BY JOEL POLLAK
Major General Fumanekile Gqiba has been South Africa’s Ambassador to Israel since July 2004. After a distinguished career in the anti-apartheid struggle and the African National Congress (ANC), he joined the newly integrated South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and was appointed Chaplain General in 1998.
Last semester, a challenge from Professor Farid Esack of the Divinity School appeared in the Record (Arsalan Suleman and Erin Thomas, “Real Justice Requires Honest Reflection,” March 22) to “name one veteran of the organized liberation struggle in South Africa who visited the OPT [occupied Palestinian territories] and did not then describe the Occupation as either similar to Apartheid or worse than it.”
In my response (“Palestine: Lose the Labels, Ask the Real Questions,” April 5) I referred to a quote by the South African Ambassador to Israel, Major General Fumanekile Gqiba. The accuracy of the quote was then challenged. As the interview below reveals, the quote was inaccurate but the example appears to stand, as Gqiba does not “describe the Occupation as either similar to apartheid or worse than it,” focusing instead on the lessons to be learned from South Africa’s history of conflict resolution.
Q: How did you make the transition from military to diplomatic life?
A: Unlike other military formations, MK [Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress] was a political wing rather than a pure military wing. The ANC regarded its military wing as those who have reached the highest level of political awareness. Hence when we were told, “Now is the time to negotiate,” we were able to say, “We are ready for that.” If your program is political, you will always have that political analysis, not the military one. That’s why it’s easy for me to adapt to any situation.
Q: You also have a strong religious background.
That’s for sure. I’m a trained and ordained Anglican priest. I think that has helped me to understand the dynamics of this very, very difficult context we are here in today. It has given me insight. I always say you need to come here first and then you will be able to understand it. But in my case I’m a political soldier, [and] I’m also a religious somebody. It has not been a problem for me to adapt.
Q: As a Christian, do you feel more connected to Israel than you would to another country?
That’s for sure. For us, this is our second home. That’s where it all started. Jerusalem is the place. That is from a Christian perspective. Each and every Christian would like, one day, to be walking in the streets of Jerusalem.
Q: You seem to have made a very positive impression here in Israel as well as back home.
I’m happy to hear that. You know from the beginning I said: I come with an open mind. I’ve come to learn, and also to share our experience. My starting point is that here we are dealing with two cousins who ultimately would need to sit together and solve their political problems. They know each other better. Our role is to help them to sit down and to talk and talk and talk and talk, hoping that ultimately they’ll find that point of convergence which seems to be so difficult for them. But I think they are now on the right track. Maybe that approach has helped our country to be accepted by both sides, whereas from the beginning we were perceived to be on one side. And that’s how I see it – I might be wrong.
Q: I want to return to a question I asked you over email a few months ago, and clarify your answer. What do you feel are the merits or lack of merits between comparing South Africa in the apartheid era and Israel and the occupied territories today? Let’s start with Israel.
You see, you know, as I say to you, and I’ve said this long ago, it’s so easy for us when we are in South Africa to sit down and start analyzing, [to] come out with solutions (snapping fingers). You know, when I was told to come here, my first reaction was, “No, not Israel. Please, I’m prepared to go anywhere in the world.” I’ve just come from exile in ’93, I came back, I’ve got a young family, what I see on CNN was Israel for me. I said: “I don’t want to go there. Send me anywhere in the world,” but I was told, “No, we think you will fit there.” Here I am. And when I arrived here, I started to grapple with the reality on the ground, and then I said, “Gee, I have to make a paradigm shift. I have to be objective.”
I know even some of my comrades [in South Africa] don’t believe when I say this is one, two and three, they say, “No, no, you are wrong on that.” But for me, that has been the reality. Firstly, let’s deal with one issue. Where people would say, you know, my belief was that Israel is the extension of the racist, white South Africa. Because that was my understanding before I came here. I regarded Jews as whites. Purely whites. But when I came here I discovered that, no, these guys are not purely whites. They are mixed. It’s some kind of a, shall we say, a melting pot. You’ve got people from all over the world. You’ve got Indian Jews, you’ve got African Jews, and you’ve got even Chinese Jews, right? I began to say to our comrades, “No, Israel is not a white country. Perhaps we would say there are those who came from Poland, who happened to be white-i.e. Ashkenazi their culture still dominates.” For me, that’s how I see it. It’s difficult to say Israel is racist, in a classic sense. I will say a certain culture is dominant over the others – the Ashkenazi culture seems to dominate the systems of authority.
Q: Now, in the occupied territories, what’s your impression of the comparison there between what’s going on, let’s say, in the West Bank and what happened in apartheid South Africa?
Again, you know, you must underline what you are asking. You are saying: “occupied territories.” Which means those territories don’t belong to Israel. For me, that’s very, very critical. We came here pursuing the goal of a two-state solution, right? And the West Bank is going to be part and parcel of that two-state solution for the Palestinians. If I was in the shoes of the Israelis, I would make it easier for the Palestinians to have the foretaste of their Palestinian state by genuinely sharing power with them. Again, without compromising the security of Israel. But at the same time treat them as equal partners, not as second-class citizens. That’s very critical. If you are working with somebody, you don’t do it the way it was done in South Africa. You know, in our townships, you would see a building coming out there: “Bomb-boom-boom-boom.” The community is not involved. And you are told: “This is your community center.” What happens? People are going to vandalize it, because they failed to bring the people on board. And when people buy in, they protect that. If I was in the shoes of the authorities who decide, I would to put [the Palestinians] as equal partners, so that when [the Israelis] move out, there will be a continuity, they will take over and run their own affairs.
Q: There was a quote I asked you about in the Sowetan, where Andrew Molefe quoted you as saying: “The accusations are unfounded. The term ‘apartheid’ is uniquely South African and devalues the struggle of the black population against one of the worst forms of racial oppression known to man.” Do you agree with that quote?
No, you see, that quote is not mine. I’ve traced it. I will tell you the owner of that quote. It’s Malcolm [Hedding], who runs the [International] Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. He’s a South African. That’s from him.
Q: Do you think the two-state solution is still viable, or do you think that something has shifted in the last two months, with Hamas in Gaza?
No, it’s still viable, believe you me. Hence I strongly believe Israel has to move very quickly. Because remember there are those who say it must be “one man, one vote.” And we all know that the major problem of the state of Israel is demographics. If you talk about the state of
Israel, “one man, one vote,” ultimately [means] there will be no state of Israel. Therefore if the Israelis are serious about preserving their state, they have to move very, very quickly. And [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, I think, is doing good work. You can’t keep on saying, you don’t have a partner. They’ve got a partner. Now they’ve realized it, and everybody is supporting Abbas. Which is good.
Q: There’s been some controversy over South Africa’s policies towards other countries in the Middle East, such as the developing relationship with Iran. Do you think that complicates South Africa’s relationship with Israel?
No, it should not. We’ve got our own, independent foreign policy, whose dream is the realization of justice, peace and prosperity for the world. We strongly believe that all this could come about through genuine negotiations rather than isolations or wars. And let me make an example. When we arrived here, the Israelis [said], “You continue to support the Palestinians, and these are terrorists.”
Joel Pollak is a 2L.