South Africa’s recent election to a three-year term on the United Nations Human Rights Council provides an opportune time for taking stock of our government’s recent history on advocating for the protection of human rights, an exercise that paints a picture of a country betraying the very principles on which it was founded.
Towards the end of the 1980s, South Africa had become a pariah in the global community with growing awareness of the violent oppression of human rights and freedoms in the country. In 1990 this began to change. Following FW de Klerk’s watershed speech, which marked the beginning of the end of apartheid with the subsequent release of Nelson Mandela from prison, South Africa was gradually welcomed back into the international community with the hope of a peaceful transition to equality and democray.
In the run-up to the first democratic elections in 1994, Nelson Mandela penned an article for Foreign Affairs in which he set out the ANC’s vision for foreign policy, and the role it wanted South Africa to play on the international stage. Mandela committed that under an ANC government, South African foreign policy would be based on “our belief that human rights should be the core concern of international relations”, noting that “we are ready to play a role in fostering peace and prosperity in the world we share with the community of nations”.
He was unwavering in his commitment to reform South Africa’s role as a bastion of human rights and respect for the international order. Indeed, as one of the six pillars of future foreign policy, Mandela committed that “considerations of justice and respect for international law should guide the relations between nations”.
Unfortunately, Mandela’s lofty ideals have been progressively eroded by his successors, tarnishing the image South Africa once held as a beacon of human rights. Since Thabo Mbeki’s infamous policy of quiet diplomacy on Zimbabwe, we have seen successive ANC governments drift further away from Mandela’s commitment that “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs”, instead basing our foreign policy on political expediency and allegiance to questionable regimes like Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Reflecting on the actions of the ANC government over the past two decades, one can find numerous examples of how they have departed not only from Mandela’s ideals, but from the human rights foundation of our Constitution.
Take, for example, the circumstances surrounding Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s escape from South Africa in 2015, in violation of our obligation to arrest him under both domestic and international law. At the time Al-Bashir was sought by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for both war crimes and crimes against humanity with alleged atrocities including charges relating to murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, rape and genocide.
During his reign of terror, 400,000 fellow Africans died in Darfur while a further 2.5 million citizens were displaced. As a signatory to the Rome Statute, we had a duty to give effect to the ICC warrant of arrests. Instead, the ANC government aided and abetted the escape of a war criminal, defending their stance by saying that the ICC was “no longer useful”.
Criticisms of the ICC notwithstanding, this reflects a broader pattern of South Africa’s departure from human rights as the guiding light of our foreign policy. An analysis of South Africa’s voting record at the United Nations (including during our stint on the Security Council) shows that South Africa has failed to support resolutions condemning human rights violations in places like Syria and Belarus. South Africa has even supported resolutions praising dictatorships for cultural diversity, denying the right to sanction human rights abusers and opposing the idea that human rights are universal.
Upon closer inspection, South Africa’s voting record indicates that it is unwilling to support resolutions when China and/or Russia oppose such resolutions. These voting patterns, present for at least a decade, indicate that our foreign policy prioritises our ties with non-democratic states led by parties with communist ideals over South Africa’s commitment to human rights and democracy.
Recently, South Africa has abstained on several motions condemning Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. The refusal by the ANC government to denounce this war places South Africa on the wrong side of history together with a list of countries known for their human rights violations and disdain for democratic and free-market principles, including China, Cuba, and North Korea.
While the ANC wants us to believe that the abstention is a demonstration of neutrality, earlier this month the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) participated in a joint military exercise with the Russian navy. Any pretence of neutrality is thus not just false, but an insult to the intelligence of South Africans.
Apart from the implication for international perceptions of South Africa, there is a pragmatic argument against our stance on Russia and its war in Ukraine. At the same time that the SANDF was participating in the joint operation, President Ramaphosa announced that he would be reaching out to the United States to assist with funding South Africa’s “Just Transition Plan”, having already entered into partnerships with Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the US and the European Union to see the plan through.
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On the one hand, the ANC is effectively siding with Russia against Ukraine (and the majority of the free world), while on the other hand Ramaphosa is trying to befriend the West when it suits him. It is thus worth looking at who our real friends are.
For the five years between 2017 and 2021, South Africa exported, on average, approximately $387-million in goods to Russia. In 2021, Russia was 39th in terms of the size of our annual exports, or a total of 0.36% of all our exports. In comparison, we exported $12.99-billion to the US, $9.39-billion to Germany and $8.24-billion to Japan in 2021 alone.
In 2020, compared to $381-million worth of exports to Russia, the US Agency for International Development contributed more to the South African economy in the form of foreign assistance amounting to $627-million.
It is clear that the ANC’s ties to Putin’s regime are not driven by what is good for South Africa, but by what is good for the ANC. The mismanaged and cash-strapped ANC has, through Chancellor House Trust, close financial ties with sanctioned Russian oligarch and Putin ally, Viktor Vekselberg. The ANC’s indirect interest in Vekselberg’s United Manganese of Kalahari could have been worth up to R528-million in dividends in 2020.
Foreign policy and international relations are complex and require a careful balancing act of several considerations, including foreign aid, trade relationships and human rights imperatives. However, it is also untenable that South Africa ignores and remains silent about human rights abuses taking place all over the world because of political expediency.
An ActionSA government’s decisions on the international stage will be driven by an unwavering commitment to the protection of human rights. We cannot be dictated to only by trade relations, but must be driven by a principled stance that human rights are universal, and that each and every person on this earth should enjoy protection against war, violence and unfair discrimination.
We cannot remain quiet while innocent civilians are killed and having their lives ruined by state action. Just as we must use the international stage to condemn the war in Ukraine, we must condemn the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. We must condemn the flagrant human rights abuses taking place in Yemen, Iran, China, Egypt, the Central African Republic, Syria, the Congo and North Korea.
Hoping that the ANC-led government, which has time and again shown its absolute lack of any morality or principle, will do the right thing during South Africa’s stint on the UN Human Rights Council is tantamount to insanity. Rather, we must galvanise our people to vote the ANC out of power in 2024 so that we can once again be proud of what our country is doing for the vulnerable people of the world. DM