/ 18 January 2024

Win or lose, South Africa has the moral high ground

Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat's Health Rapidly Declining
Nelson Mandela, in 1997, said: “We are not free unless Palestinians are free.” This statement, and South Africa’s commitment, is embodied in a historic picture of Mandela and Palestine Liberation Organisation head Yasser Arafat. . (Photo by Palestinian Authorities via Getty Images)

One cannot begin to imagine the disdainful insults and denigrating utterances that reverberated in Tel Aviv, Washington and London when South Africa instituted legal proceedings against the State of Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands. 

These unprecedented legal proceedings, from a post-apartheid country against apartheid Israel, are noteworthy since many other countries were afraid of the wrath of the Global North.

Not being a member of the G8 or a permanent UN Security Council member, but a country in the Global South on the African continent, South Africa decided to approach the ICJ based on its renowned aptitude for persuasion and negotiation towards conflict resolution.

This principled moral and legal stance was taken against Israel under the auspices of the Genocide Convention of 1948. The bold, courageous move invariably invoked emotive slurs, with British Foreign Secretary David Cameron belittling the landmark proceedings as “utter nonsense” in an interview.  

We live in a world where a master-slave configuration between the Global North and Global South continues to determine who international law applies to. Those willing to abide by, and do the bidding of, the Global North are rewarded with political patronage and economic largesse. 

Those who defy the Global North, as South Africa has now done, face the threat of trade embargos, sanctions and direct and indirect regime-change stratagems.

It should be a lasting indictment that the elite boys’ club of perennial warmongers, human rights violators and veto enthusiasts in the UN Security Council has never been called to account and to take responsibility at the ICJ. 

And because of some tacit, unwritten rule, such as the so-called “rules-based international order”, it is only a member of this boys’ club that can take on another one. 

The UN has unfortunately been an accomplice to this perverse institutionalisation and implementation of the rules-based international order. Compromised by its major funders and, of course, the perverse politicisation of the Security Council against the Global South, there has never been assertion when it comes to holding the Global North accountable, let alone responsible for the consequences, of its military misadventures in Iraq (2001), Afghanistan (2003), Libya (2011), Ukraine (2014) and the present Yemen bombings. 

What South Africa did will cumulatively reconfigure the boys’ club and contribute positively to redefine the unfolding of a multipolar world in the 21st century.

During the two-day proceedings, we witnessed how the major Western media outlets have been complicit in seeking to maintain the status quo. The fourth estate flagrantly showed its active role in preserving the status quo when global media players, such as the BBC and CNN, failed to broadcast live the submissions made by South Africa on the first day at the ICJ. As deplorable as this is, it has flagged how the entire grotesque system of Western white supremacy has been built and maintained.

The submissions made by the respective states couldn’t have been more telling. South Africa, well aware of the possibility of losing, not on merit but because of the privilege afforded to its counterpart, came legally armed and prepared in its detailed oral submission.

Gruesome evidence was laid bare by South Africa, painting a catastrophic picture of the holocaust-level inhumanity Palestinians have been subjected to since 7 October. It was merely exposing what the world has witnessed over the past three months. 

South Africa's Genocide Case Against Israel Begins At International Court Of Justice
Approaching The Hague was about making a statement, something South Africa has done emphatically. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu via Getty Images)

However, the submissions of Israel were telling in failing to offer substantial evidence and justification for its post-7 October actions and its unleashing of a reign of terror with impunity, supported by the Global North, and under the guise of self-defence.

In a world where atrocities initiated by superpowers are normalised, it’s become little short of a miracle for anyone to stand up to political Goliaths such as Israel and its enabler-in-chief North America.

This case does not come from a historical vacuum. The people of Palestine have been living in an open concentration camp since 1948. Therefore, it is ironic that the same people who are the reason why the Genocide Convention was signed in 1948 are now, 76 years later, standing in a court having to defend themselves on why their inhumane actions should not be called a “genocide”, the ultimate evil.

This case unfolds in a momentous political year for all parties involved. US President Joe Biden faces an election year where his support has significantly dropped as a result of the US funding and arming Ukraine and Israel. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must also appease his right-wing counterparts in the coalition government which might come at a political price as a result of this war crime.  

And, of course, the ICJ is also in the spotlight. The world is yet to see if it has the power to hold superpowers accountable.

While the judgment could go either way, this epoch in international law could serve as a catalyst for redirecting it to its intended purpose.

Nelson Mandela, in 1997, said: “We are not free unless Palestinians are free.” This statement, and South Africa’s commitment, is embodied in a historic picture of Mandela and Palestine Liberation Organisation head Yasser Arafat. Mandela, and the other Rivonia trialists, were once labelled terrorists by the US. History absolved them. As to who the terrorist is between Israel and Hamas, history will accordingly judge.

In a moment of despair, when the world is being defeated by bullies, bombs and grand rhetoric, it takes ordinary men and women to change the discourse. 

South Africa gathered men and women from all races, classes and creeds, who are true to their democratic nature, to fight a cause for the people of Palestine to be, to live and to exist as all humans should. 

Win or lose, South Africa is on the right side of history.    

Gugu Ndima is a social commentator.