South Africa is another African nation where Iran’s Islamic Revolution has had a lasting impact. Although Muslims account for only about 2% of South Africa’s population, its Muslim community drew inspiration in the 1950s from the burgeoning of Islamism in Pakistan and Egypt, and teachers and professionals began calling for an Islamic Revival. The 1979 Islamic Revolution, a seminal turning point in the trajectory of global Islamism, provided the impetus for the creation of the Qibla mass movement, “an anti-apartheid movement inspired by the universal egalitarian message of the Islamic revolution in Iran.”
Qibla was formed in 1980 in Cape Town by a radical cleric, Imam Ahmed Cassiem, with the goal of overthrowing South Africa’s apartheid regime and replacing it with a theocratic Islamic state based on Khomeinist principles. Operating under the slogan “one solution, Islamic Revolution,” Qibla is reportedly “manipulated from a safe distance by the Iranian intelligence services, which use the organization not only to propagate the world view of the Islamic Republic, but also as a cover to conduct espionage in RSA (Republic of South Africa).” Qibla has a history of militant activity, and was labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State. The organization reportedly dispatched members to Libya and Pakistan for military training in the 1980s and 1990s, and has sent fighters to South Lebanon to fight alongside Hezbollah in the 1990s.
In addition to Qibla, Imam Cassiem serves as the head of the Islamic Unity Convention (IUC), an umbrella organization comprised of 250 Muslim organizations which essentially acts as a front for Qibla and advocates for Islamic unity “as a precursor for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution” in South Africa. The IUC controls a radio station, Radio 786, which broadcasts Cassiem’s radical ideology and “classical anti-Semitic themes” to purportedly over 100,000 listeners.
The legacy of Qibla and its Iranian backers’ opposition to apartheid has contributed to strong South African-Iranian bilateral ties since the African National Congress (ANC) assumed power in 1994, particularly in international diplomatic fora. As a voting member of the IAEA Board of Governors and as a sitting member of the U.N. Security Council during the 2007-08 and 2010-11 terms, South Africa opposed sanctions on Iran over its illicit nuclear program. South Africa is also one of the most powerful members of the African Union, and acts as a strong advocate within the AU for closer Iran ties. This has placed it at odds with the consensus in the AU, where Saudi Arabia wields considerable influence over other key members.
In May 2022, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that Iran “does not place any restrictions on relations with South Africa.” At the same time, Iran has sought to bring its terrorist partners and proxies into closer relations with the ANC. While the ANC has a long history of cooperating with the Fatah faction in the West Bank, it more recently sought to improve ties with Hamas, the terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip. The grandson of Nelson Mandela is a prominent anti-Israel voice in South Africa. Mandla Mandela, a member of the ANC who was voted into parliament in 2009, was awarded the Islamic Human Rights Award in Tehran in August 2022, and he has been an influential figure in the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Mandla has become a poster child for the BDS movement, issuing calls for global solidarity against Israel.
The ANC has provided a permissive environment for Iranian ideological influence as well as Iranian operatives intent on doing harm to U.S. and Israeli interests. Indeed, popularizing a pro-Tehran narrative in the country, consistent with anti-American and anti-Israel views, is an important part of Iran’s operational aims. Iran’s cultural and educational programs lay the groundwork for Iranian state-sponsored terrorism. Under cover of these programs, Iranian operatives are permitted to retain a presence in the country and recruit locals. The Iranian embassy also provides cover for such personnel. In 2020, reports emerged that the IRGC’s Quds Force was planning to assassinate the former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, in retaliation for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Africa has proved to be a fertile ground for the spread of Khomeinist ideology. According to a Wall Street Journal report, “parts of the continent’s Sunni Muslim heartland are living through the biggest wave of Sunni-to-Shiite conversions since many Sunni tribes of southern Iraq adopted Shiism in the 19th century.” However, as the Middle East has become increasingly engulfed in sectarian tensions due in large part to Iranian support for terrorism and meddling in neighboring countries, Iran’s presence in Africa—and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah’s as well—has engendered a backlash by governments opposed to Iranian subversion.
Morocco, for instance, severed its diplomatic ties with Iran in 2009, accusing it of seeking “to change the religious foundations of the Kingdom" and of "intolerable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom." Morocco and Iran restored diplomatic relations in 2014, only to sever them again in 2018, as the Moroccan government accused Iran of supporting the Polisario Front insurgency through Hezbollah. Gambia cut off ties with Iran in 2010 following the foiled attempt to smuggle sophisticated arms to anti-Senegalese rebels operating in its territory. Sudan, which had developed a strategic partnership with Iran on the shared basis of withstanding international isolation campaigns, broke off ties in 2016 at Saudi Arabia’s directive after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the Kingdom’s execution of a radical Shi’a cleric. Somalia, Djibouti, and Comoros also sided with Riyadh in the dispute and cut off ties to Iran as well.
Saudi Arabia’s challenge to Iranian expansionism in Africa extends beyond the realm of diplomacy and bilateral relations. Wary of Iran’s growing influence, donors from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai and Kuwait have begun funneling investments into Africa to establish educational, cultural, and religious institutions meant to propagate their conservative brand of Salafism. The contestation for religious and cultural influence in Africa between Khomeinism and Salafism risks devolving in certain hotspots into a microcosm of the sectarian strife plaguing the Middle East at present.