Dances With Durban, Tangos With Tutu – Confronting Anti-Israel Media Bias in South Africa

This article was written exclusively for HonestReporting by Rolene Marks, a member of the Media Team Israel, a voluntary body under the auspices of the South African Zionist Federation that counters bias against Israel in the media. Rolene Marks has written numerous published opinion-editorials, addressed groups and has been featured on radio and television countering bias against Israel. 

South Africa’s relationship with Israel has always been tenuous, in fact some might even say schizophrenic. A large part of my work in South Africa was spent working with Media Team Israel – a body under the auspices of the South Africa Zionist Federation. The Team’s mandate is to counter bias in the media, work deemed urgent and important.

In fact, one day a highly influential figure in Israeli media remarked that in his opinion, outside of Middle East Arab media, South Africa has the most hostile anti-Israel media worldwide.

The underlying message to the Jewish community has always been “Your Jewish traditions are welcome, your Zionism is not”. As if the two can be differentiated! This is reflected in the press coverage and editorial policies of major news providers.

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1994 was a landmark year for South Africa. It was the year that the Mandela-led ANC assumed power after the first democratic elections which finally relegated the Apartheid regime to the history books.

It is no secret that the ANC and PLO (which became known as the Palestinian Authority after the Oslo Accords) enjoyed a historical kinship. Both organizations felt they shared a similar identity as liberation movements that prided themselves on resistance.

It was the PLO that offered exiled ANC members asylum during the Apartheid years and it was the newly elected post-Apartheid President Mandela who extended an official invitation to Palestinian Authority President, Yasser Arafat to visit South Africa. It would seem as if the two leaders were the most incongruous bedfellows but this relationship was built on shared loyalty to each other.

In 1975 the United Nations took the historical vote equating Zionism with racism. Although this was repealed, it is still a factor that rears its ugly head in South African media discourse. In 2001, the seaside city of Durban played host to the first UN-sponsored Conference against Racism. Often dubbed “The Jewel in the Crown” by South African Foreign Affairs representatives, “Durban 1” became the springboard to what is now a growing movement dedicated to questioning the legitimacy of the State of Israel.

It must be stressed that even during the heinous Apartheid era, South Africa’s legitimacy as country was never doubted. Needless to say, the press had an absolute field day with events as they unfolded. Durban 1 will forever be known as the conference that put anti-Semitism back firmly on the map and the media had carte blanche to bring readers and listeners the hatred and vitriol that spewed forth on a daily basis. A shell-shocked South African Jewish community realized that something needed to be done – and fast! The Media Team Israel was formed as a result of the growing negative press coverage.

South African Jews have often questioned the disproportionate amount of coverage that Israel receives in the various national media outlets. Why in a continent that is filled with its own fair share of strife, human rights abuse, poverty, hunger and AIDS, do the media focus so much attention on a country so small it fits into the borders of South Africa’s largest animal reserve, the Kruger National Park?

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