On clamouring for a South African passport

It is unlikely that the proposal of Obed Bapela, a senior ANC official on international relations, to forbid dual citizenship for South African Jews who want to also be citizens of Israel will succeed. The legal obstacles to changing the law in this direction are formidable, and it would also have to apply to South Africans who are citizens of other countries. The negative effect on them will be huge, as will the effects on the country’s image. He probably knows that, so why is he willing to do so much damage to the morale of South African Jews by making them feel singled out in this way?

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment, and contemplate a scenario where such a law actually gets passed and South Africans can only hold one citizenship. What would Americans who also hold SA citizenship do? Give up their American citizenship? Very unlikely. Or British, Lithuanians, Canadians, Australians and others? Would they choose to relinquish those passports and be South Africans only? The vast majority of them would – with great sadness for most – give up their South African citizenship rather than the others they hold.

Not because they don’t want to be South Africans. There still remains an idealism in this country, and a feeling that we have done extraordinary things in the past and can again in the future. But there are serious questions about the future. People will look at how South Africa seems to be unravelling under the inept and corrupt leadership of President Jacob Zuma and his ANC party, and wonder what lies ahead.

What does it mean to carry a passport? Twenty years ago at the dawn of South African democracy, the citizens of this country for the first time felt proud producing their SA passports at international airports when they travelled. We were the people from the miracle country of Mandela, this was our brand, as opposed to the days when apartheid was the brand associated with us.

These days, however, many people are again embarrassed, because we have become famous for our crime, corruption, xenophobia and racial divisions again, and for the ineptitude which characterizes our government. The debacles at Eskom, SAA, Prasa, and other major pillars of our economy, and the fact that poverty has got worse since apartheid ended, rather than better, should make us hang our heads in shame. Bapela and the ANC should be concentrating their energies on making South Africa a country which people admire and are clamouring to be citizens of, rather than playing cheap politics in this way. He should be aiming for a day when a South African passport will be valued like a jewel because of the successful country it represents.

In making a noise about South Africans who go to Israel, he is scoring points with sections of the electorate, wanting to look like a gutsy campaigner for human rights. But it is superficial political grandstanding. It paints Israel and SA Jews with a crude, broad brush as if they can be neatly summarized in one phrase: the building of more Jewish settlements on stolen Palestinian land, and the oppression of the Palestinians. It takes no account of the widely diverse views they hold on the nature of Israeli society, the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the occupation of the West Bank, their personal roles, and so on.

None of the above is to say that Israel is blameless in this. It has today one of the most right wing, rejectionist governments in its history, and a Prime Minister who provides no vision for a peaceful future – only more and more conflict. But without a doubt, nor are the Palestinians that he champions blameless. They could have had their independent state living in peace alongside Israel many years ago – they were offered it repeatedly by more liberal Israeli governments but couldn’t bring themselves to make the choice to end the conflict.

All of these nuances seem to escape Bapela. Sadly, the only thing his ranting has achieved is to make South African Jews feel more vulnerable. But he needs to understand: South Africa is their country as much as it is his, and they will stand up for this right.

(First appeared in SA Jewish Report, September 11, 2015)

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