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You need to go quite far back to find a time when SA had a universally admired president, his deputy — to whom no personal or financial scandal attached — was thoroughly engaged in keeping the machinery of government humming, and the country had a clear and serious view of its place and purpose in the world. A time when the major players in international affairs beat a path to the Union Buildings and Tuynhuis.    

One such year was 1996. Amid the bustle of domestic and international visitors to parliament, in March I received a delegation of local Jewish leaders who were extremely concerned about reports that the SA government was about to meet in SA with the leadership of the terror organisation Hamas.

Hamas then, as now, was dedicated to the destruction of the nascent peace process between Israel and Palestine (to which Nelson Mandela’s government was committed) and to the destruction of Israel and its Jewish inhabitants (to which the Mandela government was opposed). Hence the concern of my visitors.  

On October 7 this year, the plan and purpose of Hamas emerged in full and bloody view when it massacred 1,200 Israelis and others inside their own territory and kidnapped 240 people, including babies.  

Back in 1996, the route to establishing government intention and obtaining clarity was to seek the counsel of deputy president Thabo Mbeki who — extraordinary to record given the icy disdain that froze his presidency later on — then had an open-door policy to the political opposition and other stakeholders.   

I conveyed my visitors’ concerns to Mbeki, who undertook to investigate. True to his word, a few days later in parliament Mbeki sent me a handwritten note which read: “Dear Tony, I spoke to the president about Hamas. He will not meet them. A statement will be issued to this effect. It will be worded in such a way which will ensure that we do not lose the main point the president was making — that the campaign of terror should come to an end and that we fully support the peace process — and the peacemakers in the Middle East. Best wishes, Thabo.”  

Also in 1996, Ronnie Kasrils was rushing about fresh from the massacre he precipitated at Bhisho, as deputy defence minister. He had not yet given voice to his future role as the hofjude (court Jew), who would use his anti-Israel vehemence to extend his cabinet shelf life. Last week, years after he was finally bundled out of government, Kasrils breathed new life into Harold Wilson’s put-down of cabinet colleague Tony Benn, of whom he said: “He immatures with age.” 

A few days back Kasrils rejoiced in Hamas’s slaughter of October 7 — the single worst attack on Jews anywhere in the world since 1945 — describing it as “a brilliant, spectacular warfare attack. They swept on them and killed them and damn good.” The forum Kasrils chose for his celebration of the massacre of innocents was an event arranged by BDS SA/Africa4Palestine, the same group that has now declared open season on SA businesses with Jewish ownership (such as Cape Union Mart) or that dare to stock a single Israeli product (such as Woolworths).  

In this festival of hate and stirring of local enmity it was noteworthy how Woolworths — ironically once led by David Susman, who was injured in the 1948 Israel war of independence — described the reason for its bending to the BDS demand. This was, the organisation stated, due to “the significant and credible threats we have received, and to do our best to safeguard our employees and customers”.

You don’t need a decoder to see that the retailer was threatened with violence unless it cleared its shelves of offending Israeli merchandise. It is Kristallnacht, updated with a “Proudly South African” label. There is a loud silence from the department of trade, industry & competition regarding acts of economic terrorism. This from a government that is apparently both “pro-investment” and “business friendly”.  

Mbeki averred back in the halcyon days of 1996, when peace in the Middle East and SA’s place in the front row of international events seemed assured, that government would not meet the Hamas leadership and would not identify with those imperilling the “peacemakers”.  

But last week deputy international relations & co-operation minister Alvin Botes officially welcomed on these shores “Palestine freedom fighters”, presumably including three Hamas leaders who were invited to SA by — among other hosts — the  Al-Quds Foundation “Palestine awareness programme”. Among its aims, beyond the elimination of the state of Israel, the foundation is committed to the prosecution of “SA Zionist organisations and corporations that enable and fund the genocide of Palestinians”. 

Attempting a “clarification”, minister in the presidency Khumbudzo Nthsavheni spoke of Palestinian “individuals” visiting the country but declined to label Hamas a terrorist organisation — quite a contrast from Mbeki, who called out the architects of the “campaign of terror”.  

For the prosecution of local Zionists there’s a big potential pool for the foundation since some 90% of SA Jews identify with Zionism and many fund it. This means about 45,000 SA citizens are in its sights, and many business organisations beyond Cape Union Mart.  

Shortly before he died last week aged 100 Henry Kissinger, arch exponent of realpolitik with all its vices and virtues, told a German interviewer that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, coupled with Hamas’ attack on Israel, represent “a fundamental attack on the international system”. 

The deep irony here is that SA, besmirched international credibility and all, is simultaneously pro-Hamas, pro-Russia and supports the international order that Russian tanks and Hamas killers attempt to blow up.  

Similarly, SA has a minister in the presidency who accuses the private sector of “machinations to collapse the government” while her boss, the president, days later advises that business’s current partnership with the same government “illustrates how committed they are to the country”. 

Forward? Backward? Sideways? “Pick them all” is government strategy — just hope no-one, at home or overseas, notices how the engine of state has seized and the country is stuck offroad in the mud, as the wheels of government spin furiously and impotently, without direction or purpose.  

This is my last column for Business Day, a publication with which I have had a long and happy association dating back to 2009, with some interruptions. Thank you, dear reader, for reading. Happy holidays.  

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition and SA ambassador to Argentina, now chairs a communications company.

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