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The Washington-Pretoria-Tel Aviv relay 0

Many observers have been quick to argue that the recent US-Africa summit was meant to deepen America’s involvement in Africa at a time when China is fast expanding its presence on the continent. That may well be so, but it is also not unlikely that the US could work with China and other nations for mutual exploitation of Africa.

What, ultimately, was the importance of the Africa-US Leaders Summit at the White House early last month? It came at a very decisive moment for geopolitical relations in the axis linking Washington, Pretoria and Tel Aviv. And surprising US-China economic connections were also revealed, potentially reaching deep into Africa. Mega-corporations of both US and African parentage revelled in the attention and repeated blasts of public subsidies, with deals alleged to have reached $37 billion over the three days.

We may never know the backroom Faustian Pacts done by African elites with these firms, but what public signals were sent? How dangerous is it that President Jacob Zuma is welcoming US military and corporate institutions back to Africa with open arms, as the continent’s aspirant gatekeeper?

The Palestine test

First, Middle East turmoil is now, to use a word we must regrettably return to, paramount. Iraq, Libya and Syria remain profoundly unstable. But in Gaza, where ‘incremental genocide’ is underway, according to Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, world concern is most urgent. During Israel’s escalating war against Palestine, even United Nations leader Ban Ki-Moon – formerly a behind-the-scenes supporter of Gaza bombing – bemoaned the ‘criminal’ brutality of Tel Aviv’s indiscriminate attacks, as UN schools were periodically demolished. US president Barack Obama, meanwhile, restocked the ammunition so the Israelis could reload. More than 2000 people have died in the latest attacks.

What did we learn at the frontline of Palestine solidarity, South Africa? On the one hand, many were surprised and appalled by the August 3 outpouring of support for the war by around 10 000 Israeli supporters, including leaders of two (marginal) black political parties and a major black evangelical church. Called by the hard-line South African Zionist Federation at the Huddle Park golf course in eastern Johannesburg, the backslapping rally occurred just as Israel was bombing more UN schools, but no sign of humility was displayed. A similar rally in Cape Town a week later attracted 4000.

South African Zionists exhibit breath-taking chutzpah. Those gathered at Huddle Park were amongst the main economic beneficiaries of apartheid (you can tell this by skin colour), and also of post-apartheid neoliberal economic policies whose historically unprecedented high interest rates and liberalised exchange controls reward those already wealthy.

Yet the same people feel beleaguered on the cultural front, with many experiences in mainstream society leaving Zionists alienated and exasperated. Bruises to the South African Zionist ego have been found during the annual ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ events, in current controversies over Israeli products for sale at upscale supermarket Woolworths, especially the Sodastream water carbonator scandalised by Scarlett Johansson, and academic boycotts of Israel that have raised tensions at major tertiary institutions since 2011.

The same week that Zionists waved the flag in Johannesburg, one of Israel’s most celebrated intellectuals, Pappé, made the round of major South African universities and community halls. The majority-Muslim audiences gave Pappé standing ovations after not only a dissection of the ‘incremental genocide’ now underway and account of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine over the last century, but even his insistence on the need for a ‘one-state solution’ narrative to emerge.

When Pappé shared a stage with the higher education minister Blade Nzimande, the University of Johannesburg crowd roared for Pretoria to do more in solidarity with Palestine. Showing that academic boycotts are institutional and not personal, Pappé’s tour added more angst to the Zionists’ laager mentality. But what makes the battle over solidarities much more acute was that 30 000 Durban residents protested very forcefully against Israel (July 25) and 100 000+ then came out in Cape Town (August 9).

As society polarises, it is often the function of weak rulers to make soothing sounds so as to maintain status quo relations, and Zuma did not fail. After increasingly vocal calls for Zuma to cut diplomatic and business relations with Israel, as Latin American countries are doing, he openly announced there would be no expulsion of its ambassador, Arthur Lenk, to a standing ovation at a Washington press conference. South African Zionists were also delighted by Pretoria’s blind eye to the Gaza massacres, as Democratic Alliance MP Darren Bergman crowed to the ultra-Zionist SA journalist Ant Katz: ‘at a time like this it was not right to apportion blame to anyone but to rather seek a quick and lasting solution. Give that man a Bells’ (sic).

This came on the heels of Zuma’s implicit rejection of the February 2014 Cape Town Declaration, which demanded a variety of SA-Israeli links be broken. It was supported by most political parties, including the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and as a result, Katz reported of Zuma, ‘The pressure they have been under to act (against Israel) has been enormous. The President chose to change the direction, appoint a top ambassador to Israel and encourage growth in trade,’ citing a foreign policy source.

One source of counter-pressure could well be Ivor Ichikowitz of the Paramount Group, Africa’s most aggressive arms-dealing entrepreneur. The proximity he enjoys is impressive, perhaps because of deals – including the fabled Iraqi food for oil scandal – with ANC fundraisers like Sandi Majali, and his own millions in contributions to the ruling party. For example, in 2008, Ichikowitz provided Zuma with free flights to Lebanon and Kazakhstan where interesting ‘business meetings’ were held, and again in 2011 to Washington. Before the 2009 election, Ichikowitz flew an ailing Nelson Mandela from Johannesburg to Mthatha airport for the ruling party’s political gain, ‘unleashing a furore over whether the ANC had jeopardised his health and disregarded his strict travel protocol.’ More recently, his air-chauffeur role again courted controversy, even in Israel, because he gave Ambassador Lenk and his family a free flight and weekend holiday at his Madikwe Game Reserve lodge.

‘We will not supply countries that have a bad human rights record,’ Ichikowitz claimed to a Sunday Business Times reporter in 2013, because ‘the South African government would not allow us to supply countries that would be inappropriate.’ Pretoria’s arms sales oversight is, in fact, notorious, most spectacularly just before the 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq on false premises, when Denel supplied the Western belligerents with ammunition shell-casing, artillery propellants, and laser range finders. According to a 2013 Amnesty International complaint, the Arms Control Committee led by Minister Jeff Radebe ‘authorised conventional arms sales to governments without the required scrutiny,’ even following a 2010 scandal in which the Auditor General slated 58 dubious arms deals between involving South Africans, including with rights-violating regimes in Sudan, Gabon, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Algeria, Egypt and the Central African Republic.

In 2005, the Defense Department accused Ichikowitz’s firms of ‘violating arms control rules in exports to several countries, including Angola and Ghana,’ bribing at least one army colonel in the process. Two years later, he was involved in what the Sunday Times termed ‘a mining venture in the war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with the Makabuza family, whose members have been accused of illegal arms trading and funding a rebel group charged with war crimes.’

This year, Ichikowitz made the news for allegedly corrupting the Malawian government with transport and also supplying the vicious Brazilian police with weapons to use in its clampdown on the favelas before this year’s World Cup, featuring extra-judicial killings and mass displacements. He began his career working with Rwanda’s authoritarian ruler Paul Kagame (allegedly responsible for many of the five million deaths in neighbouring DRC), and praises Equatorial Guinea’s hated dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo as well as the late DRC dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, whom he called ‘a strong, powerful leader loved by many of his people.’

This man is a dangerous asset for Pretoria to wield in a context of extreme internecine competition over markets – including military equipment – between South Africa, China, the European Union and the US. Ichikowitz apparently understands the need to buff his image, through his family foundation’s new film publicising a French commodities trader who had a minor role in anti-apartheid deal-making during the late 1980s, through sponsoring a book about Jewish anti-apartheid heroes, and in the press.

With this kind of public relations concern, stretching to hiring professional sock-puppets to edit his Wikipedia entry, we should follow Ichikowitz’s moves more closely. For example, on August 13 he reported back from Washington to Johannesburg Star newspaper readers on the main editorial page, ‘The primary challenge as I see it for the US will be to overcome the reputational damage caused by the infamous mantra of the ‘regime change’ approach in years past. This bellicose security and defence issue remains a major concern to African emerging market actors.’

He is speaking of himself, for Ichikowitz is attempting to have US aid and International Monetary Fund rules relaxed so that he can do much bigger arms deals with African tyrants. Ichikowitz claims that these elites have ‘no capacity to be able to afford the solutions they require because of limitations imposed by the international community on how they use their budget.’ (Making the same case in the US last month, Ichikowitz faced ridicule in at least one major periodical, but in South Africa, ownership of The Star by ANC ally Iqbal Survé appears to lower the vigilance level.)

At the same time, two other Israelis are in the news for their controversial extractive industry activities. Commodities czar Dan Gertler – according to Forbes, worth $2.6 billion – has found massive oil reserves in the DRC, working in collaboration with Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse, whose prior extractive industry accomplishments are not impressive. Both are very close to DRC authoritarian leader Joseph Kabila, which Global Witness suggests ‘raises further corruption concerns.’

Yaron Yamin is the second: a Bulawayo-based magnate who arrived in Zimbabwe with no english skills and no money, but with a controversial fundamentalist Israeli religious connection – Rabbi Eliezer Berland – whom he now funds with half his proceeds, even arranging a Lear jet shopping trip for Johannesburg essentials every week. Last December, Yamin announced he would do business with Zimbabwe’s corrupt military and mining elite in the Marange diamond fields, well known as the source of the country’s tragic Resource Curse, including several hundred murders of resident informal-sector diggers by the army in 2008.

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By Patrick Bond

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Direttore Responsabile Giuseppe Frangi