Human rights in South Africa - what human rights?

No matter how you look at it, no one can deny that South Africa has a great future behind it. Back in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa, all was rosy: everyone was free, democracy had been unleashed to shower down its blessings upon the huddled masses of the oppressed, and the culture of inequality in which a small minority grew rich and fat by ruthlessly exploiting the rest of the population was at an end.

What a beautiful dream.

So where do we stand, 16 years later? Well now, let's see. No, I'm not going to bore you again with all the things that regular readers of these pages have heard many times before: the combination of corruption and insanity that has turned South Africa's government into a circus where the biggest clowns are in charge; the dodgy deals and the shameless looting of the country by grinning ANC heavyweights who consider themselves above the law (and in fact they are); the way the roads crumble and the energy infrastructure is being run into the ground by politically appointed managers who are both incompetent and uninterested (in anything but how much money they can get into their own pockets, that is);  corruption being common in the public sector and nepotism having become the norm higher up; unparallelled economical mismanagement, municipalities in chaos and unable to deliver basic services, et cetera ad nauseam, while ANC heavies live the good life and have fights about who can throw the biggest party.1) No. We've been through that many times already. Instead, let's just look at the human rights situation in South Africa: where we have been, where we are now, and where we are headed.

When Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first (albeit reluctant) black president in 1994, he was generally regarded as a human rights activist. Freshly laureated with the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize (which he shared with his white counterpart F.W. de Klerk) he faced the task of giving black South Africans what the ANC had promised them for decades. No one could have done more than scratch the surface of that virtually impossible task, so considering the circumstances Mandela didn't do all that badly. Granted, there are issues (such as HIV/AIDS) that he could have handled differently but, on the whole and within the context of the times, he was a fairly good president.

Most importantly however, and something that is perhaps not sufficiently recognized, is the fact that his personality and his reconciliatory attitude were instrumental in preventing the atrocities that many whites feared would follow the end of apartheid. These fears were not without justification: there were many who sharpened their knives (literally) for the moment when all old wrongs would be set right in truly African fashion. However no lynchings and killings ensued, and that is in no small part due to Mandela's success in moderating these vengeful sentiments. Today Mandela's reputation as a human rights activist is even acknowledged by the Chinese government which, ironically, is not known for its high regard for human rights.

But then Mandela finished his five years of presidency and made way for Thabo Mbeki. At that point things began to deteriorate rapidly. While South Africa's neighbour Zimbabwe wiped the floor with human rights, Mbeki ensured that South Africa never even spoke out against dictator Robert Mugabe's reign of terror. (As an interesting aside, when you search on Google for 'Robert Mugabe', the list of suggested related searches includes 'Idi Amin'. Go figure.) During Mbeki's administration the response of the South African government firmly remained limited to "peaceful talks" between Mebeki and Mugabe, which accomplished exactly nothing - mainly because they did not include any apparent intention to make a difference. When Mbeki was ousted from the presidency and summarily replaced with Jacob Zuma, nothing changed with regard to South Africa's stance on Zimbabwe - the deplorable human rights situation just north of the border isn't even mentioned.

South Africa's first stint as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2007 and 2008 was even more shameful. South Africa repeatedly sided with Russia and China and helped them to block Western-backed resolutions against Myanmar, Iran and Zimbabwe, among other things. The reason for this shameless squandering of South Africa's emerging reputation as a nation that respects human rights is simple: both Russia (or rather, the former USSR) and China were firm backers of the ANC during the Apartheid years. In other words, the pay-off of political debts and the covering of political assets prevailed over human rights.

Nor is this surprising. The simple truth is that the ANC has never championed freedom and human rights. True, the ANC opposed the Apartheid government which was in power at the time, but mainly because the ANC wanted that power for itself. The rest was just incidental. The struggle against Apartheid was, ultimately, never about freedom for the people. It was about freedom for members of the ANC top to do as they please, and about their personal power, wealth and prestige. These days this is typically expressed in the form of expensive cars and a lavish life style for members of the ANC top, while the many promises made by the ANC during the days of the struggle against Apartheid have almost invariably left empty.

Jacob Zuma's presidency has brought little change. Zuma prefers to completely ignore the existence of any human rights issues. He seems as comfortable in the presence of dictators as Mbeki was, and as oblivious to the atrocities they commit. He has carefully avoided to even mention the subject of human rights in public. He has also been carefully silent about the recent row between the Chinese government and the Nobel Peace Prize commission following the awarding of the peace prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo - even though Xiabobo thus joins the company of Mandela and De Klerk.

South Africa has also consistently failed in its own obligations to address torture and other "irregularities' in South African police cells and prisons. While South Africa did sign the United Nations' Convention Against Torture in 1998, it never got around to making  torture a criminal offence under South African law. Let me repeat that: torture is still not a criminal offence in South Africa! Nor is anything being done to change that. Under international human rights law South Africa is obliged to report periodically on what it has done to prevent torture and to respond to allegations of torture, but so far it has not done so. One report was submitted in 2005, five years too late, but that report was sent back by the UN with the request to urgently clear up a number of issues. South Africa has yet to respond. Ironically it was the death of Steve Biko in a South African cell that prompted the UN General Assembly  to adopt the UN convention against torture in 1984 in the first place. Biko must be spinning in his grave.

While this does not bode well for South Africa's future as a country where human rights are respected, recent events are even more worrying. For starters there is the much maligned "Protection of Information Bill" which is set to be signed into law any moment now. This bill, which is generally considered to be a Protection of Corruption Bill, will allow members of the government (and to all intents and purposes that means the ANC top) to arbitrarily classify anything as 'secret' and to suppress any information thereon in the press. A "media tribunal" will be instated to restrict the freedom of press on a day-to-day basis, and to arbitrate ex cathedra on what may and may not be made public. The bill does not specify what can be considered secret and what not, or on what grounds such a decision should be made. It is left solely up to the ruling politicians, who are answerable to no-one, and as a result can get away with anything. The bill simply hands them the power to keep anything and everything secret, out of the media and out of public view. Investigative journalism will no longer be possible, as publications in the media on subjects that the government wants to keep under wraps will now be punishable by law. The ANC's State Security Minister has even gone as far as stating that the public interest should not be considered in the implementation of this bill, as that would "tantamount to shredding it". Go figure! Even presentations dealing with the bill itself have been designated as "classified".

Many protests from the opposition and freedom-of-information activists notwithstanding, the bill is virtually a fait accompli and will soon be made law, according to statements made by president Jacob Zuma, who said that the ANC "will continue processing the resolutions of both [the] Polokwane [conference] and the NGC [National General Council] ... in this regard" and that South Africa must "redefine" freedom of press. But even now, before the bill is in effect, the publication of details on dodgy dealings or other embarrassments involving government officials, law enforcement officials or ANC heavies is routinely suppressed. State broadcaster SABC, meanwhile, had been fully under ANC control for 16 years now, with the net result that it has not only been reduced to a party mouthpiece, but is also a financial and operational disaster area.

To make up for the deficit in news reaching the public, though, a new newspaper has been launched. It is funded by the Gupta Group, which has close ties with the ANC and with president Jacob Zuma personally. The paper promises "more positive" news, and will "highlight the accomplishments of the ANC". The editor and four senior staff members resigned hours before the paper was set to be launched, with the general impression being that they did so in response to fears about media freedom, although they have not come out and admitted this in public. When the launch went ahead a bit later, the first edition did not do much to raise expectations - about the best that critics have said about it so far is that at least it contributes to the diversity of voices in the country.

One of the first things that will undoubtedly disappear from the free news channels as soon as the Protection of Corruption Information Bill comes into effect is South Africa's continuing emergence as a dodgy arms dealer. While not the largest arms manufacturer and exporter in the world by far (the US and Russia will continue to head that particular list for a long time yet) the arms business in South Africa continues to grow. Give it some time - especially since South Africa has taken to supplying arms to whomever has the money, with no care whatsoever as to the way in which these weapons are likely to be used. A good recent example is South Africa's arms shipments to Somalia in clear contravention of UN rules that South Africa (itself now a senior member of the UN security council) agreed to uphold. And that is just one example. According to lobby group Ceasefire, fully half of SA's arms exports in the past decade have gone to no fewer than 58 countries that failed to meet at least one of the criteria required by the National Conventional Arms Control Act. This is further supported by a report from South Africa's own Auditor-General.  Why this is a violation of human rights should be obvious: especially in Africa, arming the wrong people invariably to large scale suffering.

In the film Lord of War (which I heartily recommend) Nicolas Cage states that there is currently one firearm on the planet for every twelve people, and he wonders how to arm the other eleven. What Cage does not mention is that these firearms are not evenly distributed across the globe, and that in some regions (especially West Africa, although not just there) the average is much, much higher than one in twelve. The fact that this part of the world is also known for its frequent eruptions of war, massacre, slaughter, genocide and other forms of prolonged, intense, large-scale human suffering is of course not a coincidence. Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria and Congo are only some of the better known examples, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Supplying militant groups in these and other countries with weapons practically garantuees that countless numbers of civilians will be mowed down in a hail of bullets sooner or later. It's become a way of life in those parts.

Another thing that will conveniently be disappeared from public view under the Protection of Corruption Bill is the apalling things that have been going on in the mining sector lately. ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, who somehow manages to spend around three times as much as he officially earns (this will undoubtedley become "protected information" under the Bill as well) is currently campaigning fiercely to have the entire mining sector nationalized by 2012, in order to pry the country's resources from the stealing hands of the white colonials and put them into the hands of the oppressed black population, where they belong. Does that sound familiar? It should. South Africa's land reform policy is already underway, with similar results as in Zimbabwe, and the ANCYL only wants more of it. Now they're gearing up to do the same with the mines. And if recent events are any indication, this should be even more fun.

For example, let's take a look at the Aurora Mine at Grootvlei, which is owned by none less than a nephew of Jacob Zuma and a grandson of Nelson Mandela. Illegal mining and other forms of theft is a real problem in South Africa, but the response of Aurora's security staff seems just a tad excessive: when they discovered 20 trespassers on their property, they simply shot them dead and buried them. This did not happen just once; there are several more incidents in which trespassers were summarily executed at Grootvlei, and we can pretty much rule out that this is an isolated accident. So far Mandela Jr. and Zuma Jr. have not even been approached by representatives of the law, let alone held accountable for what goes on at their mining complex. Meanwhile other parts of Aurora's mining properties are being neglected, and the miners living there continue to succumb to inhumane poverty.

I could go on here... but it gets kind of ugly and depressing. I think I'll leave it at this.

So. Where do we go from here?
1) Update: OK - maybe I goofed just a little bit here. Kenny Kunene himself is not really an ANC heavyweight (although he is up to his eyeballs in ANC connections, you bet your Gluteus Maximus) and Robert Gumede, also referred to in the linked article, does rub shoulders with Zuma, Sexwale, Malema, Cele and the rest of that particular clique. Thanks, Leslie!


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