South Africa takes diplomatic centre stage with 'genocide' case against Israel at International Court of Justice

Cyril Ramaphosa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa gestures during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on August 24, 2023.

Photo credit: Marco Longari | AFP

Johannesburg, South Africa

South Africa hopes that a landmark "genocide" case against Israel at the UN's top court will bolster its international standing and help the government win domestic support ahead of a key election this year. 

Pretoria is sending some of its top lawyers to The Hague for a legal showdown at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) where it is seeking to compel Israel to halt its military operations in Gaza.

"They are an A-team," said Cathleen Powell, an international law professor at the University of Cape Town.

"They combine people with expertise in international law with people who are particularly good at arguing cases before court."

It is South Africa's first application to the ICJ in a move that analysts say was influenced by historic and political reasons. 

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has long been a firm supporter of the Palestinian cause, often linking it to its own struggle against the white-minority government, which had cooperative relations with Israel.

Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela famously said South Africa's freedom would be "incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians".

Addressing ANC supporters this week, President Cyril Ramaphosa said Mandela's teachings inspired the legal action, describing the case as a "matter of principle".

"The people of Palestine today are being bombed, they are being killed," he said.

"We were duty-bound to stand up and support the Palestinians." 

Yet, analysts say there is more to it. 

The ANC is bleeding support ahead of parliamentary elections expected later this year amid accusations of corruption and mismanagement.

Taking a principled stand internationally could help it distract from domestic troubles, while showing itself to be true to its core values. 

"The ANC sees the ICJ case as a sheen of legitimacy, a basis to regain the prominence it has lost over the last 30 years because of its increasingly unprincipled governance," said Sara Gon of the Institute of Race Relations think tank.

'Media-seeking stunt'

Home to sub-Saharan Africa's largest Jewish community, South Africa has an even bigger Muslim population, part of which might see the application positively. 

Nevertheless, the two groups still represent a tiny minority and whether the action will play well with the conservative Christian majority remains to be seen, Gon said. 

Several Christian leaders have condemned it, as has South Africa's Jewish Board of Deputies, which described the bid as a "media-seeking stunt" and complained about rising anti-Semitism. 

Internationally, the case could help South Africa's standing among some of its close diplomatic partners, according to Gon. 

A member of BRICS, an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, Pretoria sees the group as a counterbalance to a western dominated international order. 

It strongly supported its recent expansion to include, among others, Israel's arch-rival Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Pretoria has filed the case against Israel because both countries have signed the UN Genocide Convention, created in 1948 as a response to the Holocaust.

But South Africa is not among the over 70 countries that recognise the ICJ's "compulsory jurisdiction", accepting its authority as binding.

The only two cases it has previously argued before the tribunal were as a respondent and date back to the 1960s when it was under apartheid rule.

Legal 'A-team'

Its legal team includes John Dugard, a former UN special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories and an associate at leading international law firm Doughty Street Chambers, which also counts Amal Clooney among its members. 

Seasoned litigator Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, who has dealt with politically thorny domestic cases, including the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma, is also part of the team.

In an 84-page submission, the lawyers urged judges to order Israel to "immediately suspend its military operations" in Gaza, alleging Israel "has engaged in, is engaging in, and risks further engaging in genocidal acts". 

Legal commentators have noted the application is tightly argued and thoroughly referenced.

Israel has angrily hit back, with government spokesman Eylon Levy calling the case an "absurd blood libel".

In response to the bloodiest attack in its history carried out by Hamas militants on October 7, Israel has reduced large parts of the Gaza Strip to rubble with its bombing campaign.

The Hamas attack resulted in the deaths of around 1,140 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Israel's military campaign has killed more than 23,000, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.

ICJ hearings start on Thursday and a decision is expected in a matter of weeks. 

While its decisions are binding, the ICJ has no way of enforcing them and they are sometimes completely ignored.