Pretoria - President Jacob Zuma’s decision to send former deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad as his envoy to the Middle East to address the Gaza crisis has been welcomed, but with reservations about what he can achieve.
Minister of International Relations Maite Nkoana-Mashabane announced in her budget speech in Parliament on Tuesday that Pahad would lead a delegation to Israel and Palestine to convey South Africa’s “growing concern with the escalation of violence, including the wanton killing of Palestinian civilians and the destruction of homes in Gaza”.
She announced that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would soon be invited to make a working visit to South Africa to discuss the crisis.
South Africa would also provide $1 million (R10.6m) of humanitarian assistance to Gaza.
Officials had earlier indicated she would announce a “special envoy” to the Middle East, tasked with trying to find a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza which has already cost more than 500 lives.
They believed a special envoy from South Africa would be acceptable to both sides, as the government had maintained a “balanced” position in the conflict.
South Africa had close ties with Palestine, yet resisted growing pressure from the pro-Palestine lobby in South Africa to expel Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk, and recall South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane.
However, the minister did not call Pahad a “special envoy” in her speech but implied his mission would be to seek a ceasefire.
Siphamadla Zondi, director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, welcomed the announcement, saying “anything that promotes dialogue should be encouraged”.
Zondi said he was sure the government was under no illusion that Pahad could single-handedly broker peace between Israel and Hamas as only the US could do that. But he noted that other countries like Turkey had been sending envoys and Pahad could also lend his weight to a negotiated settlement.
Pretoria was probably also addressing international and domestic constituencies to show that it was not sitting with its hands folded while hundreds continued to die in Gaza, Zondi said.
The government was increasingly conscious of the criticism at home, especially that it was making critical statements about the growing crisis but not doing anything, he said. Showing it was doing something could help deflect demands that it diminish relations with Israel.
Zondi noted that former president Thabo Mbeki had sent a similar mission to Israel and Palestine in 2006, though it was never publicly announced.
Tom Wheeler, former South African ambassador to Turkey and also former senior researcher at the SA Institute of International Affairs, was less impressed by the Pahad mission. If the intention was to try to apply South Africa’s own model of a negotiated settlement of conflict, such efforts had mostly failed elsewhere, he said.
He noted that in announcing Pahad’s mission, the minister had made no real effort to tone down South Africa’s usual partiality towards Palestine. This would not help persuade Israel to listen to him.
Other analysts agreed with Zondi that sending Pahad to the Middle East could help the government resist growing domestic pressure for action against Israel. The minister’s spokesman, Clayson Monyela, has said a few times as the conflict intensified and calls to isolate Israel mounted that withdrawing the ambassadors would prevent South Africa being able to influence events in the Middle East.