The African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party, has resolved to “immediately and unconditionally” downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel to a liaison office.
The ANC’s decision on Wednesday evening, announced during its 54th National Conference, came on the eve of a UN General Assembly emergency session where member states resoundingly approved a draft resolution rejecting US President Donald Trump’s move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“[It] sends a clear message to Israel that there is a price to pay for its human rights abuses and violations of international law,” the ANC said in a statement.
“In order to give our practical expression of support to the oppressed people of Palestine, the ANC has unanimously resolved to direct the SA government to immediately and unconditionally downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel to a liaison office.”
Hashem Dajani, Palestine’s ambassador in Pretoria, described the move as “an important decision”.
The Palestinian movement, Hamas, released a statement on Thursday acknowledging ANC members and activists in South Africa’s Palestine solidarity movement “who convinced South Africans that it was the correct moral and ethical decision for their country”.
The activist group, South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP), said: “the downgrade was a practical step towards a just peace”.
In a statement, the organisation said: “This move by the ANC actively applies pressure on Israel’s government to end its violations of international law.”
But Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, said the ANC’s move was not legally binding.
Its implementation at government level was also uncertain, he said.
“There are people who are celebrating as if this is a done deal, when it is nowhere near that,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Until and unless the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) takes this resolution on board, it means nothing.”
DIRCO is South Africa’s foreign ministry.
Friedman said that it was not unusual for the ANC to show support for the Palestinians.
“It doesn’t mean that it will translate into [government] policy,” he said.
DIRCO officials, he added, are known to hold sympathetic views towards Israel.
Separately, the move angered the South African Board of Jewish Deputies and South African Zionist Federation.
“We question the motives behind this discriminatory decision that would effectively prevent South Africa from playing any mediatory role in bringing about peace or dialogue between Israel and Palestine‚” the group said in a statement.
“This downgrade will do nothing for the Palestinian people‚ and have a detrimental effect on South Africans. We further question the motives of organisations and individuals who have managed to ‘capture’ the ANC’s international relations agenda‚ including the BDS.”
Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or BDS, seeks to end the Israeli occupation and dismantle Israel’s illegal wall and settlements, demands full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and calls for the rights of Palestinian refugees to be upheld.
The decision to downgrade the Israeli embassy came at the end of a five-day conference in which the ANC voted for a new leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, who takes over from President Jacob Zuma.
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa