• South Africa's ICJ case has ruffled feathers in West
  • Has reinforced standing as champion of Global South
  • Retaliation unlikely in midst of rivalry with China
South Africa's genocide case against Israel may have ruffled feathers in the capitals of vital Western trading partners, but it has boosted the country's standing as a champion of the downtrodden Global South.
That gamble is likely to pay off, thanks to renewed rivalry for Africa's minerals and UN votes between the West, China and Russia, turbocharged by Russia's war on Ukraine.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejected Israel's petition to throw out the case on Friday, telling it to prevent its troops committing genocide against Palestinians, although it stopped short of ordering the ceasefire South Africa demanded.
It did not decide the merits of the genocide allegations, which could take years.
"It was reasonably damning," said Susan Booysen, Director of Research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.
"It was quite unambiguous ... in highlighting the abuses ... so I think it gives them (South Africa) quite a bit of esteem as an international spokesperson for human rights," she added.
And while Israel's allies in Washington, Brussels and London might grumble, they can scarcely afford to alienate Africa's industrial and diplomatic heavyweight - especially with the United States' main superpower rival, China, wooing the continent with money, railways and tech transfers.
"If you're going to start punishing South Africa for going to the International Court of Justice, then you're going to have to start punishing a lot of other African countries (for supporting the Palestinians)," Steven Friedman, director of South Africa's Centre for the Study of Democracy, said.
"If you do that, then you might as well send (Chinese President) Xi Jinping a letter saying 'you've won'."
Underscoring the point, on a visit to Angola on Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said of South Africa's ICJ case, "whether or not we have a disagreement, one particular matter doesn't take away from the important work that we're doing together in so many other areas."
South Africa projects itself as critic of a world order it sees as mainly serving the interests of the United States and its rich-country allies, who promote international norms they enforce on foes but often not on friends nor even on themselves.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa who denounced the rich world for hogging all the vaccines, noted Chris Ogunmodede, analyst and editor of World Politics Review.
South Africa was instrumental in marketing BRICS - the forum led by Brazil, Russia, India, China and itself - as an alternative to Western hegemony, with 40 nations queuing to join last year.
"(The ICJ case) is ... another indication of the important place South Africa seeks to occupy as (one of) the continent's leading voices on global affairs," Ogunmodede said.
Taking a firm stand on the Gaza war - which has displaced some 1.9 million Palestinians, killed at least 26,000, according to Gaza officials, and inspired global outrage - enhanced this aim.
South African officials often compare their erstwhile struggle against white minority rule to the Palestinian cause - a comparison Israel strongly disputes.
That they takes no such unequivocal moral stance on Russia has raised eyebrows. Last year, the government unsuccessfully sought a waiver from its obligation to arrest President Vladamir Putin for alleged war crimes in Ukraine so he could attend a BRICS summit.
"(An) elementary principle of morality is that it can't be selective. South Africa did not do right by the Ukrainian people," author and columnist Ferial Haffajee wrote in the national Daily Maverick this month, but she praised South Africa for picking a first-rate legal team to fight the ICJ case.
South Africans are proud of the strong rule of law that emerged from their anti-apartheid struggle, which often resolves rancorous domestic political disputes.
"Seeing their judges on the bench of the ICJ wearing South African scarves is like watching the Springboks (national rugby team) win the world cup," Chris Vandome, a senior southern Africa researcher at Chatham House, said.
"It's a point of pride."
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