News | Southern Africa - War in Israel/Palestine An “Escalation of Alienation”

Henning Melber on South Africa’s ICJ lawsuit against Israel and its significance for African states


A portrait of Henning Melber from The Nordic Africa Institute.
Photo: The Nordic Africa Institute

In late December 2023, South Africa filed a lawsuit against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In the urgent filing, the African country accused Israel of genocide against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and demanded an immediate end to all military operations. On 26 January 2024, South Africa’s injunction was partially granted, including the command that Israel must take measures to prevent genocide. That said, the country was not asked to stop the war against Hamas.

Henning Melber is a Fellow at the Nordic Africa Institute, and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State in South Africa.

The ICJ rejected a further request by South Africa to investigate the attack on Rafah in mid-January, but emphasized that Israel is still obliged to protect the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. While the majority of commentators focus on the rulings and the interests of the plaintiffs, the actions of African countries and the impact on the German–Namibian relationship are often ignored.

Andreas Bohne, Head of the Africa Unit at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Centre for International Cooperation, spoke to the German-Namibian political scientist Henning Melber about the motivations behind South Africa’s move, how recent global shifts are affecting African states, and what this newfound self-confidence could mean for relations between the Global South and North.

To begin with, a general but comprehensive question: What is your assessment of South Africa's lawsuit and the ICJ's decision?

I consider the lawsuit to be a very relevant matter in terms of international law and I am grateful that South Africa has taken this initiative, especially in the absence of relevant initiatives, which I would have hoped for from Western countries, but which continue to act with their blinkered mentality as if nothing is happening in Gaza that violates the United Nations Charter. This actually reveals a general challenge to the international system and international law: namely, that it is very often only perceived and applied selectively.

The fact that South Africa, like Gambia against Myanmar, is now bringing a case against Israel — i.e. not a state of the “classic Global North” — before the ICJ is something I very much welcome. Ultimately, it will show, among other things, to what extent international law is still relevant. In this context, I find the ICJ’s preliminary ruling that Israel’s conduct of the war could take the form of genocide important, not only diplomatically but also in terms of its sensitivity. We will see what the ICJ decides after the four-week period has expired and Israel has to comment on the conditions and then South Africa will comment on them.

There are currently further hearings in the court, and if, for example, the pleading of the renowned international law expert Philippe Sands is followed, it becomes clear that Israel has been constantly providing evidence since the first hearing that this claim is justified.

Why do you think South Africa is moving forward — an internalized sense of injustice due to the experience of apartheid, the ANC’s domestic political calculations in view of the upcoming elections, or foreign policy interests as an African heavyweight?

I believe the clearly overriding reason is the solidarity of the South African government and thus also of the ANC with the struggle for the right of self-determination of the people of Palestine. The history of the PLO and ANC goes back to the 1960s and 1970s — before the times of Hamas. Nelson Mandela travelled to Palestine shortly after taking office as president and met with Yasser Arafat.

There are so many similarities. On the one hand, the feeling of being an occupied country, because South Africa was ruled by a white minority regime until 1994. On the other hand, there is the parallel of a perceived apartheid. And even if this term is still vehemently or even indignantly rejected by many in the West, there is now sufficient evidence that Israeli policy can be classified as a form of institutionalized discrimination against a population group, just as Western institutions and Jewish agencies do.

In my opinion, these components were absolutely decisive. Neither domestic nor foreign policy calculations played even a remotely similar role. It was in fact a question of empathy, of compassion, of solidarity with what the people in Gaza have to endure and experience.

In the context of the recent wars in Ukraine and Gaza, but not only there, the word “double standards” is used again and again. Are double standards unfortunately part of the political business of asserting one’s own interests? In your view, does the complaint therefore correspond to a political calculation, but does it enable a more neutral, because legal, assessment?

As mentioned, I cannot recognize any distinct political calculation in the complaint, unless one takes as political calculation what South Africa is now saying: “We will no longer allow the West to dictate to us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable under international law.” It can only be interpreted as a political calculation that South Africa is profiling itself as a representative of a human rights policy in terms of foreign policy.

In relation to other cases, however, it does not correspond to this behaviour, such as the reluctance to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and also the abstention regarding the oppression of the Uyghurs in the People’s Republic of China. This makes it clear that double standards are by no means just a privilege of Western countries, such as the actions of Western powers in Syria or ignoring the war in Sudan. Double standards are a global phenomenon and one could soberly state that there are always double standards in international politics. But the extent of double standards that the world is confronted with today is new, in my perception.

I see the lawsuit as an expression of a new self-confidence in playing an active role.

I believe that the South African initiative also had at least a solidarity effect, for example on the part of Algeria or, above all, Namibia, which declared itself as a third party for South Africa, in contrast to Germany, and submitted a statement to the ICJ on 23 February. Brazilian President Lula has also taken a very clear position with his statement.

There are also contradictions in the Western camp when Ireland provides an additional 20 million euro in response to the withdrawal of funding to the aid organization UNRWA. So, there are also different positions within the EU bloc as to what international law is and what normative values are. Here, we see that the dividing line in the current assessment does not run between North and South, nor in this case between top and bottom, i.e. from a class-specific perspective.

With the start of the war in Ukraine, there was talk of alienation between the Global North and the Global South, particularly due to the abstention and dissenting votes of African countries in the UN General Assembly. Now this “alienation” did not come out of the blue, as is often propagated, but is a longer process. Do you see a similar “alienation” in the assessment of the Israel-Gaza war?

First of all, I would place the concept of alienation in historical context. Since the eras of the slave trade and colonialism, the North–South relationship has been alienated by asymmetrical power relations. People in the so-called Global South did not voluntarily allow themselves to be subjugated and exploited. The global political power constellations, particularly as a result of the Cold War, led the newly independent states that were sovereign under international law to position themselves as pro-Western, pro-Soviet, or non-aligned. But even that was still an alienated, pragmatic relationship.

So, alienation has always existed, but it was intensified by the deepening of global power rivalries. Ukraine has become an important new point of reference, nut it has been significantly exacerbated by what has happened in Israel and Gaza since 7 October 2023, when Hamas carried out its horrific act of terror in which over 1,000 people were brutally murdered. We are seeing an escalation of the alienation that was always there.

It strikes me as exaggerated to speak of a dichotomous bloc formation, because neither the Global South nor the North is monolithic in its evaluation — politically and socially, as you indicated. Can the complaint be interpreted as a sign of the increased global importance of African countries in particular, but not as a global shift in power?

In my opinion, there are two aspects that come into play here. One is the positioning of each individual country according to basic normative values, and here there are also considerable differences within the Global South. This is not a homogeneous mass and the non-aligned states are not a homogeneous alliance, either. The voting behaviour on individual issues in the United Nations documents this time and time again.

One prominent example is that for the countries of the so-called Global South in particular, with their colonial and decolonial history, sovereignty under international law and territorial integrity are virtually sacrosanct. Regardless of these principles, some of which are also at the forefront of constitutions, the Russian invasion was not necessarily condemned.

The reaction in Namibia to the German position illustrates how deeply Namibian feelings have been hurt. It is another example of how the former colonizers cannot sufficiently respect and empathize with the views of the formerly colonized.

Yes, I see the lawsuit as an expression of a new self-confidence in playing an active role. There are recognizable signs of global political shifts. To what extent these will prevail is an open question for me, as many countries continue to rely on strong economic ties with the US, Japan, and the EU. That will be used as leverage as the growing number of votes in the US House of Representatives and Senate call for South Africa to be removed from the list of African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) countries, which would mean the loss of subsidized access to the US market. It would be fatal for the South African economy, as it is estimated that the consequences would be an approximate 10 percent drop in annual economic output.

Coming back to “double standards”, “alienation”, and “monolithic blocs”, solidarity with the Palestinians is very pronounced in Africa as a result of past anti-colonial and anti-imperial experiences. Nevertheless, 44 out of 54 African countries have recognized Israel’s statehood, and Israel has observer status in the African Union (AU). Could the AU have a mediating effect based on its own past and present? At the recent AU summit in February, it harshly criticized Israel’s conduct.

The AU was about to withdraw that observer status at its annual summit. Concerted action by the Israeli government, including through its embassies in AU countries, prevented this at the last minute. Nevertheless, it is an important development.

The AU was ready for such a consequence, despite the varying extent of its relations with Israel — after all, several African countries maintain security cooperation. Nevertheless, should the AU still take this decision due to the campaigns of pro-Palestinian African groups, it will not move beyond that. It has also not taken action vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine — the “African initiative” was an initiative of four or five countries.

Namibia, the former colony of German South West Africa, is particularly opposed to Germany’s intervention at the ICJ in support of Israel. Recently deceased Namibian President Hage Geingob harshly criticized the German position. He received support from representatives of the Ovaherero and Nama, who had previously criticized Geingob’s conduct of the negotiations and their own exclusion from them. In your view, what effects do the ICJ complaint, Germany’s position, and the addendum to the 2021 German-Namibian reconciliation agreement or “joint declaration”, which has not yet been confirmed, have?

Germany’s stance on Israel has snubbed the Namibian government and provoked Geingob’s one could almost say undiplomatic angry outburst. What he disseminated via X as an official statement was anything but a well-intentioned rebuff. It shows the personal hurt that many in the country share. Geingob has received support across the board, including from Ovaherero and Nama communities who strongly criticized the Namibian government for its exclusion from these bilateral negotiations.

However, they also used it to demand that Namibia take Germany to the ICJ over genocide in the German colony of South West Africa. I am not a lawyer, but my first reaction was that the ICJ would not declare itself responsible. International lawyers or legal experts might disagree. Nevertheless, the reaction in Namibia to the German position illustrates how deeply Namibian feelings have been hurt. It is another example of how the former colonizers cannot sufficiently respect and empathize with the views of the formerly colonized.

As for the agreement, Nangolo Mbumba, the new caretaker president until 21 March 2025, was the vice president in charge of overseeing the bilateral talks. At the end of 2022, he himself criticized the inadequate outcome negotiated at that point. He also tried in vain to include the Ovaherero and Nama in the talks.

Whether the latest developments will make it more difficult or impossible to reach an agreement can hardly be predicted at the moment. The question that cannot yet be answered is whether Nangolo Mbumba has learned from the experience of the bilateral negotiations. My hope is that, under the current circumstances, he sees an opportunity to open a new chapter and call for new negotiations in which the Herero and the Nama sit at the negotiating table.