At a Cairo summit to resolve the decades-long crisis between the Israelis and Palestinians, Ramaphosa compared the "ongoing siege of Gaza and the decision to forcibly move the people of Gaza" to apartheid — a period between 1948 and 1994 where racial segregation was backed by law in the southern African nation.
"As South Africans, we can relate to what is happening to Palestinians," Ramaphosa said, adding that "our people waged a brave and courageous struggle to achieve their freedom. And we are subjected to untold suffering. Just like the Palestinians are going through."
Israel has long maintained its need for security in a region it sees as hostile and in favor of Palestinian statehood. Its allies — the West — including the United States and the European Union, have historically supported Israel’s claims, and primarily it efforts to defeat militant groups in the region. Other nations such as Namibia, South Africa, and Amnesty International have called Israel’s policies in Palestinian territories "apartheid."
Ron Halber, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, told VOA Ramaphosa is "misinformed" about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. He described Ramaphosa’s comparison of the conflict to apartheid as "ridiculous."
"The South African white minority was fully oppressive of the black majority and at no time tried to negotiate peace and suppressed (Black South African’s) will within one country," Halber said recalling that "it was a matter within their own country and not an external territory that attacked them previously."
Under South Africa’s apartheid regime, white minorities legalized racial segregation, where non-white South Africans — who represented a majority of the population — were required to live separately from their white counterparts, including the use of public facilities and limiting contact between the racial groups.
In 1994, the adoption of a "constitutional democracy based on non-racialism" ended apartheid after years of resistance.
Halber said the comparison between South Africa’s apartheid and the war between Israel and Hamas has different implications, saying that Israel "seized the Gaza Strip and maintained control over it" after Israel was attacked in 1967. He explained that Israel took Palestinian land in "self-defense," stressing that "the white minority in South Africa (was) guilty of apartheid," but not Israel.
"Hamas has got an underground tunnel system. They take all the money and international aid from Iran, and they go ahead and use it for weapons," Halber said. He said Egypt, which borders the Gaza strip, blockades the enclave because "they are trying to keep the weapons out."
Israeli officials have pledged to ensure Hamas can no longer carry out attacks that threaten Israel following the October 7 attack.
Speaking on the nation’s broadcaster, SABC, Naledi Pandor, minister of South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation department, said on October 14 that she would oppose Israel’s observer status at the African Union following it’s bombardments of Gaza.
"We shouldn't pretend that the people of Palestine are not suffering under the yoke of oppression and occupation. We know this for a fact, the world knows it, but some choose to pretend that this is not the case," she said.
Pandor said "it would be intolerable" that the state of Israel which she described as "an occupying country be given a presence in the African Union." This, she said, "implies that that country is acting in terms of all the values and principles elaborated in the charter of the AU."
The 55-nation bloc called for cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas and urged a return to "the negotiating table" to consider a "two-state" solution to end tensions in the Middle East. However, it did not address Israel’s AU Observer status in a communique issued on October 7.
Halber said the only condition for a cease-fire is for the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, to "unconditionally surrender" to Israel. "There will be no cease-fire, absolutely not. If they (Hamas) surrender, Israel will stop bombing the next day."
Michael Walsh, an adjunct fellow at the Center for African Studies at Howard University in Washington, told VOA it’s imperative to mark a distinction between expressing solidarity for the Palestinian people and support for Hamas when interpreting Ramaphosa’s comments.
"From the South African government perspective, at least, as it’s been conveyed publicly, President (Cyril) Ramaphosa has emphasized solidarity with the Palestinian people," he said. "However, I think that there is a lot of concern about how much more emphasis was given to the siege of Gaza by Israel than the attack by Hamas on Israel by the South African government.”
Among South Africans, some groups feel aggrieved by the fact that the government didn't place more emphasis on the Hamas attack on Israel, especially in the early days after the attack," Walsh added.
Last week Sunday, the South African presidency issued a statement in which Ramaphosa called on the international community to take "more action" to reignite the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"Influential countries like the United States of America have a duty and responsibility to support processes that will deliver a long lasting and durable peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians," the statement said.