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Goin' South on Human Rights By: James Kirchick
Azure | Thursday, July 19, 2007


Last September, not long after the Israeli-Hezbollah war, South Africa’s minister of intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, visited Tehran. The Iran News Agency, albeit prone to exaggeration, reported that Kasrils “lauded [the] great victories of the Lebanese Hezbollah against the Zionist forces” and “stressed that the successful Lebanese resistance proved the vulnerability of the Israeli army.” The comment received no attention in the South African media; nor, for that matter, did the international press seem particularly interested. And yet, the Tehran visit occurred immediately after the South African government had warmly received the visiting Iranian foreign minister and expressed support for Iran’s campaign for uranium enrichment–in spite of the passing of a United Nations Security Council deadline that same week regarding the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program. This stance toward Iran is cause for concern on its own. Unfortunately, it is also illustrative of a much broader and more chilling trend in South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign policy: One that cozies up to tyrants, and is increasingly orientated against the West–even at the cost of its self-proclaimed principles of human rights and political freedom.

Post-apartheid South Africa’s easy relationship with dictatorships, it should be noted, is not a new development. Until very recently, however, it has largely been overlooked by the media. This oversight is likely due to the fact that, much like its out-of-control crime rate, any bad news about South Africa is viewed as a blemish on the popular and self-comforting narrative surrounding the country’s emergence from apartheid. Indeed, that a country scarred by so many years of violent racial segregation could transform itself into a fully functioning democracy with a robust economy while simultaneously avoiding the wide-scale racial bloodbath feared by many is nothing short of miraculous. But judging by its international relations, South Africa–by far the most politically stable, economically productive and militarily powerful country in sub-Saharan Africa–appears to be moving into the camp of the anti-Western powers, a loose but increasingly worrisome consortium not unlike the Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement. Drawing heavily upon its history as a liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC) cloaks itself in a shroud of moral absolutism that not so subtly implicates its critics as racists, Western stooges, or apologists for apartheid.

In a 1993 article written for Foreign Affairs on the eve of his country’s transfer of power, Nelson Mandela declared that “South Africa’s future foreign relations will be based on our belief that human rights should be the core of international relations.” Mandela had good reason to attempt an improvement of his country’s international image: South Africa’s apartheid government was the cause of much instability in the region, involved as it was in international terrorism against anti-apartheid leaders and cross-border raids in a number of black “front-line states.” With the transition of power, then, many hoped that South Africa would prove to be a beacon of good governance and responsible leadership for the rest of Africa. Unfortunately, not long after he was released from prison, Mandela himself began cavorting with the likes of Fidel Castro (“Long live Comrade Fidel Castro!” he said at a 1991 rally in Havana), Muammar al-Gadaffi (whom he visited in 1997 in defiance of American objections, greeting the Libyan dictator as “my brother leader”), and Yasser Arafat (“a comrade in arms”). Mandela felt affection toward these men because they supported the ANC in exile. But he seemed unperturbed by the fact that Cuba, Libya, and the PLO all employed terrorist tactics and treated their critics much as the apartheid state had. That Mandela has comported himself so comfortably with dictators is more than hypocritical–it is a betrayal of the principles for which he languished twenty-seven years in prison. Yet while Mandela’s grandstanding with tyrants is regrettable, it has been far less serious than his ANC successors’ strategic and systematic support for a broadly anti-Western agenda.

Perhaps the best example of the ANC’s betrayal of the cause of human rights is in its dealings with its immediate neighbor to the north, Zimbabwe. Since he initiated a policy of violent confiscation of white-owned farms in 2000, President Robert Mugabe has presided over what might arguably be the most abysmal degeneration of a modern nation state. Once the “jewel of Africa,” a relatively affluent country that boasted high life expectancies, abundant food exports, and the continent’s highest literacy rates, Zimbabwe may now lay claim to one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the world, mass starvation, and a politically oppressed citizenry. Four years ago, as the country entered free fall, President George Bush referred to South African President Thabo Mbeki as his “point man” on Zimbabwe. And in March of this year, the African Union once again reaffirmed its support for Mbeki as a peacebroker. But the ANC government has failed to deliver on the responsibility with which the world has entrusted it. Primarily because Mugabe was a liberation hero who fought against white colonialism, the ANC has been reluctant to take any action that might alleviate the brutality of his rule, never mind dislodge the tyrant from power. Indeed, South Africa is worse than inactive on Zimbabwe: It props up Mugabe via a formal military alliance, and does its diplomatic best to keep Zimbabwe off the international agenda.

In March, Tony Leon, then the leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (the country’s leading opposition party), invoked the repression of the apartheid years to make clear just how aberrant his country’s policy on Zimbabwe has become. He went so far as to call South Africa’s relationship with Zimbabwe “an insult to the Sharpeville victims,” the sixty-nine black civilians who were killed by the state’s security forces at an anti-apartheid rally in 1960, an act that sparked the ANC’s armed campaign against white rule. Considering the conditions in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe (where democracy activists are imprisoned, tortured, and killed, opposition rallies are banned, and the free media are largely silenced), the comparison to apartheid-era South Africa is hardly hyperbolic.

South Africa’s newfound presence on the UN Security Council (it took up a two-year, non-permanent seat in January) has placed its troublesome foreign policy in stark relief. One of the strongest proponents of Security Council reform via an expanded number of veto powers, South Africa assumed its seat with the hope of stirring things up and providing a voice for both the underdeveloped and developing world. With its proximity to and influence over Zimbabwe, South Africa might have seized the opportunity its position on the Security Council offered to earn international respect by drawing attention to its neighbor’s ill-doings. Indeed, Mugabe could not have offered a more convenient reason for South Africa’s condemnation: In March, he cracked down on his opponents by violently suppressing a public prayer meeting, and government agents cracked the skull of the country’s opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Yet South Africa’s ambassador to the UN repeatedly stated his government’s belief that Zimbabwe is a local problem best left for Mugabe and his opposition to deal with among themselves. So, too, did South Africa oppose attempts to bring the issue before the United Nations, choosing to go the route of “silent diplomacy” instead. Yet this policy, partly inspired by South African President Mbeki’s genuine fear of Mugabe, a man with far stronger anti-colonial liberation credentials than he, has been an unqualified failure from the beginning.

South Africa has balked at the chance to champion human rights at the UN in other instances, as well, lest it be seen as siding with Western forces. For instance, the first significant vote placed before the Security Council this year dealt with a non-binding resolution regarding the military junta in Burma. The resolution called for the release of all political prisoners, a process of national reconciliation (one, it should be noted, not unlike South Africa’s), and an end to human-rights abuses. South Africa, along with Russia and its crucial trading partner, China (whose neo-imperialism in Africa has been extensively documented), voted against the resolution’s acceptance–which, ironically, called for far less stringent measures than what the ANC itself demanded the world invoke against the apartheid regime. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu admitted that the Burma vote was “a betrayal of our own noble past.” Yet South Africa was content to recommend that Burma be referred to the Human Rights Council, a kangaroo court at which the world’s villains pass judgment on Western democracies, and where such a resolution would garner little attention.

The ANC has also made important entr?es with the Arab and Muslim bloc by striking a defiantly anti-American pose. The ANC government opposed sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, for example, and even questioned the legality of the American- and British-enforced no-fly zones, which protected the Kurds and Marsh Arabs from certain genocide. In the run-up to the Iraq war, South African Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad (who earlier this year claimed that the United States was responsible for a “volatile, dangerous, and unpredictable environment” in world affairs) met with Hussein in Baghdad to deliver a letter from South African President Mbeki that “expressed [Mbeki’s] solidarity with Iraq.” Other ranking members of the ANC have expressed similarly bizarre, anti-Western views. Just before the war began, the secretary general of the ANC told anti-war protesters that “Because we are endowed with several rich minerals, if we don’t stop this unilateral action against Iraq today, tomorrow they will come for us.” A year prior, the Guardian quoted the country’s health minister (who has suggested that aids sufferers eat beetroot and garlic to treat themselves) as saying that South Africa cannot afford drugs to fight hiv/aids partly because it needs submarines to deter attacks from nations such as the United States (she later denied ever making the statement). The ANC (due to South Africa’s appalling lack of political finance regulations) has accepted millions of dollars in donations from foreign governments including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, former Indonesian strongman Suharto, and the viciously anti-Semitic Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia. Perhaps wary of how such an act would be received by its steadily increasing Muslim population, South Africa also decided not to co-sponsor the UN General Assembly resolution on Holocaust denial in January, and has joined in the chorus of those nations calling for the United States and the European Union to lift their sanctions on the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

Though South Africa’s Muslim community is small (just 1.5 percent of the population), it has become increasingly radicalized, and the ANC has done everything to appease it. In June of 2003, Pahad met with representatives of Hezbollah and legitimized the group by stating that “clear distinctions” ought be made “between terrorism and legitimate struggle for liberation.” The ANC often lends credence to terrorism against Israel by likening the struggle of the Arabs to that of South Africa’s non-whites. Three years ago, Pakistani police captured three South Africans who stand accused of plotting to blow up the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and government buildings in Pretoria. Another South African has been arrested in connection to the July 7, 2005, London transit bombings, and earlier this year, the United States Treasury named two South African cousins as substantial financial contributors to al-Qaida. While the American government blocked them from making financial transactions in the United States, South Africa’s foreign minister attempted to use his country’s new seat on the Security Council to block the terrorist-sponsoring designation from taking effect. And to top this all off, the ANC called for South Africans to “turn out in their thousands” the week of June 4 “in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

Ultimately, however, what ought to matter most to the international community is South Africa’s increasingly outspoken role in legitimizing Iranian nuclear ambitions. And the United States has indeed shown concern: In response to the Iranian foreign minister’s visit to South Africa last August (when South Africa again declared that Iran has an “inalienable right” to a peaceful nuclear energy program) the United States sent its permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea) to Pretoria in hopes of convincing South Africa to take a harder line. Given the complicated nature of South African-American relations due to the latter’s inaction (and, at times, obstruction) in bringing down apartheid, it was understandable that Ambassador Gregory Schulte would attempt to win the South Africans over with flattery: “South Africa’s example and leadership position you to help Iran’s leaders to think hard about Iran’s future and to consider two different models: The first, North Korea–nuclear-armed, but impoverished, isolated, insignificant; the second, South Africa–nuclear weapons-free, but secure, dynamic, and a respected player in your region and the world. The choice should be clear. You can help Iran’s leaders make the right one.” Nevertheless, South Africa has remained credulous of Iranian protestations about the supposedly civilian purpose of its nuclear program. Indeed, its representative to the UN recently told South Africa’s Sunday Times that “We will… defend the right of countries to have nuclear technology for peaceful uses. For instance, Iran.”

South Africa’s friendliness toward Iran has apparently increased in proportion to its emergence as a considerable player on the world stage. In March, serving in its temporary role as Security Council president, South Africa attempted to halt the imposition of a new round of sanctions on Iran for its defiance of iaea mandates. The sanctions, proposed by the unusual alliance of the United States, China, Russia, France, Great Britain, and Germany, instituted an arms embargo and asset-freeze–both of which South Africa fought to remove from the resolution, and, barring that, to postpone until after a ninety-day “time out” period. Although the Security Council’s five veto powers overruled South Africa’s attempts at watering down the resolution, France’s UN ambassador told the Associated Press that South Africa’s diplomatic maneuvering had nonetheless “weakened a lot of the resolution.”

That South Africa would support Iran is partly a matter of oil politics: Iran supplies almost half the oil South Africa uses. Two years ago, the Iranians claimed that they had entered into talks with South Africa about the latter’s supplying them with unprocessed uranium for enrichment purposes, a claim the South African government later denied. But South African sympathy for Iran clearly goes deeper than mere trade links. For instance, South Africa has recently found itself in a situation similar to Iran’s as it debates whether or not to proceed once again with a uranium enrichment program for “peaceful purposes.” Perhaps, then, the South Africans believe they will be labeled hypocrites for demanding greater scrutiny of Iranian activity while simultaneously sponsoring an enrichment program of their own.

Yet the issue with Iran, at least, has never been uranium enrichment per se. Rather, it has been transparency and intent. No one seriously believes that South Africa’s motives in potential uranium enrichment would be nefarious, and that South Africa–for the most part a good international citizen–would hinder any sort of outside inspection effort of its facilities. The same can hardly be said of Iran. As the Johannesburg Star recently advised the South African government, “Sometimes you have to get off the fence and take sides.” When it comes to Iran, a democratic country like South Africa ought to know which side to take.

Increasingly an influential force behind South Africa’s power plays in the world arena is Ronnie Kasrils, the country’s minister of intelligence and possibly the highest-ranking Jewish official in any government outside of Israel. A veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, Kasrils fled the country at the cusp of twenty-five and spent the next twenty-seven years in exile as a leader of the ANC’s military wing. Though the vast majority of South African Jews–safely ensconced within that country’s privileged white community–did little to fight apartheid, Kasrils was one of the Jews who, in disproportionate numbers, took an active role in opposing the racist system (in addition to being one of the Jews who, also in disproportionate numbers, joined the Communist Party). Kasrils is also a vocal anti-Zionist and Israel’s most outspoken critic in South Africa. He, like other high-ranking ANC figures, appears to believe that Iranian intentions are ultimately benign, and that Israel is in fact the major source of aggression and instability in the region. The prism of Kasrils’ views on the Middle East provides the necessary context for understanding the ANC leadership’s views on international affairs.

In early September of this year, Kasrils wrote of Israel in the weekly Mail & Guardian that “we must call baby killers ‘baby killers,’ and declare that those using methods reminiscent of the Nazis be told that they are behaving like Nazis.” This article was published mere days before Kasrils ventured to Tehran to glorify Hezbollah. A few months prior, Kasrils joined some seventy South African Jews in a statement published in several of the country’s newspapers declaring that, “Jewish support for Israel aggression kills humanity.” Not surprisingly, Kasrils supports boycotting the Jewish state, endorses a “one-state solution” that would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state, and frequently lends credence to the “Israel is an apartheid state” meme. Kasrils’ stance on Israel has become so egregious that Helen Suzman, a prominent secular Jew who served thirty-six years in parliament as an opponent–sometimes the only one–of apartheid, has written that “it is not only religious Jews who object to Kasrils’ allegations. The issue is the anti-Semitism fostered by Kasrils’ pronouncements.” In May of this year, Kasrils invited Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader and prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, to South Africa. Of the invitation, the South African Board of Jewish Deputies released a statement reading that “Expressing support for an organization whose very founding charter describes the Jewish people as evil enemies of humanity and calls for its total annihilation, fundamentally contradicts the ideals both of South Africa and of the ruling ANC itself.”

Joel Pollak, currently a student at Harvard Law School and a former speechwriter for the opposition Democratic Alliance, is a knowledgeable observer of Kasrils, having written a Master’s thesis on his relations with South Africa’s Jewish community, which currently numbers between 70,000 and 80,000. It is not, Pollak maintains, Kasrils’ extreme views that most upset South African Jews, but rather the way in which Kasrils advances them. “Kasrils, unlike Tony Judt, has political power,” he told me. He went on to explain that Kasrils’ attacks on Israel–and South African Jews, as well, for their alleged complicity in Israeli “war crimes”–echo the not so subtle warnings issued to Jews in the early 1960s by Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, who cautioned that Jewish support for the anti-apartheid Progressive Party might inspire a wave of government-sanctioned anti-Semitism. Though Pollak says there is no doubt that Kasrils believes the things he says about Israel (his unwavering communism, for instance, helps account for much of his anti-Zionist ideology), he has cynically used his Jewishness–a trait he rarely ever acknowledges, except when criticizing Israel–to curry favor within the ranks of the ANC, where anti-imperialism is still in vogue, however outdated. Kasrils “knows that because he’s a white minister in an intensely racially nationalistic cabinet, he’s very vulnerable,” Pollak concludes. Thus, by so publicly going after his own relatively miniscule minority community of Jews, Kasrils proves his leftist, third-worldist bona fides to the ANC elite. And if his rise in prominence within the party is any indication, the ANC certainly approves of Kasrils’ frequent Israel-bashing: In 2004, he was appointed intelligence minister from his former post as minister of water affairs and forestry.

Kasrils, characteristic of the South African communists who were catapulted into power while their ideological fatherland crumbled, is unrepentant about the Cold War. In his self-congratulatory memoir, Armed and Dangerous, he writes, “Whatever the drawbacks and failures I am convinced that in years to come humanity will look back to Soviet achievements as a source of profound inspiration.” He blames the defeat of the Soviet system on those in power who were affected by a “fatal loss of confidence and will” and he writes admiringly of Che Guevara and “other communist heroes.”

Many people might prefer to wave Kasrils off as a harmless crank from a bygone generation. But as minister of intelligence, Kasrils is instrumental in shaping South Africa’s approach to dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. As Pollak observes, “South Africa is now the only state in the democratic world aside from Venezuela, maybe, that is standing behind Iran on everything.” So, too, is Kasrils integral to South Africa’s treatment of the Zimbabwe problem: In the spring of 2005, not long after Mugabe uprooted 700,000 of the country’s poorest citizens from their homes in a move reminiscent of apartheid governments’ forced relocations of poor blacks to “independent homelands” in the barren countryside, Kasrils signed a military agreement with Zimbabwe, declaring that “the liberation struggles of Southern Africa and the resultant shedding of blood for a common cause… cemented our cooperation on the way forward in the development of our respective countries.”

The source of the ANC’s kid-gloves treatment of totalitarians is undoubtedly its historic skepticism, even downright hostility, toward the West. This viewpoint solidified during the apartheid years, when it was the Soviet Union that supplied the ANC with weapons and issued diplomatic broadsides against the United States and Britain for their cozy relations with the apartheid regime. Today, the ANC rules South Africa not by itself, but as part of the fabled “tripartite alliance” that it legally formed with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (sacp) in the early 1990s after these opposition movements were legalized by the apartheid government. Herein lies much of the problem.

To its credit, the ANC’s left wing has been its most insistent internal critic on Zimbabwe (largely because Mugabe has crushed his country’s independent trade unions). Nonetheless, anachronistic, “anti-imperialist” ideology still fills the heads of those in the highest echelons of the party. Only compounding matters, both the cosatu and the sacp are “rabidly anti-Israel,” as a South African Jewish community leader told me, viewing Israel as America’s mouthpiece in the region. Moreover, while the ANC has supported liberal macroeconomic policies (to the delight of both domestic and international business), this is due to economic necessity rather than an ideological commitment to free markets. Indeed, the ANC has long been suspicious of Western intentions, to the point of paranoia, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in the attitudes of many high-ranking ANC figures on the supposed “Western” approaches to HIV (such as the belief that it actually causes aids) and Zimbabwe.

The ANC has always featured communists in its ranks, and while some members were fervently opposed to left-wing totalitarianism, they never reached anything approaching critical mass. Indeed, those liberal anti-apartheid movements and activists who were just as outspoken in their opposition to communism as they were to racial discrimination–such as the novelist Alan Paton, leader of the short-lived Liberal Party; Helen Suzman of the Progressive Party; and the English-language press–have notoriously been maligned by ANC apparatchiks as handmaidens to apartheid. Consequently, a history of anti-totalitarianism–a strong, bipartisan current in American politics, shaped by the Cold War experience–simply does not exist in South Africa. Instead, fuzzy leftover notions of “anti-imperialism” dominate the political discourse of influential ANC leaders.

South Africa’s coddling of Iran, then, must be seen as of a piece with its deferral of responsibility as concerns Zimbabwe, its following of the Chinese cue on Burma, and its siding with the Palestinians. All of these decisions are undergirded by a long-established and deeply rooted uncertainty, if not downright antagonism, toward the West.   

Of course, this bleak picture just painted should not obscure the many admirable developments on the continent in which South Africa has played a leading role. It oversaw, for instance, the transformation of the Organization for African Unity, for too long a group that legitimized the kleptocratic tendencies of its member states, into the African Union, which, however weak, has at least deployed several thousand peacekeepers to Darfur. And with the largest and most professional military on the continent, South Africa has also deployed peacekeeping troops in the Congo, the Ivory Coast, and Burundi. Despite his faults (and they are many), Mbeki is a dedicated internationalist who envisions his country playing a robust, leading role on a continent that could learn much from South Africa’s democratic liberalism, political stability, and economic vitality.

But creeping anti-American and anti-Israel sentiments seem to have bubbled up from under the surface of South African political discourse. Indeed, they have now become an ideological underpinning of South Africa’s foreign policy. The American political and media establishment looks askance at this development as, at least on its face, it pales in comparison to the actual human misery that is so widespread on the continent. Moreover, there is little that America or its allies can do to “punish” South Africa for its waywardness; on the contrary, the United States relies heavily on South Africa to be the continental, never mind regional, hegemon, and isolating Pretoria might imperil America’s many other initiatives in Africa.

For decades, the international community rightly considered South Africa a pariah state. With the fall of apartheid, South Africa earned the unique right to be a clarion voice for freedom and human rights around the world. What a shame, then, that the ANC pursues policies hearkening back to its country’s discredited past.


James Kirchick is assistant to the editor-in-chief of the New Republic. He reported last year from southern Africa for The Weekly Standard.


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