In the immediate aftermath of the horrendous 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, as an anxious world held its breath in uncertainty as to what was coming next, Western political and military leaders gathered to plot an appropriate response.
Closely watching events from Cape Town was a supposedly retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning global voice on human affairs.
From the outset, it was clear that the imagination of Western leaders would not stretch beyond vengeance. An eye for an eye, so to speak. The only question was what form the revenge would take.
The talk of further violence horrified the archbishop. Rather than stoop to the level of the attackers’ inhumanity, he said, he prayed that the US would use the moment to engage in a period of reflection.
All people were equally vulnerable and interdependent, he said. When they begin to believe they are invulnerable, they are actually at their most vulnerable. The Arch said he prayed that the people of the US would contemplate their vulnerability… why they were the subject of the hatred that fueled the attack, and what they might do differently to promote peace in the human family.
Seven days after the 9/11 attacks then-president George W Bush first used the term, “war on terrorism”.
Nearly 21 years later, the cost of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq runs into hundreds of thousands of lives while the world is no closer to resolving the fault lines that prompted the outrage in the first place.
Peace is not promoted through the barrel of a gun, but through dialogue that aims to develop trust, common interest and justice — through talking, listening and ultimately reaching as close to consensus as it is possible to get.
As South Africans, we know this well. Following the arrival of European colonisers, it took 350 years of conflict before the parties agreed to talk to one another. The ones with most of the guns were just never in the mood. Imagine how different we’d look today had, for example, the negotiations conducted between Boer and Brit following the South African war 120 years ago included black South Africans.
South Africa’s bumbling response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brings these matters to mind. Instead of being guided by the principles we know, our leaders have allowed global politics and emotional bonds to cloud (or vaporise) their judgement.
Instead of regarding the people of Russia and Ukraine as equally precious members of the human family, we have bent over backwards not to condemn the killing of citizens of one country by those of the other.
As we continue to stick our heads in the sand and abrogate our human responsibilities, the world lurches to the brink of a deepening military crisis.
There is no contradiction between calling on Russia to immediately withdraw from Ukraine and calling for real negotiations in which the perceived and real vulnerabilities of all parties are put on the agenda and addressed.
Nor does calling for peace and negotiations require disavowing our thinking that the West is guilty of poking the Russian bear and giving it reasons to feel insecure.
The long-term solution to the crisis is not a military one. The solution certainly doesn’t lie in arming Ukraine to the teeth, so that it can kill more Russians. But what we see on the television news (from Western media, it must be said, as Russian media has evidently been banned in South Africa), are political and military leaders seemingly intent on escalating the violence in order to “teach Russia a lesson”.
Violence begets violence. Research published by the Watson Institute at Brown University last September puts the direct human cost of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Pakistan between 2001 and 2021 at between 897,000 and 929,000 lives. These numbers exclude indirect deaths due to loss of access to food, water and/or infrastructure, or war-related disease.
It boggles the mind that we aren’t jumping up and down demanding that the protagonists in eastern Europe, including Nato, get around the table to prevent an escalation of the conflict and the certain further disaster that will follow.
We refer to the world as a global village these days, when it suits us — such as when we want to do business in other countries, or sign deals to extract their resources. But which village do you know where neighbourly disagreements are resolved with missiles, bombs and mass murder?
It took 10 very bloody years for the US to hunt down Osama Bin Laden, who was said to be responsible for the 9/11 attacks; 10 years before the “victors” could crow over his body on global TV.
Sadly, as human beings, our evolution of sophisticated weaponry of a magnitude that could destroy the Earth has not been matched by the concomitant evolution of our consciousness about our vulnerability and interdependence.
The archbishop’s life work was premised on the ideas that all human beings were brothers and sisters in one family, God’s family, and that neutrality was not a righteous response in circumstances when some of the siblings are oppressed, marginalised or condemned.
He famously illustrated this point with the story about seeing an elephant standing on a mouse’s tail. The mouse would hardly appreciate you standing back on the basis of being neutral. Because in this instance, from the mouse’s perspective, you have taken the side of the elephant.
Instead of leveraging its relationship with Russia to call for an immediate end to hostilities, and for talks, South Africa, in its spineless claims to be neutral with respect to the war on Ukraine, falls regrettably short on courage, morality and ubuntu. DM