South Africa’s sports minister Thulas Nxesi has announced that he will boycott matches between his country’s team and Israel as part of the world cup of tennis.
“I would actually have loved to attend the Davis Cup but given the concerns that activists and fellow South Africans are raising regarding the presence of an Israeli team I believe that it would not be proper for me to attend,” Nxesi said in response to an appeal from Palestine solidarity groups.
“I myself have experienced Israeli discrimination and occupation when I was denied entry to Palestine in 2012,” Nxesi wrote in a letter to the groups, among them BDS South Africa, the National Coalition 4 Palestine and South African Jews for a Free Palestine.
Nxesi is among a number of high-profile South Africans who have been barred from entering Israeli-controlled territory because they support Palestinian rights.
In an open letter, Firoz Osman of the the advocacy group Media Review Network, also urged Tennis South Africa to “terminate Israel’s participation in the Davis Cup” matches due to be held on 2-3 February in Pretoria.
“To cancel this Davis Cup fixture with apartheid Israel by South Africa will be an ethical act that will signal to the world that South Africa’s sporting bodies are fully cognizant of the enormity of human rights violations against Palestinians,” Osman wrote.
Tennis South Africa has acknowledged that the “event has evoked a variety of views, from different groups within our society.”
But the sports body insisted that the matches would go ahead on the basis that the tournament, organized by the International Tennis Federation and sponsored by the French bank BNP Paribas, “were founded on the idea of fostering greater understanding among nations through tennis.”
But as activists have pointed out, sports has never been an arena separate from politics, and the sporting boycott of South Africa was a key international tool to help bring pressure to end apartheid.
South Africa was itself excluded for many years from participating in the Davis Cup because of its white supremacist regime.
Last year, a UN-sponsored study was the latest to find that Israel practices apartheid against Palestinians.
World’s only apartheid state
Minister Nxesi’s decision to shun the matches with Israel is another sign that South Africa’s government is becoming less timid about giving practical expression to the broad support in the country for Palestinian rights.
In December, the ruling African National Congress adopted a decision to downgrade South Africa’s diplomatic relations with Israel to the lowest level.
And during a regular review of Israel’s record at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last week, the South African representative Clinton Swemmer asserted that “Israel is the only state in the world that can be called an apartheid state.”
Among the South African diplomat’s recommendations were that Israel “intensify efforts to address racism against Africans in Israel” and “desist from abusing human rights defenders and cease the arbitrary detention of children.”