SA does right thing to address Palestine genocide, but must correct man-made crisis at home

Pali Lehohla (right) and Juraj Riečan at the Palestine Statistics Authority in Ramallah, Palestine where Lehohla delivered a keynote on the Statistician General in the 21st Century. Photo: SupplIed

Pali Lehohla (right) and Juraj Riečan at the Palestine Statistics Authority in Ramallah, Palestine where Lehohla delivered a keynote on the Statistician General in the 21st Century. Photo: SupplIed

Published Jan 29, 2024


In the United Nations, all nations are equal. Just like in a kraal, all cows are cows. While South Africa innocently went for the cow, unwittingly it did not realise that this was a calf that still suckles from the cow’s udder.

The Shangaan have a saying that soon became obvious, that not all cows are cows. There are calves that parade as cows, yet they get caught suckling from the cow. And this became apparent in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) case that South Africa brought against Israel. The judgment was passed on January 26. The Shangaan people say, “If you want to attack a cow, threaten the calf.”

On January 26, the International Court of Justice passed a seminal judgement against Israel. The metaphorical calf felt threatened, and automatically the cow felt attacked. South Africa had no intentions of attacking the United States of America, but in addressing the matter of genocide in Gaza, that is disputed by Israel, South Africa lifted the veil on the cow-calf relationship the Shangaan proverbs refer to.

This was so elegantly done, through the rule-based process and the international rule of law entertained by the precepts of democracy.

Long before the hearing and shortly after the hearing, the metaphorical cow felt sufficiently attacked by what it perceived as a threat to the calf. To assure the calf that it is safe, they issued a bipartisan statement, signed by more than 200 members, declaring the claim of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza by Israel to be a figment of South Africa’s imagination. This chorus was joined by the UK and the tormented-by-guilt Germany.

This measure by the cows was clearly the equivalent of the finger PW Botha wagged in 1986, saying, “do not push us too far”, as he refused to cross the Rubicon and allow political change to happen.

To South Africa, this was therefore just an apartheid deja vu cookbook, which South Africa overcame, so will it be with Palestinians to overcome. But this time the change will be seismic, qualitatively and quantitatively, with massive scalar differences.

Although the case that South Africa focused on was the 100-days massacre and human tragedy in Gaza, the impact and implications are geographically planetary and temporally millennial.

This is the moment of a redrawing of the politico-economic template, not of inter and intrastate relations, but one of redefining the relations of production at all levels. This moment is assisted by the context of deep ambiguity and polarity on climate change, the Just Energy Transition and energy security globally, but even more acutely in South Africa itself. This manifests itself in a world when almost half of the countries will be going for an election in 2024.

The protagonists in this tragedy of the herd boy, the cows and a calf scenario (namely, South Africa, US, UK and Israel, respectively), enter this ICJ contestation in a period of internal uncertainty on the influencers and outcomes of impending elections. Israel’s coalition certainly remains on a knife edge. The political calculus has gone into overdrive. This is what makes the situation even more volatile.

The spectacle of the 100-day (and counting) killing fields has been seen in more than three billion households across the world, containing eight billion voters. More than half of these eight billion voters are poor and affected deeply by the energy crisis after the Covid-19 that devastated their lives. These voters at the same time witnessed the World Economic Forum’s deliberations, which have steadily lost the highfalutin decorum. They now continue to deteriorate as the reality of poverty unveils the façade of capital and greed, which is the dire contradiction of the charade.

The much-needed and timely action by South Africa has not only pulled a relatively small limpet grenade, if the Palestinian and Israel geography and the 100-days dimension are the measure. But South Africa has instead unleashed a nuclear-war-equivalent tirade of uncertainty around a world that had become comfortable and accustomed to riches side by side with grinding poverty and inequality.

Fortunately, the disparities had long stopped to be north-south, but in each country the proportion of the poor and misery has been growing in leaps and bounds. This provides the conditions that Karl Marx articulated in his three volumes of Capital when he called on workers of the world to rise for there is nothing to lose but their chains.

Not so, because the-would-be-workers of the world have been increasingly transformed into the lumpen proletariat, the reserve army. This has been compounded by, on the one hand, accumulation of riches by the greedy 1% that skimmed and swindled super profits from the Covid-19 tragedy and graced the World Economic Forum stage in the same week as the ICJ was considering the Israel-South Africa case. On the other, by the 99% of those whose fortunes have been declining precipitously, lumbering and languishing in the uncertainty of an unfair world.

In 1945, an independence movement was unleashed by the colonised on the colonial masters. It was precipitated and informed by the participation in both the First and the Second World Wars by the colonised populations. The consequence of that was also the birth of the Israel state offered by the British in the land of Palestine, thus extending settler colonialism in its dying days in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Little wonder why Israel the cow is not a cow, but a calf of cow Britain. Seventy-five years later, a different liberation has started, sparked by this injustice of 1947, that has continued to be protected by the US, Britain and guilt-frustrated Germany.

South Africa, out of this trigger it correctly pulled, dashed the hopes of an independent Western Cape and silenced those who felt that Israel was justified. None of the political parties has the moral standing or justification to challenge the judgment of the ICJ, nor can they find reason to align themselves with the indignant and morally-bankrupt reasoning of the US, UK and Germany.

However, the government of South Africa is yet to face heightened pressure, as a consequence of this judgment, on its own internal demons created by its own indiscretions. These include, but are not limited to, the human-caused crisis of electricity, rail and water, and their impact on lives and livelihoods.

The man-made crisis includes:

– Marikana, where 34 miners were shot dead like animals, their only sin was asking for better livelihoods;

– The 23 dead from cholera in Hammanskraal, their sin being seeking to have potable water;

– The 22 children dead in East London, their only sin being to seek what children should, a space to play;

– The 19 school children dead in Pongola, whose only sin committed was to seek education;

– Not forgetting the death of five -year old Michael Komape, who died in a cesspit. His only sin being to seek education; and

– The 27 000 murders a year that puts South Africa as a country on trial.

We need to uphold Madiba’s legacy and address the injustice and genocide in Palestine; it is not only the right thing to do, but it is a moral obligation to which we cannot turn a blind eye. Let us turn the mirror onto ourselves and do the right thing at home.

*Pali Lehohla, then Statistician General of South Africa, in September 2013, presented a paper in Ramallah, Palestine to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics. To read it go to:

Dr Pali Lehohla is a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished Alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa.