What has Paris terror to do with South Africa?

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South African President Jacob Zuma on the spot on terrorism

When President Jacob Zuma addresses the SA Jewish Board of Deputies conference on Sunday, it will be in the shadow of the horrific terror attacks by ISIS in Paris last Friday, which left 129 dead and hundreds of others wounded. All signs are that the Third World War, between radical Islam and Western civilization, has begun in earnest. French President Francoise Hollande said as much when he declared, “France is at war”, imposed a state of emergency and told the French parliament on Monday that France should unite with the US and Russia in a grand coalition to destroy ISIS.

The audience at the SAJBD conference will have mixed feelings towards Zuma because of the ANC’s welcome extended to the Palestinian terrorist organisation Hamas a few weeks ago.

It will be disappointing if he sticks to mouthing the old, worn-out platitudes about the rainbow nation, the Jews’ importance in the liberation struggle, and how the ANC is fighting for the good of the country. There is a perception that under his leadership, South Africa has lost its moral bearings and has shrunk to an irrelevant midget on the world stage, two decades after the great international prestige it held during Mandela’s time as a moral touchstone for all.

South Africa has never faced terrorism of the sort going on in Europe and the Middle East, and which destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001. But we are not immune, even here at the bottom of Africa. We are part of today’s connected world.

The Paris attacks illustrate the reduced role of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in international affairs, despite the massive media attention it still gets. The brand of terror France has suffered has little to do with the “occupation of Palestine”; it is more about the clashing Islamic and other forces in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other places in the Mideast, as ISIS attempts to establish its Islamic caliphate under Sharia law.

Diplomatic myopia still exists about the relative role of the Palestinian issue. Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon said after the Paris killings, that European defence ministers visiting Israel to consult with him mostly focus – correctly – on radical Islam’s anti-Western terror campaign. But, he said, “when foreign ministers come, they speak with us about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if that is the source of all the world’s problems.” ANC support for a Palestinian state is legitimate. But South African politics, whether in the ANC, Cosatu, the SACP and elsewhere, still seems largely stuck in the latter mindset.

Radical Islam has become the ‘Nazism’ of the 21st century. It will have to be defeated by a determined international alliance of countries acting together, in the same way Nazism was defeated in the Second World War. This is what Hollande is calling for.

Going back to Zuma’s speech at the SAJBD conference: Terrorism is at the top of people’s minds and he needs to address Jewish outrage about his Hamas meetings. Was it part of a long-term strategy, or motivated by expedient local politics? The issue is complicated, and not everyone opposes engaging with Hamas, including some top Israelis. For example, former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy, who spent decades in the Mossad and was a key player in achieving the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, says Israel itself should talk with Hamas. Interviewed at a Haaretz-sponsored conference on peace in Tel Aviv recently, he said military action hasn’t been successful in combatting the terrorist group, and Israel should recognize democratically-elected Palestinian governments even if they include Hamas. Other Israelis vehemently reject this view.

France is the birthplace of human rights, epitomised by its secularity, vibrant culture, and the phrase liberté, égalité, fraternité. Together with all of Europe, it faces the dilemma of how to protect these human and individual rights while providing security against terrorism. The most important individual right is the right to life itself.

Zuma has an opportunity to show his colours: Is he a leader of global stature who understands the grim new reality of the Third World War? Will his South Africa side unequivocally with Western values, and support the grand coalition against Islamist terror in a more meaningful way than simply sending ‘condolences’ to Paris? Or will he continue playing small-minded local politics aimed mainly at staying in power?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on November 18, 2015)

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