When the South African government released the National Interest Framework document recently, the reaction of the Brenthurst Foundation could only be described as an emotional venting exercise that did not even begin to address the issues in the document. I was very tempted to respond but I held back.
It can only be deeply etched in the consciousness of one born into privilege not to grasp the urgency and imperative of addressing inequality for a country ranked the most unequal globally, at number one out of 164 countries (according to a report released by the World Bank earlier this year).
The World Bank further lifts “race” as “a key driver of high inequality in South Africa”. How poverty eradication, job creation and addressing inequality in democratic South Africa can be dismissed as minor in the framing of our national interest to guide our endeavours abroad as South African diplomats is mind-boggling.
It is the foundation’s latest attack on our country’s foreign policy and diplomats that provoked me, while at the same time resurrecting my irritation with their national interest response. I’ll deal with both issues.
Greg Mills and Ray Hartley took exception to the country statement at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly asserting that the global community should “treat all conflicts across the globe with equal indignation, no matter what the colour or creed of the people affected”.
Like some in the Western world, Mills and Hartley have prioritised the conflict in Ukraine above every other conflict and gross violation of human rights occurring elsewhere on the globe. One wonders whether the lives that are being lost in conflicts such as in Palestine or Yemen don’t matter.
John Steenhuisen (Member of Parliament and DA leader) confirmed that the Brenthurst Foundation funded his trip to Ukraine in May this year. One looks forward to seeing another fact-finding mission in Palestine, Yemen, Libya, or Western Sahara funded by the same foundation.
In South Africa we live in a democracy and pride ourselves on our diversity of political views which are aired freely, encouraging vociferous debate. But attacks like those of Mills and Hartley on our foreign policy cannot go unanswered.
Our non-aligned position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict mirrors that of the global South and developing countries (most states that comprise the Non-Aligned Movement, (NAM)). South Africa pursues an independent foreign policy, as do the members of the NAM, and as a collective, we refuse to be bullied into taking sides in battles of geopolitical contestation, as it is not in our national interests to do so.
The problem with the perspective elucidated by Mills and Hartley is that their approach is itself steeped in double standards. When it comes to a Western state, they accept Ukraine’s right of self-defence, but this same right is not recognised when it comes to the Palestinians vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation in line with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. UN General Assembly Resolution 3236/1974 also gives the Palestinians the right to restore their rights by all legitimate means.
It is for this reason that South Africa relentlessly advocates for a rules-based system predicated on international law and adherence to the charter of the United Nations. There cannot be one standard for people of Northern nations, whereby their right to resist attack or occupation is defended, but when it comes to the oppressed in Palestine or elsewhere, their rights are ignored.
The UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet recently expressed alarm at the high number of Palestinians, including children, killed, and injured in the occupied Palestinian territories this year. Bachelet said the widespread use of live ammunition by Israeli forces in law enforcement operations across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has led to an alarming increase in Palestinian fatalities. Bachelet said in many incidents Israeli forces used lethal force in a manner that appeared to be in violation of international human rights law. Rights group Euro-Med Monitor has made similar observations.
Mills and Hartley expose their ignorance of documented history when they ridicule South Africa’s support for Palestine and Western Sahara, saying that “South Africa has no role in Western Sahara, and no voice on Palestine”.
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Also, have they forgotten that countries who supported the anti-apartheid struggle did not do so because they had a role to play, but because it was the right thing to do? We remain committed to being on the right side of history, and to defend the rights of those fighting for liberation against colonialism and oppression.
When Mills and Hartley criticise our solidarity with the people of Cuba, they turn a blind eye to the egregious injustice of the US economic embargo imposed against that island nation, which has now gone on for over six decades. They show their limited understanding of the situation when arguing that it is the Cuban state that impedes the right to development of its people, when in fact it is the US embargo that has impeded the right to development of the Cuban people since 1961. It is the embargo which has prevented Cuba from having normal trading relations with the world and has prevented it from acquiring necessities, denying Cubans the right to essential medicines and consumer goods.
As for South Africa and SADC’s call for the lifting of sanctions against Zimbabwe, here’s a point to ponder on. Have the sanctions been effective in terms of improving good governance in Zimbabwe? What the sanctions have done is to worsen the economic situation in that country, deterring foreign investment, and hastening economic collapse.
It is the southern African region that has to bear the consequences of this (most particularly South Africa). When Zimbabweans have no jobs and cannot feed their families, it is mainly to South Africa that they come to find means to survive. Ultimately, economic sanctions on Zimbabwe are indirectly a threat to our national interest.
Perhaps the height of hypocrisy by the Western world and even the Brenthurst Foundation is its failure to expose the suffering of the people of Yemen, and the collusion of the West in the bombing campaign. In Yemen, 19,200 civilians were killed or maimed by air strikes, including 2,300 children since March 2015. For seven years civilians in Yemen have suffered from recurrent war crimes and crimes against humanity. The conflict has displaced at least four million and created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis with 23.4 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance.
Where is the outrage of the Brenthurst Foundation at such crimes against humanity? The situation in Yemen has been described by the UN as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, with at least 15.6 million people living in extreme poverty. A UNDP report projects that the number of those killed as a result of Yemen’s war could reach 2.3 million by 2030, and that 70% of those killed would be children under the age of five. The report also projects that extreme poverty could disappear in Yemen within a generation if the conflict were to end immediately.
Yes, the people of Ukraine are suffering immensely and that’s why we continue to call for a cessation of hostilities and negotiations. South Africa has always opposed violations of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states, in keeping with the UN Charter.
It should be equally the case, for the people of Yemen and Palestine. It is time to recognise that the lives of brown people are no less valuable than others, and it is time to call out the big powers for their violations of international law and human rights, as well as their double standards.
Let me return to the national interest debate.
In their critique of the national interest framework document, Hartley and Mills waxed lyrical about democracy. How many Western countries fail on key aspects of it? The fight against racism must be central to a democracy test.
We forget that our late icon and first President of democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was incarcerated for 27 years for challenging the racism that was at the heart of the apartheid regime. Hector Pieterson was killed for fighting for the right to an education free of racism. Data on Covid-19 deaths from a rich Western country shows that race was critical to the chances of surviving it, with people of African descent comprising a huge proportion of those who lost their lives.
One minute the extrajudicial killing of a journalist is condemned with all the sanctimonious piousness in the world, the next minute the national interests of these very same countries trumps human rights. Most recently, a former senior diplomat of a country shared how he had been involved in the planning of coups in other countries.
Overall, it’s not clear whether the two authors are venting on behalf of the Brenthurst Foundation, with Greg Mills as its director and Ray Hartley its research director. One hopes that the views of Mills are not influenced by his past association with Nato regarding what is unfolding in Ukraine.
Greg Mills provided services to Nato in Afghanistan for four months in 2006. On the request of General David Richards (Commander of Nato forces), Mills helped establish and run a civilian think-tank, the Prism Group. This however shouldn’t oblige or bind South Africa to adopt the interests of Nato as its national interest.
Democratic South Africa must, among other factors, consider the constitutional imperatives on socioeconomic rights in the Bill of Rights. The indivisibility and interdependence of socioeconomic rights, civil and political rights as anchors of our democracy, is what informs and inspires our diplomats in their work. DM