Former South African president Thabo Mbeki has joined his country’s rabid anti-Israel chorus by calling for a boycott of Israeli goods, the BBC reports. Mbeki, who during his abortive tenure in office guarded Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe as he plundered his country into famine and murdered his political opponents, had frequently been a critic of Israel but had never before called for South Africa to cut off trade relations.
Ironically, given Mbeki’s carefully contrived status as an economic policy wonk, South Africa would be hardest hit by a boycott of Israel. The country has enjoyed a significant trade surplus with Israel recently.
As president from 1999 to 2008, Mbeki resisted local and international pressure to intervene in Zimbabwe as his counterpart launched a campaign of terror against white farmers in 2000, and cracked down on trade unions and opposition parties in his effort to remain in power.
Mbeki often defended Mugabe and accused his critics of racism. In the interim, thousands of Zimbabweans died of political violence and famine; others fled.
Relationships between Mbeki and the Israeli government were rocky, and Israel closed an official trade mission several years ago in a quiet protest against Mbeki’s anti-Israel bias.
The current South African president, Jacob Zuma, has been even more vociferous in his criticism.
He said recently that there is no plan to impose an economic boycott on Israel, though he has condemned Israel in typically one-sided terms for the Gaza conflict.
The Israel issue is a frequent distraction in South African politics, even though there are more pressing conflicts and human rights issues closer to home.
Anti-Israel activists have recently called for boycotts of companies that import even small amounts of Israeli products, such as the Woolworths grocery chain, and a trade union leader threatened a boycott targeting Jewish businesses.
One reason is that Muslim voters form a significant bloc in portions of the country, including the Western Cape, one of the few areas governed by South Africa’s political opposition. Another reason is the preference of local politicians for “struggle” politics over the mundane tasks of governing.
The South African Jewish community is one of the most pro-Israel in the world, though it also has a vocal anti-Israel minority, sparked by former Cabinet minister Ronnie Kasrils in 2001 and continued through the work of young former Zionist youth group leaders who fell under the influence of left-wing HIV/Aids activist Zackie Achmat. Recently, a Jewish student leader’s anti-Israel protest drew fierce condemnation from the community.
Photo: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters