“But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.

On 4 December 1997, former President Nelson Mandela addressed the nation with words that have left a lasting impression on not only the people within this country but also on South Africa’s approach to its international relations. 

Last week, the hot topic on The Big Debate was International Relations, with a sharp focus on how South Africa is handling the conflict in Palestine. The conversation dug into our country’s stance on the global stage and highlighted some glaring inconsistencies at home when it comes to human rights.

South Africa has taken a bold step by playing a leading role in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) case against Israel. This move signifies the country’s firm stance on the Palestine issue. However, despite this political pressure, trade relations with Israel continue, sparking debate about whether South Africa is truly consistent in its approach to human rights.

“Boycotts are important as a tool to change the situation, it’s only if we take action that we can encourage others to take action together,” said Jon Fish Hodgson from SA Jews for a Free Palestine. His statement resonated with many in the audience, who echoed the sentiment that concrete actions speak louder than words.

The debate highlighted the tension between economic interests and human rights. An audience member passionately pointed out, “It feels as if human rights and economic profits in this country have an inverse relationship. Why do human rights need to be violated for business to succeed and make a profit?” This sentiment was further supported by Samantha Hargreaves, director of WOMIN African Alliance, who remarked, “In order for corporations to make profits, they need to break human rights. They place the cost of their activities on the environment and on the people.”

“In South Africa’s Apartheid history, economic sanctions played a crucial role in forcing the national party to the negotiating table,” said Hargreaves. Reflecting on our own historical context provides a powerful reminder of the potential impact of economic pressure.

“We cannot undermine the political pressure South Africa has placed on Israel,” said Kagiso Pooe, a public policy specialist. The ICJ case against Israel marked a historic moment for human rights accountability. “One of the significant things about the ICJ case was that this was the first time a country of the global South took a country from the North and charged them of genocide and human rights abuses and had a good finding,” highlighted Shannon Ebrahim, Senior Manager at The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). 

This landmark decision underscored the weight of South Africa’s political influence on the international stage, demonstrating its capacity to hold powerful nations accountable. However, this achievement also illuminated the vast space for South Africa to further its efforts.

Despite South Africa’s political pressure on Israel, trade relations remain unchanged. “With the downgrade of South Africa’s embassy in Israel and subsequent pressure on Israel’s diplomatic representation in SA, the conditions for economic co-creation are on the decline,” noted Philani Mtembu, Executive Director of International Global Dialogue.  

However, Roshan Dadoo, coordinator for BDS South Africa, noted that there is still room to impose further economic sanctions. “We should absolutely impose a trade embargo and in particular stop selling coal,” she said. 

While the debate surged about South Africa’s involvement in the Middle East, it also revealed a glaring inconsistency in the country’s foreign policy. 

While the country strongly opposes human rights abuses in Palestine, it seems less assertive toward African nations and economic allies. “Human rights activists in Southern Africa do not always enjoy our support, but when it comes to BRICS, we seem willing to overlook human rights abuses in the interest of trade,” remarked a member of the audience.

South Africa’s stance on the Ukraine war and its position of neutrality was heavily criticised, especially when considering the country’s attempt to withdraw from the International Criminal Court so as to avoid arresting fellow BRICS member Vladimir Putin for actions committed during the ongoing war. 

While South Africa is making significant strides in addressing human rights abuses internationally, there is still much work to be done closer to home. The Big Debate highlighted the complex interplay between economic interests and human rights, urging South Africa to uphold our moral and political responsibilities both within and beyond its borders. 

“At the end of the day economic interests are at the heart of government, the people need to be the ones who need to place the moral responsibility on government,” said Zehra Ziadi, Student activist for Wits Liberated Zone

The Big Debate is a South African current affairs show airing for its 12th season. This town hall debate show has been on air for 15 years, with this season coinciding with the national elections. Explain is thrilled to be partnering with The Big Debate to cover the series as it unpacks these issues.