By confronting Israel, which it accuses of “genocidal acts” in Gaza, before the highest court of the UN, Thursday January 11, the South African government hopes to emerge on the international scene and gain popularity at home before elections at risk for his party.

In an 84-page petition to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, South Africa urges judges to urgently order Israel to “immediately suspend its military operations” in the Gaza Strip . Pretoria believes that Israel “has engaged, is engaging and risks continuing to engage in acts of genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza.” Comments that Israel called an “absurd blood libel.”

To defend this first case brought by the country before the ICJ, Pretoria is sending “an elite team” of lawyers, underlined Cathleen Powell, professor of international law at the University of Cape Town. Among them, John Dugard, partner at the international law firm Doughty Street Chambers, for which Amal Clooney notably works. Me Dugard was United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories. Also included is Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, who notably worked on the case that landed former president Jacob Zuma in prison.

A delegation led by the Minister of Justice, Ronald Lamola, is also going to The Hague to support the initiative.

” A matter of principle “

Pretoria’s request is motivated by historical and political reasons. The ruling party (African National Congress, ANC) has long supported the Palestinian cause, which it associated with the fight against apartheid. Nelson Mandela had thus affirmed that the freedom of South Africa would be “incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”. President Cyril Ramaphosa said this week that Mandela had inspired action before international justice, and raised a “question of principle”: “The Palestinian people are being bombed, killed (…) We had a duty to stand up and support the Palestinians. »

But the motivations of the South African power are also domestic. For the first time in its history, the ANC risks losing its parliamentary majority during the next elections scheduled between May and August, in a gloomy socio-economic context. The ANC sees in this recourse “a basis for regaining a primacy lost over the last thirty years with governance gradually abandoning its principles,” explains Sara Gon, of the Institute of Race Relations think tank.

South Africa is home to the largest Jewish community in sub-Saharan Africa. But the country has a much larger Muslim population, part of which could view the appeal against Israel favorably.


South Africa could also gain ground on the international scene with its approach, believes Ms. Gon.

A member of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), Pretoria considers this group as a counterweight to the world order dominated by the United States and Europe. And Pretoria actively supported the enlargement of the bloc, in particular to Iran, Israel’s great rival.

Israel vowed to “destroy” Hamas after its attack of unprecedented scale on Israeli soil on October 7 which left around 1,140 dead, mainly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli data. .

Since then, Israeli bombardments have reduced large parts of the Gaza Strip to ruins, and left more than 23,000 people dead, mostly women and minors, according to the Hamas health ministry.

The Gaza Strip’s approximately 2.4 million residents, around 1.9 million of whom have had to flee their homes according to the UN, continue to face a dire humanitarian situation.

The decisions of the ICJ are final and legally binding but it has no power to enforce them.