Unlike the government, we must practise what we preach

May 26, 2024

by Dale McKinley
Published in:

The slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” originated in the early 1900s when it became the official motto of the Industrial Workers of the World, an international union that organised both skilled and unskilled workers across traditional trade and industry divides. 

Several decades later it became widely used in South Africa after Cosatu incorporated it into its logo when it was formed in 1983. Today, it is used all over the world by progressives and anti-capitalists.

The reason the slogan is so important is that it relates directly to the core principle of global-internationalist  human solidarity and dignity as well as to the practice of breaking down the divisions that the capitalist system has so deeply implanted in human consciousness as well as our political, economic and social relations. More specifically, it commits us to speaking out and mobilising against injustice, oppression, exploitation and the various forms of violence that go hand in hand with them, wherever they occur.

When we help a woman neighbour who has been the victim of gender-based violence, when we join a picket at a business that is racist, when we march together to denounce xenophobic vigilantism, when we attend meetings and rallies to support struggles for democratic freedoms  in other countries, we are putting those words into practice.

But here’s the thing; if we only do so when it is easy and convenient, when it is directed at those whom we know or like or when it serves a particular individual or organisational political or ideological interest/purpose, then we are no longer really being true to either the words or the practice. That is exactly what the ANC and the government it has run has been doing for the past 30 years.

A long history of saying one thing and doing another

All the way back in 1993, Nelson Mandela who was soon to become South Africa’s first democratic president, told the country and the world that the ANC-run government’s “engagement in international affairs” would be guided by several core principles. These included “the centrality of human rights, the promotion of democracy and … the peaceful resolution of disputes between states”.

And yet, in the years just before and after 1994, Mandela showed clearly that those principles were already up for sale. Besides refusing to speak out in support of the centuries-old struggles of Aboriginal people in Australia, Mandela accepted a humanitarian award and a $10 million donation from the Indonesian military dictator Suharto and warmly embraced the authoritarian, misogynist, monarchy of Saudi Arabia while again accepting multi-million dollar donations for the ANC. 

On the home continent during the late 1990s and first decade or so of the 2000s, we found the governments of both presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma going so far as to deny the existence of the widespread injustice and violent repression meted out by Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe on anyone who dared oppose it. 

Similarly, there was a deafening silence when it came to the brutal, and often murderous, crackdowns on political opposition and critical grassroots activists carried out by the Frelimo and MLPA governments in Mozambique and Angola, respectively. And, absolutely no concern for the human rights of the long-suffering Swazi people living under the last absolute monarch in the world, nor for those from the LGBTIQ+ communities in fellow African countries such as Uganda, Namibia and Tanzania.

The Ramaphosa era of self-serving cherry-picking 

Fast forward to the present government of President Cyril Ramaphosa and the lineage of the selective, and mostly self-serving, application of moral outrage, concern for the violation of basic human rights and support for freedom struggles has continued. 

It is not possible to list all of the examples, including those related to the warm embrace of Vladimir Putin’s oligarchic, right-wing, authoritarian, proto-fascist and racist regime in Russia or to the widespread oppression of the LGBTIQ+ community across the African continent and the Middle East, but here are a few key ones. 

Burma (Myanmar): Other than a couple of largely vacuous statements calling for a return to “the rule of law” and a “cessation of violence”, the Ramaphosa government has not only ignored the genocidal actions against the Rohingya minority but also the ongoing massacre of civilians and opposition activists by the proto-fascist military junta. 

Worse, last year it allowed the export of R47 million worth of electronic military equipment to the junta by state and/or private armament companies based in South Africa and yet  had the hypocritical temerity to cite (24 times) Gambia’s genocide case at the International Court of Justice against Burma (Myanmar), in support of its own genocide case against Israel at the court earlier this year. 

China: Over the last decade and more, the government has remained silent in the face of the Chinese government’s systematic targeting of the Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups in the country’s north-west region. Such targeting has seen a campaign of mass internment of an estimated 1 million people in a relentless “re-education” drive, accompanied by constant and intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation.

Türkiye: Over the last several years, not a peep from the South African government on authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempts to crush all political opposition; the firing and jailing of tens of thousands of activists and public sector professionals; support for ultra-right wing jihadists or the systematic bombing and ethnic cleansing of autonomous Kurdish Rojava in north-east Syria. 

Iran: While the misogynist, theocratic dictatorship has effectively banned all legitimate dissent; trampled on basic human rights and freedoms and killed and jailed thousands of women for daring to speak out and demand equality and justice, Ramaphosa’s administration has actively supported the regime and expanded South Africa’s dependence on Iranian oil.

Arms sales to African conflict zones: According to the latest figures from the National Conventional Arms Control Committee, and in direct contravention of the committee’s legal mandate, South Africa exported hundreds of millions worth of arms to conflict zones on the African continent where there have been systemic violations of human rights and lack of basic democratic freedoms. Examples include “warships” and unspecific “weapons” worth R308 million to Djibouti and tens of millions worth of armoured vehicles  and “dual-use” items to Cameroon, Mali and Somalia.

Nice words, false claims

It is these realities that must be set out against the claims of the ANC and the government it runs, that its foreign policy and international relations are, and always have been, guided by concern for human rights, peace and democratic freedoms. 

More specifically, they must be applied against its recent attempts to deny these realities in offering reasons why it took the case against Israel to the International Court of Justice, however much the case itself was, and remains, a positive development and rightfully affirms the freedom struggle of the Palestinian people. 

Here is how Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor put it, speaking to the media at the hearing: ”South Africa really has a moral responsibility to always stand with the oppressed because we come from a history of struggle, a history of striving for freedom, a history of believing that everybody deserves human dignity, justice and freedom; this is the only reason that we have taken this major step as South Africa.”

If those claims are applied to the actual realities, past and present, then the gap between word and deed becomes ever wider. Just ask any political and social activist in Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Angola, any young women activist in Iran, any member of the LGBTIQ+ community in Uganda or Ghana or any member of minority ethnic groups in Burma, China and Türkiye. Or, just as revealingly, ask any long-suffering political/economic refugee or asylum-seeker in South Africa from across the African continent. 

The arguments of those who say that the ANC and government’s foreign policy approach is simply “pragmatic”, and full of “complexity”, and that international relations necessarily have to be guided by what is in the “national interest” (whatever that might be), are little more than weak-kneed rationalisations for bending to the interests of those who hold political and economic power. They are similar to the rationalisations provided to turn a blind eye to right-wing nationalist and ethnic politics and/or to excuse the repression of dissent and opposition, in the name of “anti-imperialism” and forging an “alternative world order”. 

That is the thing about core principles and values — once they start being selectively applied regularly, or are outright abandoned, the rationalisations become believable and the associated behaviour and discourse becomes normalised. We can see the  consequences of this on so many fronts — for example, gender-based violence and criminality — here in South Africa, as well as across our continent and globe. 

That makes it all the more important for us to do all we can to be more consistent and inclusive — our individual and collective futures depend on it.

Dr Dale T McKinley is a long-time political activist, researcher-writer and lecturer who presently works at the International Labour, Research and Information Group.