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South Africa found itself on the right side of history

Palestinian supporters gathered at the Western Cape High Court to meet with legal representatives involved with South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Picture: Armand Hough / Independent Newspapers

It’s hard to think of the hard-won gains and our incredible transition from pariah state to democracy when we’re bombarded with daily struggles as South Africans. But last week we were reminded what it means to be a South African when our government took Israel to court for war crimes, writes Gasant Abarder in a new #SliceOfGasant column.

For a while, a bit like the famous Liverpool Football Club, we had forgotten who we were. It feels like we’ve taken 30 years to try and stand in the shoes of the father of our nation, Nelson Mandela, and be the country he always imagined us to be.

Tata Madiba held the uncompromising belief that the freedom of South Africa was tied to Palestine. Last week, after some 100 days of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza killed more than 23,000 people – including thousands of women and children – our government said “enough”.

Out of a deafening silence came a dignified voice calling for an end to the genocide.

Our compelling and impassioned case before the International Court of Justice in the Hague argued why Israel needs to urgently cease its indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians in Gaza – by guns, air strikes, bombs and the non-bloody, but as violent, withholding of food, water, and vital medicine.

Our lawyers warned that if the food, water, and medicine situation continued, Gaza would have an irreversible humanitarian crisis on its hands. They warned that 80 percent of the world’s famine is currently located in Gaza.

Israel, in defence, blamed innocent civilians for ostensibly hiding Hamas. Their legal argument was callous, like an 80s Hollywood blockbuster where the Russians are evil and the Americans are good, complete with secret terrorist underground tunnels running beneath hospitals and schools as justification for its indiscriminate air raids.

It said the thousands of children it had slain were groomed to be terrorists. The slain women were human shields who aided and abetted terrorists.

Like George W Bush and Tony Blair, their arguments were like weapons of mass distraction without explicit proof of weapons of mass destruction.

Israel aimed barbs at South Africa for bringing the case to the Hague and its lawyers all but laughed it off. Israel questioned South Africa’s relationship with Hamas. Hamas’s methods may not be how South African liberation movements (also labelled terrorists back then by Israel) went about their business. But in a David and Goliath context, it represents an army of the desperate and the downtrodden where there is no hope.

Not once did Israel deny killing innocent civilians. It argued the dangerous rhetoric of the Israeli president, prime minister, army generals and at least one cabinet minister to wipe out Gazans like ‘human animals’, was not an official government position.

The fate of Bush and Blair for their Iraq bloodbath may have been a rap over the knuckles. Similarly, one cannot imagine Israel’s legacy of 75 years of oppression and unlawful occupation of Palestinians being dealt a hammer blow in a court case brought against the might of the West by a nation from the Global South.

But unlike Bush and Blair, Israel is the big loser even if it wins this round against South Africa’s claim that it violated the 1948 Convention against Genocide.

Israel’s lawyers countered that its leaders were emotional after the Hamas attack on Tel-Aviv that killed 1 400 innocent people and their utterances were thus understandably hyperbolic in nature. They offered no explanation for the disproportionate killing of more than 23 000 (claiming but not proving these to be mostly Hamas-related fatalities), other than they had it coming. Israel, after all, they argued, had a right to defend itself.

Locally, South Africans have actively protested Israel’s invasion and have boycotted products of global brands believed to be propping up the Middle East’s apartheid regime. Elsewhere, those who rely on traditional news sources may not even know more than 23 000 people have been killed in 100 days. The major TV networks didn’t even hide their bias, failing to broadcast South Africa’s submission live but carrying Israel’s full response the next day.

Their more relevant and younger cousins, YouTube, X, TikTok, Facebook, et al, illustrated what a truly democratic media space was all about, providing unfiltered news from the scene of crimes against humanity. They have shown to be far more credible than any Israeli army-embedded journalist can hope to be. Their reach and Israel’s lawyers showed the world what Israel really was and why the genocide needs to end.

The significance of this lonely road South Africa has taken may yet hold diplomatic costs.

But we have held true to our ethos. We are a nation that doesn’t run with the pack. We are a nation unafraid to hold bullies with nuclear weapons to account. We are a nation, deep down, that still strives to uphold Madiba’s benchmark.

Our unique South African values as a people who forge ahead despite our troubles domestically didn’t allow us to look the other way.

Indeed, at the start of 2024, South Africa found itself on the right side of history. Team SA at the Hague made it feel truly great to be South African.