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25 July 2014 17:52 (South Africa)
South Africa

The real world of NED and Freedom House

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa
Brooks-on-NED-and-Freedom-House.jpg

In the past several days, an extraordinary affidavit has been widely circulated that purports to be a dossier of emails, SMSs and transcripts depicting a cabal attempting to destabilize ANC leadership. Among others, the conspirators are supposed to have included now-suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, several Constitutional Court justices, a clutch of exiled Rwandan army officers, the American-based and partially US government-supported National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House (an American NGO), social and political columnists and consultants like Justice Malala, Mamphela Ramphele and her new political party Agang and even Julius Malema and his red beret-wearing Economic Freedom Front. At least this exotic grouping does seem to have left out the Illuminati, Ming the Merciless, Moriarty and Lex Luthor. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a swipe at the web of supposed influence to see if he can find out something more reasonable about the NED and Freedom House.

Even without Luthor, Ming and Moriarty, it must have been one heck of an organizational meeting. On the face, such a conspiracy seems too ridiculous for words. Indeed, various people have lined up to rubbish it publicly, including some of its putative participants. The fact that it’s been brought up at all taps into a deep-seated urge to find a universal explanation – one of those those “Ah ha - that explains everything” moments. But let’s back up a minute and ask a few questions. What exactly are Freedom House and the NED? Are they the kind of bodies that would be meeting secretly to plot the overthrow of the Zuma administration? Why should they be the “logical” candidates for the glue holding together and funding an all-encompassing political conspiracy threatening the foundation of the republic?

In summary, the supposed affidavit assert that Constitutional Court justices are in the pay of the NED, with secret payments made to off-shore accounts in the Cayman Islands. Furthermore, there is a Rwandan general setting up secret military bases in South Africa and recruiting a mercenary army from South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. This would be a joint operation between Africans and the US, with the NED helping fund the covert project and Zwelinzima Vavi was supposed to become a member of an Agang advisory board. The affidavit further asserts that the NED is to fund that board to the tune of R500-million (something like half the NED’s entire annual appropriation from the US government) and that the NED secretly worked with the legal team that prosecuted Jacob Zuma. The organization is also accused of involvement in Marikana, service delivery protests and xenophobic violence. If we were to believe all this, these people would have been very busy over the past several years, in addition to their respective day jobs.

Back on Earth, let’s start with a look at the NED. It was established during the Cold War as a key tool in the American arsenal to help undermine Soviet hegemony of Eastern Europe and to democratize the Soviet states. Rather than using the threat of nuclear missiles, the NED sought to draw on the power of ideas and the impact of what happens when a nation’s public space is prised opened up to increasingly free debate (what we now call “soft power”).

A key argument for its founding as a separate body was that the State Department, USAID (the foreign aid agency) and USIS (the information and culture arm of US diplomacy) were simply not supple enough to wage such a changeable, shifting crusade for democracy and human rights. In fact, even before the NED had come into existence, an interest in America’s promotion of human rights internationally had already intensified during the Carter presidency, when human rights became a key component of American foreign policy. Further, in the late 1970s, America became increasingly committed to monitoring the Helsinki accords, especially the “basket” of policies dealing with human rights. As policy makers considered such questions, they began to look more closely at the record of German political party foundations and saw them as models for a tool to enhance democratic principles. They became an impetus for the concept of the NED.

In a 1982 speech to the British Parliament, President Ronald Reagan proposed an institution “to foster the infrastructure of democracy – the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities – which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” That speech became a key element in establishment of the NED.

Its first and so far only head, Carl Gershman, seems to have drawn his inspirations from a variety of sources. They include the politically conscious theology of Reinhold Neibuhr melded with more traditional human rights concerns about what was happening behind the Iron Curtain as seen by the AFL-CIO (the national American labour federation). In addition there was Gershman’s own background in the American social democratic tradition, and even an element of the harder-edged neo-conservatism of the writers who collected around Commentary Magazine. From all these view came the idea that the threat of communism could best be thwarted through the power of ideas supportive of freedom and democracy for people around the world.

Deep in the background of such thinking was knowledge of American support in the 19th century for European revolutionaries like Louis Kossuth and Garibaldi, as well as the recent and rather awkward covert intelligence funding for a number of presumably independent organizations supporting democratic ideals in wobbling regimes in several Western European nations in the aftermath of World War II. As the Soviet Union collapsed and its hegemony across Eastern Europe dissolved, the NED’s attention increasingly expanded to include supporting democratic movements in authoritarian societies throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America.

NED’s website describes its current mission: “Since its founding in 1983, the Endowment has remained on the leading edge of democratic struggles everywhere, while evolving into a multifaceted institution that is a hub of activity, resources and intellectual exchange for activists, practitioners and scholars of democracy the world over…. [The] NED is dedicated to fostering the growth of a wide range of democratic institutions abroad, including political parties, trade unions, free markets and business organizations, as well as the many elements of a vibrant civil society that ensure human rights, an independent media, and the rule of law.” Although initially funded entirely by the US government and established by an act of Congress, NED’s authorizing legislation was explicit about its non-governmental status, stating, “Nothing in this title shall be construed to make the Endowment an agency or establishment of the United States Government.”

The NED has explained its mission more fully, saying the grant and training support it supplies “sends an important message of solidarity to many democrats who are working for freedom and human rights, often in obscurity and isolation. The Endowment is guided by the belief that freedom is a universal human aspiration that can be realized through the development of democratic institutions, procedures, and values. Democracy cannot be achieved through a single election and need not be based upon the model of the United States or any other particular country. Rather, it evolves according to the needs and traditions of diverse political cultures. By supporting this process, the Endowment helps strengthen the bond between indigenous democratic movements abroad and the people of the United States – a bond based on a common commitment to representative government and freedom as a way of life.”

Technically speaking, because the NED is not an arm of the US Government, in order to ensure continuing congressional support, it was designed to support several sub-groups that would evaluate proposals and then disburse the money or training funded by the grants. These four independent bodies are the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) with close connection to business organizations, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) tied to the Democratic Party, the International Republican Institute (IRI) tied to the Republican Party, and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, closely connected to the AFL-CIO.

The NED ends up distributing about a thousand grants to non-governmental groups around the world in nearly a hundred nations. Information about the organization’s grants and activities is definitely not secret and can be freely searched on the website. Its programs are subjected to multiple layers of oversight from Congress, the Department of State and the requisite financial audits. A recent review noted that the NED now raises about $0.65 from non-government sources for each $1.00 it receives from its annual Congressional appropriation.

South Africans can recall that the NED made serious contributions to South Africa’s transition to non-racial democracy in the early 1990s. Grants supported voter and democracy education programs as well as training to the various parties contesting that first election to help them improve institutional skills in electorate canvassing, party organization, voter outreach, media relations, creation of party platforms and all the other skills of contemporary electioneering.

According to the organization’s website, there are now two current grants dealing with South Africa. One is via the International Republican Institute for $100,000 “[t]o promote a pluralist public dialogue on policy solutions for issues facing South Africa on the national, provincial and local levels, as well as to foster demand for improved democratic governance on the local level through the efforts of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR).” The second comes through the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in the amount of $380,000 in which the “NDI seeks to strengthen parties’ awareness of strategies to increase women’s participation and promote dialogue about women’s service delivery needs.” (There didn’t appear to be any grants listed in the $59-million range designed to undermine the Zuma administration through covert relations with Rwandan generals.)

NED programs have sometimes been criticized from the left, and especially the international human rights community, on the grounds the NED focused too much on the mechanics of “free and fair elections” rather than a larger, more systemic civil rights/human rights culture. Analysts following NED activities say the institution’s growing emphasis on support for long-term democratic development, the building of civil society and funding of indigenous human rights groups has swayed most of those earlier critics towards more favourable views. This, in turn, has nurtured a growing community of interest between NED and the broader human rights community.

Meanwhile, NED has also taken some heat from the political right for the contention that they promote a “social democratic” agenda, based on its labour union relationships rather than a broader liberal catalogue of ideas. Nonetheless, the overall record of NED projects has garnered praise from conservative stalwarts like the Heritage Foundation and Empower America, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and National Review.

Over time, the NED’s mission has shifted somewhat to supporting what was termed the “full package” response to the complex needs of emerging democracies. To help achieve this, it began hosting biennial global conferences of democratic activists and publishing The Journal of Democracy. This journal has developed a reputation for examining the key issues related to democratic ideas and institutions and it is read worldwide, including in South Africa. Other activities include the International Forum for Democratic Studies, which has become a centre for analysis of the theory and practice of democratic development worldwide. This forum is largely funded from non-US government sources, as is the journal. Its Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellows Program now supports around a dozen international democracy activists, practitioners, scholars and journalists yearly to enhance their ability to promote democratic change.

This litany of efforts would easily threaten the good night’s sleep of authoritarian despots. However, it doesn’t seem to be the conduit for sub rosa support of an alliance of disaffected anti-Zuma politicians and those Rwandan generals, despite the charges in that affidavit.

Of course there is still that second group, the media issues NGO Freedom House, also implicated in what the Vavi affidavit. Freedom House says its key missions include “speaking out against the main threats to democracy and empower[ing] citizens to exercise their fundamental rights. We analyse the challenges to freedom; advocate for greater political and civil liberties; and support frontline activists to defend human rights and promote democratic change.” The organization goes on to say, “We support non-violent civic initiatives in societies where freedom is denied or under threat and promote the right of all people to be free” and that it “acts as a catalyst for freedom through a combination of analysis, advocacy, and action. … Leading experts on democracy have called our flagship publication, Freedom in the World, an ‘essential source’ and ‘indispensable guide’ to democracy’s development.”

None of this seems on point for the formation of a cabal to oust a duly elected president.

Freedom House was established in early 1941 to encourage popular support for American involvement in World War II at a time when isolationist feelings were still potent. It brought together journalists, business and labour leaders, academics, and former government officials, and demonstrated a broad, bipartisan character when businessman Wendell Willkie, the Republican 1940 presidential nominee, joined Eleanor Roosevelt as Freedom House’s honorary co-chairs. While it was created in reaction to Nazi totalitarianism, Freedom House pivoted towards opposing communism after World War II, when the organization’s leadership decided the encouragement of democracy was the best weapon against this latest totalitarian challenge. As a result, it supported both the Marshall Plan and NATO on the international level and opposed McCarthyism domestically in the 1950s. Along the way it became an early institutional supporter of the US civil rights revolution. Bayard Rustin and Roy Wilkins, key leaders in that struggle, were also in Freedom House leadership positions during that time.

In the 1970s, Freedom House turned its attention to the erosion of freedom in many parts of the developing world as it responded with programs that combined research and analysis, advocacy, and on-the-ground involvement in several areas. In 1973, it began its now-flagship publication, Freedom in the World, an annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties, analysing each nation along a series of “freedom indicators”. This is now a key reference for international policymakers, journalists and the public.

At the height of the Cold War, Freedom House helped defend Andrei Sakharov and other prominent Soviet dissidents. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Freedom House set up the Afghanistan Information Center, a clearinghouse for information on the conflict. Freedom House’s website notes “It was also among the earliest supporters of Poland's Solidarity trade union. Responding to growing strife in Africa, Freedom House sent study missions to Zimbabwe and South Africa led by Bayard Rustin. It also sent missions to assess conditions in Central America during the 1980s, as part of an on-going project to support centrist democratic forces, under siege from the Marxist left and the death squad right.”

Following the Cold War, Freedom House began conducting on-the-ground projects in the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and in the former Soviet Union. “Freedom House assisted these post-Communist societies in the establishment of independent media, independent think tanks, and the core institutions of electoral politics,” says its official history. It adds, “From South Africa to Tunisia, Kyrgyzstan to Indonesia, Freedom House has partnered with regional activists in bolstering civil society; worked to support women’s rights; sought justice for victims of torture; defended journalists and free expression advocates; and assisted those struggling to promote human rights in challenging political environments.”

In addition to grants from the US Government, Freedom House receives major financial support from individuals, international institutions and foundations, including the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Foundation and the United Nations Democracy Fund. Given this pedigree, it is hard to see Freedom House as an institution cavorting with Rwandan exile generals to shoulder aside President Zuma, even if its publications have been critical of South African free speech and government secrecy proposals.

When asked over the weekend about charges that the NED as a stalking horse for the US Government, an American Embassy spokesman told us, “The allegations against the US Government in the #vavireport are groundless and outrageous. The US has a strong record of supporting civil society, but we do not fund political parties or those who urge violence. NED is a non-profit independent from us. The US Congress and others fund them. They speak for themselves @nedemocracy.”

Over the weekend, as this writer was mulling over the charges in the affidavit, he had a chance to speak with a friend, a prominent younger African business man, about these charges as well as the broader issue of whether there really could be a nefarious force trying to topple the Zuma administration. His response was, “It’s incredible, the reports. There is a long claim that the US or CIA didn’t want Zuma to be president, it feeds into this, so it maybe perceived as reality. Almost all politicians hedge their risk especially when they are in trouble so Vavi is no exception. I think people who dissent are eliminated literally or figuratively speaking. I also think the government institutions are used to fight political battles – it’s the only game we know in this country and a legacy of the NP. The real key question, when all is said and done, is what will the ANC do if they were to lose an election?”

Summing up the quality of the Vavi affidavit my friend gave this assessment; “the propaganda reports are still juvenile and lack sophistication – a clear display of the lack of quality of our conspirators and leaders.” Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is that the people who whisper into the ear of the top men in South Africa understand their own universe as a place where conspiracies have clearly had their uses historically. Perhaps they assume that every challenge coming from beyond the castle keep draws on that same fertile ground, rather than the elemental fact that in a democracy there are many places for criticism, as well as support. The so-called facts of this so-called grand conspiracy will undoubtedly dissolve over time into the mist, but suspicions that such a force could exist – or even that it must, somewhere, if one could only look hard enough – may well remain. And that will be one of the real, lingering tragedies of this little melodrama. DM

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Photo by Kliefi.

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa


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