Johannesburg, South Africa – Fatima Seedat has been campaigning for Palestine for two decades. She joined the Palestinian Solidarity Committee in her first year at the University of Witwatersrand.

Now 39, the social worker and counsellor in Johannesburg still occasionally attends pro-Palestine rallies as a member of Healthcare Workers 4 Palestine (HCW4P South Africa), a group that has raised more than 100,000 rand ($5,000) to buy ambulances for Gaza and has held vigils in Cape Town and Johannesburg in solidarity with Palestinians.

HCW4P South Africa has also called for an “end to the targeting of healthcare workers, facilities, ambulances and civilians, including women and children” and “a permanent ceasefire and a diplomatic solution for lasting peace”.

“I’ve always been aware of the atrocities that Palestinians go through on a daily basis,” Seedat said.

But she is insistent that more needs to be done for Gaza. Like millions of protesters around the world who have taken to the streets against Israel’s war on the besieged enclave, Seedat said she had been horrified by the images from the Palestinian territory, where more than 23,000 people, including nearly 10,000 children, have been killed since October 7.

“Israel should be held accountable. They have led people to believe that they are fighting for their safety,” she said. “However, it is them that have continuously violated Palestinians’ basic human rights and right to live in freedom.”

It’s a sentiment that’s widespread in South Africa as the country’s government takes Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on charges of committing genocide against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Pretoria compares the Israeli occupation to apartheid, the white minority rule that was in place in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. Veterans of the apartheid struggle, lawmakers in the ruling Africa National Congress (ANC) and the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) all have supported the case before the ICJ, which began hearing arguments on Thursday in The Hague.

And it’s not just South Africans who grew up under apartheid who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Sthabile Mthethwa, who says he was unaware of the conflict between Israel and Palestine before the war broke out on October 7, believes the killing of innocent children has to stop.

“If people have been killed deliberately, then, yes, they’ve committed genocide,” says the 31-year-old, who teaches isiZulu in Dainfern, just outside Johannesburg.

‘Caught in the crossfire’

In its 84-page filing pinned on the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention, South Africa says Israel violated the convention by indiscriminately killing civilians.

The case lists the killing of Palestinians in Gaza in large numbers, especially children; the destruction of their homes; their expulsion and displacement; and a blockade on food, water and medical assistance to the strip as acts of genocide. It also includes the destruction of essential health services crucial for the survival of pregnant women and babies as further crimes of genocide against Israel.

Israel denies the allegations of genocide and says it launched the bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza to destroy Hamas, which killed 1,139 people in attacks on October 7 in southern Israel.

To be sure, there is a minority view in South Africa— mostly among the small white community — that is more sympathetic to Israel. “The comparison to South African apartheid is fully embraced by some but rejected by others,” said 28-year-old Mark du Plessis, a Cape Town-based multimedia producer who requested that his real name be withheld in South Africa’s charged atmosphere over the war. “Complicating the issue severely is the traumatic memory of the Holocaust, the persecution of Jewish people, which gets conflated with Israel the state, which today is undertaking abominable actions, supported by the US.

“Both Israel and Hamas are at fault with the Palestinian people caught up in the crossfire.”

A view of an apartment building painted in the colours of the Palestinian flag, in the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood of Cape Town
A view of an apartment building painted in the colours of the Palestinian flag, in the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood of Cape Town, South Africa, on January 11, 2024 [Nardus Engelbrecht/AP Photo]

Why has a case been filed now?

As the case begins, there are also questions about South Africa’s true intentions for pursuing it.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has been under a lot of domestic pressure ahead of this year’s elections with the 108-year-old ANC at a historic low point. Support for the party has fallen due to corruption within its ranks and a failure to address poverty, massive power cuts and the soaring cost of living.

This led to former President Thabo Mbeki predicting two years ago that Arab Spring-like protests could happen at any time.

In parts of South Africa, some people have said Ramaphosa’s hardline stance on Israel is part of the ANC’s strategy to shore up its support in time for the general election as the EFF and main opposition Democratic Alliance close in.

Dale McKinley, spokesperson for the advocacy group Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia, supports the case but is suspicious of South Africa’s motivations at this time, seeing as the country has taken a controversial non-aligned stance on the Russia-Ukraine war.

McKinley believes South Africa had the chance to act similarly with the ongoing killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the war in Syria.

But human rights lawyer Nkanyiso Ngqulunga believes the ANC-led South African government has been consistent in its position on Palestine.

“South Africa’s foreign policy position since the [Nelson] Mandela presidency has often been on the side of Palestinians against occupation, settler colonialism, indiscriminate bombing and genocide against Palestinians in their territories,” the 29-year-old told Al Jazeera.

He is optimistic about South Africa’s chances at the ICJ and says a ruling against Israel would expose the double standard of its allies like the United States – which is yet to back calls for a ceasefire – on human rights.

For Palestine supporters in South Africa, the case is long overdue, and they are eagerly awaiting the court’s decision.

Seedat said that after 75 years of Palestinian struggle and silence from the global community, the South African government is doing the right thing.

“For the first time, the world has finally seen the truth,” she said.

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