Diplomatic relations between South African and Israel have not been restored, according to a statement released by Dirco. Picture: Jonisayi Maromo/ANA

Johannesburg – Despite widespread coverage in the Israeli media over the return of South Africa’s ambassador Sisa Ngombane to Israel, diplomatic relations between the two countries have not been restored, according to a statement released by South Africa's Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco).

And a diplomatic note reportedly released by the diplomat suggesting otherwise has stirred a hornet’s nest, with Mandla Mandela accusing Ngombane of disrespecting his grandfather’s legacy by returning to Israel.

Ngombane was recalled in May after Pretoria expressed outrage over the killing by Israeli security forces of dozens of mostly unarmed Palestinian civilians who were protesting the siege of Gaza, near the border between the coastal enclave and the Jewish state.

Dirco issued a statement on Monday clarifying that Ngombane had returned to Tel Aviv to deal with urgent family and personal issues – not to resume his diplomatic duties.

“The South African Ambassador is still recalled for consultations and has not resumed his duties as an Ambassador for South Africa in Israel,” read the Dirco statement. Dirco added that the conditions that prompted Ngombane’s recall have not changed.

The controversy kicked off with a widely-circulated photograph of a diplomatic note issued by the South African embassy in Israel dated September 20 which suggested Ngombane had returned to Israel, normalising relations between the two countries, the Afro-Palestine Newswire Service reported on Tuesday.

International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s announcement in July that Ngombane would not be sent back to Israel and that the government had no intention of appointing a new ambassador to Tel Aviv – was, in effect, the first step in government’s implementation of a resolution passed at the ANC’s December conference, according to Na’eem Jeenah, Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC).

That resolution called for the downgrading of the South African embassy in Tel Aviv as a means to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end its occupation of Palestine.

“Last week, Ngombane was allowed to return to Tel Aviv only to attend to personal matters in preparation for his return to South Africa. He was not mandated to act in an official ambassadorial capacity, nor to resume his previous duties,” Jeenah said in an interview with the Afro-Palestine News Service.

“South Africa has no ambassadorial representation in Israel. The ANC and SA government policy stands. The diplomatic note issued by Ngombane through our embassy in Tel Aviv does not change that policy,” Jeenah explained.

Ronnie Kasrils of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) added his outrage to developments and Ngombane’s diplomatic note, the Afro-Palestine News Service reported.

“If the note was not sanctioned by the ANC and the government, then it means that Ngombane has gone rogue and we expect both his boss, Minister Sisulu, as well as his party to discipline him in the strongest manner possible. He has shamed the South African government and the South African people. His actions are intolerable,” Kasrils is quoted as saying by the news service. 

The Economic Freedom Fighters’ Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, according to the Afro-Palestine News Service, also accused the ANC of abandoning international solidarity through boycotts. This is an important legacy that made South Africa's freedom possible, added Ndlozi.

Since his tenure in Tel Aviv began in 2013, Ngombane’s actions have been viewed as anti-Palestinian and in violation of both ANC and government policy. At a press conference in 2016, Ngombane blamed Palestinians for Israel’s attacks on Gaza that left over 2,100 civilians dead. He has also undermined South African and ANC policy by encouraging official visits and a strengthening of trade relations with Israel.

African News Agency (ANA)