Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 9 September 2013

SA government and the sound of (selective) silence

South Africa has not been shy to voice its opinion on Egypt and Syria. So why are we allowing the gross human rights violations in Swaziland and Zimbabwe to go on right under our noses?

The world is abuzz with two very high-profile international stories emanating from the Middle East. South Africa, through our Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), has, as is perhaps fitting, issued statements on Syria and Egypt.

On Syria, South Africa has expressed its worry and condemnation of the violence.

According to the DIRCO statement, we remain concerned “with the escalation of conflict that continues to draw international attention and interest following the recent chemical weapons attacks that resulted in the death and suffering of the innocent civilians. The use of these weapons in Syria is of serious concern, which we condemn. No cause could ever justify the use of weapons of mass destruction.

“Furthermore,” it adds, “South Africa does not believe that bombing the already suffering people and crumbling infrastructure of Syria will contribute to a sustainable solution.”

On Egypt, DIRCO has been more critical of Morsi’s ousting, in essence calling it a coup. “Our stance on the escalating political situation in Egypt is based on the Constitutive Act of the African Union, where any unconstitutional change of government – whatever the premise – is specifically rejected,” DIRCO said in a statement.

As a serious contender for a future spot as a permanent member of the UN’s Security Council, being the powerhouse of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – if not the whole continent – it is expected that South Africa should speak with authority on international issues.

When we get closer to home, however, particularly when it comes to countries that sit directly on our borders, we seem to be a little less vocal on issues of governance, human rights and constitutionality. On Zimbabwe, under Thabo Mbeki, we heard of “silent diplomacy” for the first time. It seems that the Zuma administration is continuing this brand of diplomacy, especially when we consider our approach to Swaziland.

The events surrounding the Global Inquiry Panel that was put together by The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) and COSATU on 5 and 6 September 2013 in Manzini, the capital of Swaziland, called for stern words from government.

It started with the detention and questioning of Panel Chair and Ex-Reconstruction and Development and Communications Minister, Jay Naidoo, along with co-panellists Bishop Paul Verryn, Alec Muchadehama (human rights lawyer and activist from Zimbabwe), Ms Nomthetho Simelane (former lecturer of Political Science at the University of Swaziland) and COSATU delegate Monk Molapeni by security police on Thursday 5 September. The next day was followed by security police surrounding the hotel where the inquiry was to be held, where workers were blocked from entry by security police who entered the hotel room where the inquiry was being held and demanded the whole panel stop and pack all their belongings and leave Swaziland. According to the ITUC, police and military threatened and followed personnel at the venue of the Global Inquiry Panel.

According to Naidoo, he and his contingent were sent packing for “his own safety”. Since he is a former minister, the Foreign and Labour Ministries apparently needed to be informed of his visit to the nation despite the fact that he was in Swaziland on the invitation of the ITUC. As Chair of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), Naidoo travels throughout the world and notification of his arrival on foreign shores does not ordinarily require more than a VISA and passport. According to Naidoo, a bugle-bearing emissary has never been needed to announce the arrival of the ex-minister on his many international travels, but for his last trip to our SADC neighbour.

Courtesy, it seems, gives way to safety when a former minister and trade unionist enters your borders to hear the plight of workers. It is most certainly a plight of grave purport when you hear Bishop Paul Verryn’s account of Swazi worker conditions, at the press conference held at COSATU House, in Braamfontein on 7 September, upon the panellists’ return.

“The short time that I spent with the workers, most certainly justified the ITUC’s concern,” he began by saying. He spoke to textile workers and a health worker, saying that “for all people, their anxiety is around job security. The two textile workers I spoke to earn about R 1,200 a month. Their hours were excessive; that included overtime with no consultation with them. Their deepest anxiety is how they balance their budgets on R 1,200 a month, with R500 going to rent. Some of them had up to 20 people to support through their extended families.”

He goes on to say that the health worker reported very similar conditions, especially for the cleaners and porters. Professionals themselves don’t earn good salaries, according to Verryn. “Medical staff, including the patients, were very susceptible to ongoing, multiple infections. The health worker went on to explain that people living with HIV/AIDS within that community – 80% of whom suffer from TB – because of the unsanitary conditions within the hospitals, they were very vulnerable to  constant infection.”

Verryn appealed to President Jacob Zuma: “It is a critical issue for the nation to start facing these issues. Particularly the state president, who has access to the King of Swaziland, to begin knocking on doors so that the true process of democracy can begin to unfold in Swaziland so that the dignity and the gigantic potential of the people of that land can be liberated.”

Zingiswa Losi, COSATU’s Second Deputy President, echoes Verryn’s words, but takes it a step further, going back to our initial question: is it acceptable for South Africa to be vocal on issues of chemical warfare in Syria and the deposing of heads of state in Egypt through coup, yet fail to whimper on the suppression of human rights on our doorstep? She says that COSATU has resolved that: “For the monarchy to feel South Africa’s presence, is through finding a way to bring economic sanctions to Swaziland.”

She goes on to say that COSATU understands the impact of economic sanctions, citing Zimbabwe and Apartheid South Africa. Two things are understood by COSATU, namely that the people will suffer under sanctions, but a worthy sacrifice as the monarchy will be stripped of its economic power. They also feel that it is for the people of Swaziland to rise above the repression they face.

Rebone Tau, Member of the ANC Youth League’s National Task Team, says that the ANCYL “Condems the elections scheduled for later in September and calls upon SADC to condemn those elections, as we know that they do not comply with the SADC principles of free and fair elections.”

Within diplomatic circles, it could be argued that it is easy for the alliance partners of Luthuli House, being COSATU and the ANCYL, to make such demands and speak such firebrand diplomacy as opposed to the ruling party and by implication government. Despite this, surely these accounts, even if only accepted as mere allegations, need to be looked into. If we are concerned with chemical warfare and seizure of power by undemocratic means, surely we should have an interest in human rights suppression and rule by repression. There could be no excuse for a nation that is seen as the paragon of constitutionality, democracy and human rights to remain silent on the securocrat and repressive nature of its neighbour. Particularly if you have such strong economic links to that nation.

As Naidoo and Verryn point out, now that this has been made an international issue of interest, the story will unfold. After all, Apartheid could not have been defeated without the support of the international community. Isn’t it about time to return the favour? DM

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