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Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh. Picture: REUTERS
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh. Picture: REUTERS

The phone rang. The secretary, trained not to pick up too quickly lest the caller think the minister isn’t busy, waited until the fifth ring. “Minister Pandor’s office,” she chirped, “How may I help you?”

The voice on the end of the line was instantly familiar. Ismail Haniyeh, political head of the Hamas movement. “Hello,” came his deep, accented reply, “can I speak to Naledi please, it’s urgent”.

“I’m so sorry Mr Haniyeh,” replied the secretary, “the minister is on the line right now with secretary of state Blinken. Can we call you right back? We have your number. You’re still in Qatar, yes?”

“I am,” he said. “Please tell her to hurry if she can.”

Five minutes later: “Hello Mr Haniyeh, I have Minister Pandor for you.”

Pandor: “Ismail, how lovely to hear from you, we were so worried.”

Hamas guy: “Thank you minister. I’m fine, but obviously Gaza is not.”

Pandor: “Oh I know. It’s awful. I was just on the phone to Washington about the Agoa summit we’re holding with them down here next month. The Americans always seem to want everything so, I don’t know, organised, you know? Now they’re doubling down on their support for Israel. How can we help you...?”

And so on ... Just as SA climbs out of the diplomatic hole it dug for itself by sympathising with Russian after its invasion of Ukraine, so it jumps into bed with Hamas days after it commits a series of grotesque atrocities against civilians in Israel.

Apart from being the clear mark of a government chasing its own tail most of the time, Pandor’s call (a return call, mind you) with a Hamas leader speaks of a politician who just doesn’t understand how actions tell a story. We pulled our ambassador out of Israel years ago. But we have Hamas on the phone?

The Americans know we are Russian and China groupies, and we know they regard the Russians and the Chinese as direct threats. To that we say “Eff you”, which is fine until it threatens American investment here. Then we panic.

Well, if Pandor thinks siding with Russia over Ukraine, or merely that the Americans and Europeans might think we are, is roughly the equivalent of siding with the Palestinians against Israel, I fear she and the rest of us might be about to learn a hard lesson. No matter where you ply your trade on the US political spectrum, the one thing you never mess with is US support for Israel.

How dumb, honestly, is the international relations & co-operation minister? Hamas is designated a terrorist organisation in the US and EU, our two biggest markets for value-added exports. She was played like a banjo on a knobbly knee. After her call, Hamas put out a statement saying she had expressed her support for them! She denied it, but she may well have given them the distinct impression that she did.

Meanwhile, we are apparently trying to roll back our greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force, which is concerned that our lax banking system might be being used by terrorists. A version of Hamas, Islamic State, is fighting a war in the north of our neighbour, Mozambique. That’s how close religious fanaticism is to us.

Right or wrong, it doesn’t matter what you think of Israel or the US or the EU. No-one is trying to push SA around. And for the moment we can play both sides — east and west, north and south, Brics and the G20. Our geographic position is important, and so is our mineral wealth, even though we leave more in the ground than we dig out.

But geography and minerals were also the reason the West tolerated the apartheid government for so long. Until it just didn’t any more. Until it became impossible because of the effect SA had on its domestic politics. Until it imposed sanctions, starving the National Party machine of money until it sued for peace and FW de Klerk released Nelson Mandela and unbanned the ANC.

People like Pandor, and even Cyril Ramaphosa, may think they played key parts in the struggle against apartheid, and I’m sure they were very weighty. But it was Western economic sanctions, not the ANC or Russia or China or Cuba, that brought apartheid to its knees.

Sooner or later our luck will run out if we carry on playing this game. US President Joe Biden and his likely opponent in next year’s US presidential election, Donald Trump, are falling over themselves to demonstrate the depth of their commitment to Israel.

People in the US already have a low opinion of us after the visit of the Russian arms carrier Lady R to the Simon’s Town naval base last December, our joint naval exercises with the Russian and Chinese navies, and our voting record on Ukraine in the UN General Assembly.

Blowing this entitled but fragile economy out of the water would be as easy as clubbing seals, and it is too late now for Pandor to mumble excuses about her relationship with Hamas. The picture on the front page of the Sunday Times of Ramaphosa draped in a Palestinian keffiyeh as a sign of support ahead of an ANC national executive meeting will be filed away.

It’s easy to sympathise with the Palestinians. Half the world does, even me. It’s much harder to stay afloat as a trading economy in a politically bipolar world, and Ramaphosa can’t send Ebrahim Patel to console angry American congressional leaders again as he did a few months ago over Ukraine. Patel wouldn’t carry quite the same plausibility on Palestine.

We really need to learn to be adults.

• Bruce is a former editor of Business Day and the Financial Mail.

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