As per recent news, South Africa has brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) a claim that Israel has genocidal intent in its 2023 war in Gaza:

South Africa seeks to prove that the measures Israel has taken go beyond self-defence and into the destruction of the Palestinians. The claim details the familiar, if shocking, death toll, forced displacement, deprivation of food, and the restrictions on births, through attacks on hospitals, saying they are sufficient evidence to infer plausible genocidal intent.

If any country were to take this legal motion, why was it specifically South Africa making this claim? What's the relation between South Africa and this war and the two parties involved? What are relevant causative and explanatory factors? Is there any possible hidden motive or underlying, non-obvious reason? Even if there is not, and it was arbitrary and by chance that South Africa made this claim, then why haven’t any other countries done this before them? What’s been stopping them?


5 Answers 5


South African black people suffered apartheid at the hands of the Afrikaners. Similarly, they suffered centuries of colonisation at the hands of the Dutch and British. Palestinians are suffering apartheid at the hands of Israelis. They have also been facing settler and colonialist violence and dispossession for many years.

Perhaps surprisingly, nations do tend to display collective memory, particularly of trauma, which can influence actions. This is one of the reason why Ireland tends to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, with the Irish having undergone centuries of colonisastion.

Here's a direct quote from South Africa's foreign minister, reported Nov. 14th, 2023:

“We, who enjoy the freedom from Apartheid, can never, ever be the ones who agree to an apartheid form of oppression. This cannot be tolerated. This brutality should not be accepted,” Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in parliament late Wednesday while delivering a Ministerial Statement on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

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    – Philipp
    Jan 11 at 16:19

While there are many factors at play, the ruling ANC party has long had a strong relationship with Palestine, in part because the former apartheid regime had such close ties to Israel. Here's a recent piece from the Guardian with more details. This ICJ case is just one of many other actions South Africa has made against Israel in recent years.

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    With this logic, why doesn't Lebanon - who is owned by Hezbollah - nor Turkey nor Malaysia make the case? Surely they're closer in relation to Palestine than South Africa? There's got to be more to the story than just a strong relationship. Perhaps you can expand your answer? Jan 8 at 22:39
  • @AhmedTawfik - That's a fair point. It is indeed an ICJ case rather than an ICC one.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 8 at 22:40
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    @AhmedTawfik obviously, if Lebanon had made a move, it would have little standing in the eye of the public, as they are close to being a party in the war.
    – Tom
    Jan 10 at 16:32
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    @Tom Surely justice should be served even if in the worst case it is another criminal that accuses someone of injustice? Jan 10 at 16:51
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    @AhmedTawfik You are thinking in terms of justice and law. This is politics. Justice is at best an afterthought.
    – Tom
    Jan 10 at 16:55

The other answers already mentioned the main reasons why South Africa in particular would care about what's currently happening in Gaza. There is however another thing that may play a role: Africa's frustration with international courts.

Since its creation, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has almost exclusively indicted Africans. More generally, there is a widespread perception that international human rights institutions apply a double standard and that the actions of Western or “Global North” nations are never scrutinised while these same countries are not shy about lecturing Africa (even more than South America, Asia, or the Middle East where economic and strategic interests loom larger).

In this context, South Africa has been keen on positioning itself as a leader and representative for the whole continent, especially after the end of the apartheid system. Taking action on serious human rights violations outside Africa is a way to take on that mantle and show human rights law is not only wielded by European nations. Following Gambia's lead and bringing this case in front the ICJ might also be a way to implicitely criticize the ICC's perceived bias.


Another reason is...

It's a good distraction from domestic issues

South Africa has been undergoing a modestly severe energy crisis, stagnating GDP per capita, skyrocketing unemployment rates, an increasing crime rate, high prevalence of HIV, issues with corruption, and high levels of water pollution.

It's much easier to talk about problems in a remote region of the world than to fix one's problems at home. It's related to the concept of wag the dog where a country gets involved in a foreign war in order to distract voters from domestic issues. Note that this claim wouldn't have applied if (say) Saudi Arabia filed a claim in the ICJ, as their economy is booming and their leaders don't need any foreign distractions to stay in power.

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    South Africa is entering a general election in 2024, with the ANC ruling party increasingly losing support in recent years (due to the issues you mention, including state capture, being enabled/perpetrated by (some of) its officials). The ANC is also being accused on international platforms by some minority groups of a genocidal campaign against them (with more notice being taken of it). It does seem likely that the consideration of winning back some support on "feel-good" principles as opposed to actual day-to-day running of ZA (some would say ruining) played a not unimportant part.
    – frIT
    Jan 11 at 10:30

South Africa is not a random irrelevant country. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has deep ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization, stretching back to its former leader and South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela. South Africa has been engaged on the Palestinian issue since the end of apartheid (source). Also, from 1977 (the year the UN Apartheid arms embargo came into effect) into the 1980’s, South Africa (hence Apartheid) was Israel’s largest weapons customer (source).

This may be enough to explain why exactly they and not somebody else.

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    I mean... they're still sort of irrelevant by virtue of being far away from the conflict and not even being a major donor. Even Japan donated more to Palestine than South Africa. Talk is cheap. Jan 10 at 18:36
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    As a complement to this answer, it is worth mentioning the two decades (mostly 1967-1987) of military and economic cooperation between Israel and the (otherwise isolated) Apartheid regime in South Africa. Having been repressed by Israelian weapons, the ANC certainly still has some reservations about Israel today. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel%E2%80%93South_Africa_relations
    – Evargalo
    Jan 11 at 11:49
  • More details in your answer on "deep ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization" would be useful.
    – Just Me
    Jan 11 at 22:55

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