A Jewish man waves an Israeli flag in Jerusalem's Old City. Picture: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN
A Jewish man waves an Israeli flag in Jerusalem's Old City. Picture: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN

The department of international relations & co-operation  says the SA government “is appalled at the unjust and unwarranted decision of the AU Commission to grant Israel observer status in the AU”, labelling the decision as “shocking”.

In fact, Israel’s inclusion as an observer to the AU is an important gesture by the African continent, which benefits significantly from friendly co-operation with Israel. Israel has diplomatic relations with 46 of the 54 sovereign countries in Africa, including the ground-breaking normalisation agreements with Sudan and Morocco that occurred in the past year. Malawi is said to be intending to open an embassy in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, in 2021, and Zimbabwe is working to improve its ties with the Jewish state. 

Why then, the department’s aggressive and unilateral opposition? By taking this position SA is losing many opportunities to harness Israeli solutions for many of the problems our country faces today, including power generation, water and sanitation. Other African states are actively co-operating with Israel to bring these benefits to millions of poor citizens. Why is our government depriving our own, especially rural communities?

Recently I visited a village in Mpumalanga where the only source of water for 10,000 people in the surrounding area was a filthy, contaminated pit they had to share with cows and donkeys. The villagers explained that they travelled many kilometres each day to reach this pit, holding buckets and carrying children on their backs, often to find animal carcasses floating in the water. After filling their buckets and returning to their homes, many became terribly ill with cholera. In places where running water is available there is often no electricity, meaning schools have to hold outdoor classrooms and clinics have no lights or refrigeration. This sad situation is repeated in thousands of villages around SA.

Tens of thousands of South Africans have to walk some distance to use a shared toilet, often in darkness, with poor security, and no water to flush or wash their hands. The Eastern Cape is in the midst of a devastating drought and mismanagement has led to water shortages. The official statistics indicate that at least one in three people of any working-age group is unemployed.

Furthermore, the recent violence, civil unrest, looting and destruction in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng will cost government at least R50bn. These funds, which could have been used for infrastructure investment, education, job creation and other upliftment programmes, will be diverted towards returning to base level. This, together with the lumbering vaccination programme being slowly rolled out by the government, hinders our economy from fully opening up and costs jobs and investment. 

Israel is currently bringing transformative and grassroot solutions to African people across our continent. This includes technology that can electrify millions of homes, provide light to schools, refrigerate food and medicine, and provide clean drinking water to tens of millions of people. Israel has already installed solar generation in many African countries, including Malawi, Uganda and Tanzania. The solar panels also facilitate connectivity by enabling people to charge their devices and improve the rapid dissemination of information for business, health and education. Israel’s drip irrigation technologies help African farmers optimise their water management, increase crop yields and reduce prices of fruit, vegetables and food. Israeli-designed water purification systems help make water — even sewerage water — drinkable without requiring electricity.

African countries now work closer than ever before with Israel on improving food security, diagnosing and fighting sickness and diseases, skills training and jobs development. Israel will now be assisting African countries to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. 

The SA government is irrationally obsessed with the Israel issue over virtually any other domestic, continental or international matter. The Palestinians live under the rule of despotic leaders and yet our government has no words of criticism about the well-documented abuse of their own populations to maintain political power and, in the case of Hamas, advance the nefarious agenda of destroying Israel. SA remains silent about virtually every human rights abuse the world over (often voting alongside notorious dictatorships at the UN) and yet cannot contain itself when it comes to the only democratic state in the Middle East. 

Moreover, SA has a dubious record on supporting human rights in Africa but has the audacity to lecture Israel on human rights. Sudan is a case in point. The government supported and granted immunity to human rights criminal Omar al-Bashir when he landed in SA in 2015 (under an International Criminal Court arrest warrant, no less), yet has played no role in assisting Sudan’s recent transition to democracy. 

The SA government should spearhead development, investment and democratic progress in Africa. Instead, it will now use its influence to undermine genuine, life-changing, grassroots improvements in the continent brought about by Israel. Until SA improves its international leadership on issues around human rights and freedom and moves away from its blinding obsession with Israel, the government cannot expect to be taken seriously in Africa or further abroad.

More tragically, however, our government will keep millions of its own citizens thirsty and in darkness through its futile fixation on Israel. The villagers will continue to drink from a contaminated pit while their continental neighbours sip from an abundant spring. SA is at a junction: we can condemn Israel while staring down the dry well, or we can build channels with Israel and reap the benefits from the river they bring. 

• Polovin is national chair of the SA Zionist Federation.

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