what the rights and wrongs of it were, and wanted rapid acquiescence. Nothing else would do.

The burden of their tirade was that the DA had refused to condemn the ‘genocide’ in Gaza, and that the party was intent on bringing back apartheid to South Africa, in line with its presumed support of the (highly controversial) accusation that Israel is an effectively apartheid state.

Bear with me, I’m not about to launch into yet another argument about the rights and wrongs of this internecine and seemingly interminable conflict.

Ultimate conclusion

Of course, I thought many things about this unpleasant little incident, but my ultimate conclusion is that we import these complex, essentially tribal conflicts into South Africa at our peril. That conclusion is even stronger since South Africa brought its case to the International Court of Justice.

People of good faith struggle to come to grips with the Israel-Palestine question, and if one is honest, coming to a firm, fixed conclusion is frankly impossible. I have concluded that anyone claiming absolute right on one side or the other is either misinformed or acting in the worst of bad faith. The sheer misery that this prolonged conflict has caused to both sides is huge. As South Africans, it should drive home to us what a miracle 1994 was — although miracle is probably the wrong word because, although God may have played a role, this was a compromise wrought by humans who, above all, agreed that war had to be avoided at any cost.

In the process, we skated over certain issues, agreed on a narrative about others that did not fully please everybody, and swept the rest under the carpet. All of that forgotten history  is slowing oozing into our national debate, but in the meantime we have established that we actually do get along on a day-to-day basis, and that we have a shared future. What that future is remains unclear, but we basically feel we can shape it together.

A certain fragility

However, there remain huge areas of contestation, and we have by no means fully succeeded in creating a country in which everybody has the same opportunities to thrive. Our accommodation with each other retains a certain fragility, as evidenced by the fact that political parties like the EFF can even exist, and that the cancer of critical race theory (CRT) and identity politics are contaminating our educational and other institutions.

The trouble with imported movements like CRT or Palestinian liberation is that they reduce highly complex issues to an inaccurate and corrosive simplicity — one that is easily exploited by bad-faith actors on the local scene.

In this way, a global propaganda war to insist that one side’s viewpoint is ‘correct’ is cynically exploiting the links of South Africa’s large Muslim population to the supranational ummah and the much smaller but prominent Jewish population’s deep ties to Israel as the world’s sole Jewish state. Victimhood (the nuclear option in the world according to CRT) is flagrantly abused to gain ascendancy over the foe, and to keep the loyal troops onside.

In the process, though, we are allowing our own somewhat fragile national project to be put in jeopardy. The obvious risk is that it drives a wedge between two important components of our multi-ethnic, multi-faith nation, and this division in turn spreads to other sectors of society as people pile in on each side.

Camouflage for the morally dubious

But the other risks are equally deleterious. For example, the wholesale adoption of the Palestinian narrative by the ANC and the government (indistinguishable, these days) offers a useful smokescreen for the failure of both to fulfil their promises, and their deep-seated corruption. By busily approaching the International Criminal Court, reprimanding the Israeli ambassador and threatening to pull out its diplomats, the ANC government can, in its own mind at least, regain some of its vanished lustre as moral leader. The inconsistency of its support for Russia and Iran, and its participation in efforts to counter Islamic insurgency across Africa, is never addressed — is perhaps never even identified.

Similarly, minority parties with dubious and racist policies, and a similar record of corruption, can use the cause of Palestinian liberation to position themselves as the freedom fighters they, simply, are not.

And in what is possibly the most egregious (because wholly inexcusable) example of all, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa has seen fit to adopt the Palestinian cause so wholeheartedly as to commit itself to follow the lead of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a notably biased and frankly Jew-hating organisation, designated as terrorist by many leading democracies. The Church played a prominent role in the anti-apartheid struggle but has failed to maintain its moral leadership; tellingly, it remains riven by disagreement about the ordination of female bishops and gay marriage.

Cynics say the resolution (at the Provincial Synod in 2019) that initiated this extraordinary alignment with a Muslim activist group was just a bid by ambitious clerics to position themselves as genuine leaders, and that its adoption was a reflex act of corporate unity after a particularly divisive discussion.

Late last year, we were confronted by pictures of Hamas delegates performatively being hosted on the steps of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town as part of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Needless to say, the Hamas delegation was spouting the dogmatic hatred that, in South Africa, would have derailed any chance of a peaceful settlement.

A less Christian environment one could hardly imagine.

We should recognise that none of this posturing, no matter how well meant, actually advances the cause of Palestinian liberation. On the contrary, it is hardening attitudes in the Middle East, particularly in Israel which, against all the odds, is the dominant military player in the conflict. More culpably still, it is effectively ruling out South African institutions like the Anglican Church as credible facilitators of a solution to this intractable problem.

The South African way

So what is this ZA or South African Way I alluded to at the beginning? How did we do the unthinkable, resolving a long-running racial feud in which each side had its own carefully curated ‘proof points’ of victimhood and desired redress? It’s worth remembering that South Africans have done this twice: once within the white population in the wake of the Anglo-Boer War, and once across the entire population in the constitutional dispensation of 1994.

As noted already, the ZA Way is founded on a determination to avoid war. In both instances, it was recognised that, to achieve this, two conditions had to be in place. One was the willingness to grant the other equal rights, however reluctantly; and one was the willingness effectively to bury our individual and collective history of hurt, albeit in a shallow grave. In both instances, the process was led by people with the moral authority and vision to stick to this course.

The Nobel Peace Prize was never better bestowed than when it was awarded jointly to Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk in 1993.


South Africa does have the experience to play a positive role in the Israel-Palestine crisis based on its history, but only if it discards its addiction to using this conflict as a way of advancing special interests within and without the country. To do this, we would have to first remind ourselves how we were able to achieve peace against all the odds, and also commit to educating ourselves about the history of this conflict. One of the striking things about the interviews with protesters at pro-Palestinian rallies across the West is their ignorance. Even the slightest engagement with the history necessitates a review of anyone’s extreme position, be it pro-Palestine or pro-Israel.

With that knowledge, and hopefully a more balanced viewpoint, we as a country, and the Anglican Church as an institution, would have the moral authority and vision to help build the bridges between Israel and Palestine that, hard though it is to imagine at this time, are ultimately necessary for both to flourish. To do so, we will have to be in a position to lead them into active forgetfulness of the wrongs they have both suffered, and that have both committed.

Snarky commentators often mock the fact that Heritage Day in this country largely consists of a shared love of flinging meat onto a braai, but that’s not fair. We are what we eat, and dietary laws and preferences have been a cause of bitter dissension for centuries. If we can eat together, we are getting closer to liking one another. In short, it’s a good start but not enough to build a cohesive nation.

Now, if we could formalise the ZA Way, it could surely become a second source of nation-building: We are the people who know how to get along, let us show you how. But if we import the fake certainties of an existential conflict uncritically, we will condemn ourselves to the fate we have, so far, narrowly avoided.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend


James van den Heever is a freelance writer and a lay minister in the Anglican Church.