SA’s case at the ICJ was an ideological, not moral, cause - Daily Maverick

Jan 31, 2024
South Africa’s policy impulses are deeply ideological and specifically historical, and its actions cannot be understood without reference to them. The Palestinian cause is a long-standing commitment that speaks to a geopolitical world-view.
SA’s case at the ICJ was an ideological, not moral, cause - Daily Maverick

Terence Corrigan 
South Africa’s policy impulses are deeply ideological and specifically historical, and its actions cannot be understood without reference to them. The Palestinian cause is a long-standing commitment that speaks to a geopolitical world-view.

“Yes, we have issues of load shedding, high unemployment and poor service delivery. But before anything else, we have Ubuntu.”

So goes the punchline in Nathi’s 16 January Maverick Citizen cartoon, “Never again is now”, as a fearless crowd of the great, good and resolute, beneath South African and Palestinian flags, faces off against a grotesque trio representing Israel before a mountain of human remains.

This cartoon captures a widely shared sentiment – widely shared at least in public commentary, and prominent in Daily Maverick – about South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), seeking to halt the “genocide” that South Africa alleges Israel to be perpetrating.

It brings to mind the pledge made in a 1993 article under Nelson Mandela’s name (though apparently not actually written by him) that “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs”. Even in the face of overwhelming domestic problems, South Africa has stepped up selflessly. Good versus evil. This is South Africa at its best.

I wonder.

On one level, Nathi is correct; domestic difficulties do not preclude foreign engagements. Countries need to be able to manage both, though we should be under no illusions that our perilous circumstances at home undermine our capacities abroad.

Not only have our failures sapped our moral standing (the notion of South Africa as a “moral superpower” is delusional, if not laughable), but they have denuded us of the very ability to conduct diplomacy. 

What the National Planning Commission said about South Africa’s “rejection of meritocracy” applies to the country’s external projection as much as it does to collapsing municipalities and dysfunctional schools.

South Africa’s sense of exceptionalism and its claim to moral authority have deep roots. 

“Ubuntu” serves as a colourful and uniquely South African descriptor for these sentiments. Affirming it all now is a wonderful salve for South Africa’s battered morale.

South Africa’s government has seen the attraction of Ubuntu as policy branding. 

South Africa’s 2011 white paper on foreign policy was titled Building a Better World: The Diplomacy of Ubuntu. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation also has on its website Ubuntu Radio, Ubuntu Magazine and Ubuntu Newsflash. It also hosts something called the Ubuntu Awards.

So, what is Ubuntu? 

The white paper describes it as “the idea that we affirm our humanity when we affirm the humanity of others”. This was about caring, compassion and collaboration, and it was what the miracle nation was offering to the world – an offering applicable to all, without distinction.

It even pats itself on the back: “Since 1994, the international community has looked to South Africa to play a leading role in championing values of human rights, democracy, reconciliation and the eradication of poverty and underdevelopment. 

“South Africa has risen to the challenge and plays a meaningful role in the region, on the continent and globally.”

That’s an optimistic reading of things. 

Whatever expectations existed for post-apartheid South Africa to be a moral oracle, these quickly faded. The limits of this approach were shown with Mandela’s less than impactful criticism of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian military government.

By 1998, the government was formally dialling back even its rhetorical commitments. 

Opening diplomatic links with China was seen as an opportunity to push for democratisation and respect for human rights. But when then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki declined to raise these issues on a trip to that country, then Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad said: “I think we all agree that there are specificities in each country which are not universal forms of human rights. We are adapting to the specific conditions of each country.”

Adapting principles to those specific conditions would accurately characterise South Africa’s foreign policy. 

This is to say, those normative niceties – human rights, democracy, the “Ubuntu” package as far as it can be defined – would be applied if and when appropriate. And ignored when inappropriate. (We could all agree with that, no?) How the circumstances would be differentiated would hinge on the political and ideological orientation of the country in question.

So, South Africa went all-in to defend Zanu-PF’s hold on power in Zimbabwe, even at the cost of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development initiative, which had been touted as heralding a decisive break with the authoritarian and development-retarded path. 

South Africa was even willing to overlook the losses its own citizens suffered in the country, and effectively connived in the disbandment of the SADC Tribunal after it had ruled against Zimbabwe (on the basis that the latter’s actions were racially discriminatory).

On criticism of the Zanu-PF government, then Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma had this to say in 2003: “You will never hear that. It is not going to happen as long as this government is in power.” We should have taken her at her word.

Crooked elections in places like Zimbabwe or Venezuela could be defended; the absence of any meaningful political competition in places like Cuba and China could go entirely unremarked on (or defended – Dlamini Zuma once finger-wagged reporters about Cuba: “You’d be amazed by how democratic it is.”).

Indeed, when China intervened in Hong Kong to smash the 2019-2020 pro-democracy protests – something that should have been recognisable to South Africa given its history – the government had nothing to say.

And it’s been noted umpteen times how South Africa cannot quite bring itself to offer anything more than tepid semi-criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Last January, Dirco Minister Naledi Pandor remarked that it would be “simplistic and infantile” to demand Russia’s withdrawal; not all occupations evidently being of equal severity.

And while South Africa now regards it as the duty of humanity to intervene at the ICJ on behalf of the Palestinians, it had as good as nothing to say when Myanmar was brought before the same body by Gambia – also on accusations of genocide.

The ANC, for its part (to the extent that it can be disentangled from the government it heads and the state it has politicised), has made it clear that it sees dissent in such societies as the cat’s paw of imperialism. (Mbeki once told the ANC’s parliamentary caucus that Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change was a creation of the CIA and the ANC should have nothing to do with it.)

On the other hand, South Africa could be vocal about, say, racism in the US, Islamophobia in Europe or just about everything concerning Israel. 

A decade back, I discussed these issues with a senior Dirco official who energetically expounded on the imperative of ending the suffering caused by US militarism and the occupation faced by the Palestinians. Human rights, he said, were indivisible and sacrosanct.

Well and good, so I pressed him on South Africa’s stance on political dissidents in Cuba and China, on homosexuals in Iran, and on the rights of women and religious minorities in many other countries. Well, he said, visibly uncomfortable, this is done very “unsystematically”. The specific conditions of each country, perhaps, determined how systematically Ubuntu was rolled out.

And perhaps it was in line with what South Africa’s then Ambassador to the UN, Dumisani Kumalo, had said when South Africa declined to support a 2008 resolution calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality: “When we became free, we said we would not discriminate against people based on sex, or religion or race… 

“So, we don’t oppress gays in that way and we have laws against it. But that is what we do in South Africa. The problem is that people want us to stand in the General Assembly and condemn others who may be doing things differently … We are not campaigners to condemn other people.”

Well, some but not others. 

Kumalo also once described global interactions around human rights as a “cold war” between the “North” and “South”. When faced with criticism from the “North”, the countries of the “South” “are forced to rally to the support of the targeted country, irrespective of its actual human rights performance”.  

This makes sense from a world-view defined by a narrative of imperialist aggression and resistance to it, but it makes little sense in terms of a philosophy grounded in the inherent humanity of all people.

If Ubuntu is to be understood as a universally applicable ethical orientation, it’s not an especially useful tool to understand either the country’s foreign policy or its stance on Palestine. 

This is not to make an accusation of hypocrisy, since that is a universal condition and would be unremarkable. (The late Samuel P Huntington once memorably wrote that “hypocrisy, double standards, and ‘but nots’ are the price of universalist pretensions”.)

Rather, it is that South Africa’s policy impulses are deeply ideological and specifically historical and its actions cannot be understood without reference to them. 

The Palestinian cause – but not that of Rohingya Muslims, Uighurs, Tibetans, Ukrainians, Egyptian Copts and so on – is a long-standing commitment that speaks to a geopolitical world-view.

One hastens to add that this is not to say that the ANC “doesn’t really care” about the Palestinians. I’d wager that this is genuine, deeply so.  

It may be easier for the party to feel empathy for the fate of those who act as avatars for a cause close to its heart – and which allows the ANC to act as what it wants to be; a liberation movement – than those subject to the ministrations of its day-to-day governance, and in which it demonstrates limited competence and often very little interest.

Those in support of the action that was taken at the ICJ may by all means agree with and admire the course that was taken. But understand it for what it was: an action in support of a specific ally aimed at a specific enemy (for that is how the ANC views Israel). 

Beyond implausible rhetoric, it had little to do with universal morality, which the ANC in any event doesn’t subscribe to. It signifies nothing applicable elsewhere.

Nathi is, of course, a cartoonist and can take a certain liberty with realities. Those of us concerned with understanding the conduct of the South African state and who live with the consequences of that conduct should not. 

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

SA’s case at the ICJ was an ideological, not moral, cause - Daily Maverick

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