South Africa's allegations of Israeli genocide are political theatre

The legal definition of genocide is quite narrow. According to the Genocide Convention, which was adopted by the United Nations largely in response to the Holocaust, only “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” qualify to be referred to by the label.

Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t stopped activists from bandying the term to galvanise support for all sorts of causes. Some, like recent claims of a so-called “transgender genocide”, are patently absurd; others, like accusations that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinian Arabs, while still technically tricky to prove, tug more easily at the heartstrings of anyone horrified by the travails of civilians in Gaza as a result of the ongoing war there.

For much of the duration of the war, the latter accusation has been the province of activists and politicians; it was a matter for the court of public opinion, not an actual legal question. However, at the end of December 2023, South Africa dragged it past the line by initiating proceedings accusing Israel of genocide at the International Court of Justice, the highest court of the United Nations.


Now, South Africa’s solidarity with the Palestinian cause has deep historic roots. It stems partly from Israel’s uncomfortable chumminess with South Africa’s white-supremacist apartheid regime in the '70s and '80s, which alienated it from the ultimately triumphant resistance movement there. The African National Congress (ANC), which led that movement, still runs South Africa.

But this does not mean everything South Africa does to demonstrate its support for the Palestinians proceeds from unalloyed compassion. In fact, a lot of it is also just political theatre. Because they know the issue strikes a chord with the public, South Africa’s politicians aren’t beyond milking it for points, especially in the months before an election at which the ANC risks losing its majority for the first time.


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The case at the ICJ skews heavily towards the political theatre end of the scale. For one, though the Palestinians in Gaza have evidently borne the brunt of the war’s human cost, it would be a stretch for the court to find Israel’s actions genocidal in the legal sense; for that bar to be cleared, South Africa would have to prove that Israel’s intent is to eliminate the Palestinians, simply because they are Palestinians.

Additionally, given that Hamas, the other party to the war, isn’t a state, and hence not under the jurisdiction of the ICJ, an unlikely ruling against Israel would by definition require it to cease defending itself against future attacks by the group; of course, this would not only be unfair, but also impossible to get Israel to obey. And all this is without considering the ICJ’s lack of the instruments to enforce its decisions.


But perhaps the greatest proof of South Africa’s gambit being mostly political theatre is the government’s remarkable lack of self-consciousness and appreciation for the seriousness of its accusations. A week before hearings began at the ICJ on January 11, it rolled out the red carpet to welcome Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, the warlord whose paramilitary forces are currently overrunning Sudan and have engaged in more plausibly genocidal acts in Darfur.

This wasn’t an isolated act. In 2015, South Africa hosted Omar al-Bashir, Hemedti’s former boss, despite there being an outstanding arrest warrant against him, for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide, issued by the International Criminal Court. South Africa was required, by international law, to execute that warrant, but twisted itself into knots to create an excuse for not doing so.

Either South Africa’s leaders consider the accusations of genocide against Hemedti to be spurious or, more likely, they are unable to make political hay out of them, and so choose to ignore them. Whatever the case, their moral equivocation doesn’t exactly endorse the sincerity of their solidarity with the Palestinians.

Given this, South Africa’s decision to drag Israel before the courts amounts to little more than a meme taken too far. It reeks of empty activism, of the sort that should be the preserve of pink-haired deluded Western leftists, who foam at the mouth about transgender genocides and other such inanities, rather than a government.

Not only does it create an unnecessary diversion from more tangible initiatives that can be taken to improve the lot of the Palestinians in Gaza, but makes a mockery of the very real issues faced by South Africans, to which their government would more fruitfully give its attention.

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image: International Court of Justice, Wikimedia Commons


Showing 9 reactions

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  • Paul Stain
    commented 2024-01-26 10:11:36 +1100
    The fact that this situation horrifies you is a credit to you. Where we differ is that I believe the responsibility for the current situation, as against any historical grievance, lies with Hamas. Their actions were designed to provoke retaliation by the pure evil of their actions. What we have here is the disposing of any morality, rationality, consequences or even common sense in the pursuit of a utopian objective. In this case the destruction of Israel and the formation of an Islamic based regime. Utopianism cannot prevail without force and the destruction of a common morality. It is a problem with progressive politics that it finds a utopian {or dystopian} ideal that leads it to hold a common cause with evil. No side here is blameless. However, as Christians we cannot accept the evil that caused the present situation. There is no more I can say.
  • Kathy Ungar
    commented 2024-01-25 23:51:13 +1100
    Yes, Hamas must bear responsibility for their actions – but so must Israel bear responsibility for their actions: the starving, bombing, shooting, imprisoning, torturing and mass-expulsion of untold numbers of civilians. This is not just a hideous mess but actual genocide, ethnic cleansing and other war crimes. Israel can no more appeal to provocation from Hamas to defend their war crimes than Hamas can appeal to provocation from Israel to defend theirs. If you think what Israel is now doing is inexcusable – just as terroristic acts of Hamas were inexcusable – then we have no real quarrel.
  • Paul Stain
    commented 2024-01-25 21:16:40 +1100
    This is a hideous mess. People are dying and suffering, which is always inexcusable. However, Hamas provoked an Israeli response by actions that were meant to lead to war. They have to bear responsibility for their actions. It is not the actions of a few terrorists as you claim. It was the planned assault by the political movement in control of Gaza backed by unpleasant foreign regimes. Any political movement that engages in such appalling and inhumane actions are beyond redemption. What they did knowingly resulted in the destruction of Gaza. That is the people they purported to represent. This is no game of simplified goodies and baddies. It is an example of what happens when a common morality fails in the face of political and self-defeating expediency.
  • Kathy Ungar
    commented 2024-01-25 17:06:24 +1100
    But I did condemn – see below! Not all stories are equally well-founded but what we do know Hamas did i.e. kill and kidnap civilians and expose their citizens to hideous retaliation as you say is quite bad enough. Now do you condemn the collective punishment, by bombing, starvation, house-to-house shooting, imprisonment, torture, forced displacement, of thousands and thousands of people in Gaza for what a few terrorists did? Condemning the Israeli government and IDF for what they’ve done since 7 October is at least as necessary as condemning Hamas. We can’t be selective in condemning war crimes.
  • Paul Stain
    commented 2024-01-25 10:07:07 +1100
    Please condemn what Hamas did. Please acknowledge that the actions of Hamas created the situation so that the people would Gaza suffer. What is happening now is the direct result of Hamas killing, raping and murdering babies to provoke retaliation. This means Hamas wants people in Gaza to die for their cause. Let us not look to historical background but at this particular time. Hamas deliberately acted in a manner that was devoid of morality, against the interests of those in Gaza and callously stupid. This has to be acknowledged before anything else. Everything to do with this is so ugly.
  • Kathy Ungar
    commented 2024-01-24 20:47:49 +1100
    Who is justifying 7 October? But one war crime does not justify another. That’s actually why Israeli war crimes before 7 October do not justify 7 October – any more than 7 October justifies Israeli war crimes since then. Japanese atrocities did not justify Hiroshima or Nagasaki. That’s not how it works. Perpetrators will always have excuses for war crimes but there are no excuses – as I think you’re saying. So let’s take the genocide hearing seriously and listen to the evidence. If it’s convincing, let’s not listen to excuses.
  • Paul Stain
    commented 2024-01-24 15:34:21 +1100
    I wish people that feel disgusted about this article would express their disgust of the depravity that sparked this off on 7th of October. The vileness of the terrorist actions then cannot be justified by reference to a higher purpose. To attempt to do so reveals a complete lack of moral integrity. The Hamas actions were undertaken to bring about the suffering in Gaza and insure there could be no compromise or progress. So damn sad.
  • Kathy Ungar
    commented 2024-01-23 20:00:33 +1100
    Deeply depressing to see the author’s failure to engage with a day’s evidence of genocide. Referring to pink-haired activists is lazy and a distraction: the word genocide was not thrown around randomly or merely something to tug at the heartstrings but was backed up extensively in court. Serious lawyers made serious points, citing Israeli sources calling for the flattening of Gaza and saying there are no civilians in Gaza – see here for the address of one lawyer and here for a video of the first day It may be that South Africa has its own issues to address, but any problems with the messenger should not distract from the message, any more than Allies winking at war crimes – or committing them – during the Second World War meant the Nazis were not guilty of genocide. A strong comparison, but look at the evidence without prejudice or political filters. Israeli needs no encouragement (though it does need funding) to carry on for months still to come.
  • Frank Daley
    commented 2024-01-23 19:45:28 +1100
    This article is a disgusting deflection of the real issue – that genocide is being committed TODAY NOW by the state of Israel against the Palestinian people.

    If the author had bothered to study the submission by South Africa he would have discovered that it includes numerous items of legal evidence quoting various members of the Israeli Government and others precisely of their intent to conduct ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.

    Mercator has stooped to new lows by publishing this article.