In a landmark ruling on Friday, the International Court of Justice ordered that Israel must take action to protect human life in Gaza, siding with South Africa after it accused Israel of committing genocide in the territory — while stopping short of demanding a ceasefire.
South Africa accused Israel of genocide on Dec. 29, three months after a Hamas attack killed 1,200 people and took many more hostage.
Israel responded by launching a war on Hamas in Gaza, which, at the time of the ICJ filing, had killed more than 23,000 people, according to Hamas-run authorities.
The case, which won widespread support across the Global South, represents a step by President Cyril Ramaphosa to reclaim the moral authority South Africa gained after Nelson Mandela became president and then lost during Jacob Zuma’s corruption-tainted decade in power, according to political analysts.
“Some have told us to mind our own business,” Ramaphosa said in remarks after the ruling. “Others have said it was not our place. And yet it is very much our place, as people who know too well the pain of dispossession, discrimination, state-sponsored violence.”
With Ramaphosa’s African National Congress facing the prospect of losing its majority in this year’s elections, the Gaza issue is at the centre of what his party hopes will be his administration’s legacy.
South Africa’s stance against Israel is the latest in a series of outspoken positions Ramaphosa has taken on foreign policy, even as his government has struggled with domestic issues such as a crippling power crisis.
According to Sanusha Naidu, an independent foreign policy analyst, after years of losing its standing in the world order, the ICJ case represents a “moral victory” for South Africa.
“History will remember this as the moment that defines a precedent in international law and a precedent in international relations,” she said.
The case has unified the ANC, which has been divided in recent years, and helped rally the party around Ramaphosa.
The fate of Israel and the Palestinian people is a particularly charged issue in the country, as South Africa’s white supremacist apartheid government was established in 1948, the same year the state of Israel was founded, and the two developed strong economic ties right from the beginning.
The ANC, the black liberation party that in later years would take up arms against the government, recognized a counterpart in the Palestinian cause.
Since the war began on Oct. 7, South African critics of Israel have drawn parallels between the killing of civilians in Gaza and the violence of South Africa’s own apartheid regime.
South Africa’s delegation was led by the youngest minister in Ramaphosa’s cabinet, 40-year-old Ronald Lamola, who delivered the opening speech before the court.
In it, he outlined how the decades-long conflict had escalated, and why urgent intervention was needed.
“The international community has now seen in forensic detail the atrocities of what is happening in the Gaza strip,” Lamola told Bloomberg before the ruling was handed down.
“We believe we have exposed the propaganda by the state of Israel under the guise of hunting for Hamas.”
Israel has denied any intent to commit genocide and characterised the South African case as “absurd blood libel.” It maintains its right to self-defence against Hamas, which is categorised as a terrorist organisation by the EU and US.
Despite mounting international pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained that the war will continue until Hamas is eradicated and all of the hostages have been freed.
According to Sydney Mufamadi, a former security minister under Mandela and now Ramaphosa’s envoy to conflict zones, South Africa’s reckoning with its own dark history has given it a “moral authority” in matters of international law, including Israel’s intervention in Gaza.
After more than four decades of repressive white minority rule, the country negotiated a relatively peaceful transition to democracy in 1994 with the election of Mandela.
His conciliatory approach towards the outgoing regime was credited with averting the kinds of violence then taking place in other former colonial territories.
Partly as a result of this legacy, Mufamadi noted that South Africa has been consistent in its view that warring parties must be open to dialogue.
“We don’t know of a conflict which does not end up at the table,” he said.
At the same time, the ICJ decision is likely to further polarise an increasingly fragmented global order.
Dozens of countries have aligned themselves with South Africa’s bid to bring about a ceasefire in Gaza, while Western nations, including the US, UK, Germany and France, continue to side with Israel.
To many South Africans, the country’s outspoken advocacy on behalf of Palestinians has become a point of national pride.
Sithembile Mbete, a political analyst, characterized the ICJ case as having “cemented” a global reckoning that was already underway.
“The majority of states in the world, judging by the decisions in the UN general assembly,” she said, “support South Africa’s position on this. South Africa is not deviating from the commonly accepted international line.”
Within South Africa, the case has also helped bring together the ANC at perhaps the most challenging moment in its history.
After being propelled to power on a commitment to “a better life for all,” the party’s standing eroded under former President Zuma, who presided over the hollowing out of key state institutions.
Zuma has yet to be indicted for alleged corruption, and friends of the former leader who stand accused of looting an estimated R500 billion from state coffers have been held to account.
As a result of protecting Zuma, the ANC suffered major losses in the last election, though it still retained majority control.
When Ramaphosa, Zuma’s former deputy, took office in 2017, his first task was to address the corruption and malfeasance that had grown under his predecessor.
In recent years, Ramaphosa has tried to position himself as a voice of justice and moral clarity in international affairs.
He lobbied the World Trade Organization to provide broader vaccine access during the COVID-19 pandemic, spearheaded an initiative to help bring an end to Russia’s war with Ukraine and led the charge to expand the BRICS economic bloc by inviting six nations, among them major oil producers, to join.
While these moves have been criticized as political opportunism — or as a way for Ramaphosa to deflect attention from internal politics — they have also increasingly made South Africa the voice of the Global South.
Despite his global ambitions, Ramaphosa will have to rely on envoys as he campaigns for re-election in the coming months.
After 30 years in power, the ANC is more vulnerable than ever, with some polls indicating that the party will lose its majority and be forced either to govern through a coalition or out of power.
Concerns about sluggish economic growth, failing state-owned companies and energy insecurity are top of mind for voters, who are unlikely to reward Ramaphosa’s international efforts so long as their quality of life continues to deteriorate.
Yet inside the party, Ramaphosa’s crusading has won him the support he previously lacked.
“He’s proven to have instincts around this that are much sharper than what he was given credit for,” said Mbete.
“Whatever happens with the election,” she added, “he will have set a good foundation for himself to continue playing an international role.”