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The Human Rights Debate - it's the only one that matters

Updated on March 21, 2011
The logo of the Congress of the People (Cope)
The logo of the Congress of the People (Cope)


South Africa is heading towards its fourth democratic general elections, which will be on 22 April. They are crucial elections, perhaps the most important faced by the electorate since 1994. It is an election that has a number of crucial issues, major among them crime, the economic downturn, and looming problems in the region, not least of which is Zimbabwe.

Also the presidential candidate of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), Mr Jacob Zuma, who is most likely to win, is facing unprecedented charges of corruption and racketeering stemming from the controversial arms deal signed by the government at the end of the 90s with a number of European arms companies.

Added into the volatile mix is a breakaway from the ANC, called the Congress of the People (Cope), which owes its existence to a feeling of betrayal of the principles of the anti-apartheid struggle by many former ANC members.

As part of its coverage of the elections the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, is hosting a series of election debates in which representatives of the various parties in the elections are invited to make inputs and participate in debates around issues that the electorate might want answers to.

I have been writing commentary on South African politics for the past number of months in a local newspaper hosted blog, mainly from the point of view of Cope. What follows is my blog about the election debate on human rights.

The logo of the African National Congress (ANC)
The logo of the African National Congress (ANC)

The debate

The SABC Elections 2009 debate was, predictably at this Sharpeville weekend, on Human Rights, and was a lively and interesting event, though not necessarily very enlightening, in the sense that nothing really new emerged from the political parties.

The two analysts, on the other hand, asked important and cogent questions which the politicians, in the way politicians have, mostly managed quite successfully not to answer.

I found it quite poignant that, at the time, on the very day, that the news broke of the denial of entry to the Dalai Lama, the ANC representative on the panel, Mr Valli Moosa, was able to boast that the ANC had promoted a culture of human rights to such a degree that freedom of movement previously unheard of in South Africa, was a reality. And he didn't blush, but he didn't mention the Dalai Lama either.

The question posed by debate moderator Tim Modise at the start of the show was: after 15 years of democracy, have we succeeded in creating a human rights culture in South Africa, and what would the political parties represented do to further promote human rights.

Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission Jody Kollapen was very lawyerly in his comments about human rights and the importance of the quality of life enjoyed by all in South Africa.

The hard hitting questions were asked by Professor Steven Friedman of the host University of Johannesburg.

Friedman asked three basic questions on political intolerance, the rights of grassroots citizens and the rights of migrants and immigrants.

On the first issue of intolerance, which he called the big challenge, he asked the parties if they would hold to account anyone in any position in their parties who in any way promoted intolerance, or broke up meetings of other parties.

On the second question of he rights of the “little man” he pointed out that newspaper and commentators were quick to make lots of noise when some prominent person's rights were allegedly infringed, but were strangely silent when ordinary citizens were similarly denied their rights.

On the question of migrants and immigrants he said it was indeed some local party leaders who stoked up the so-called xenophobic attacks last year.

Kollapen echoed these thoughts and added that 350 years of neglect of human rights in South
Africa could not be rectified overnight but would take long to overcome. However he said that there was, in spite of progress made on human rights, a dangerous situation developing of there being two systems of, for instance, health and education, one for the wealthy and one for the poor. This was counter-productive and was in effect a denial of the rights of the poor.

Advocate Mava Mala of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) kept harping on the quality of housing provided to people by the government over the past 15 years, saying the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses were not “fit for dogs.”

Dr Corne Mulder provided some entertainment by constantly getting back at the ANC for double standards.

The Rev Batsila Shadrack Modise of the United Christian Democratic Party kept trying to say something and not quite succeeding.

There was something a little unreal about the debate – a feeling that while the ANC makes all the right noises it doesn't always quite walk its brave talk. I find it so sad that a party which has come to power on a human rights ticket, so to speak, still doesn't get it that talking human rights and at the same time not dealing with corruption openly and boldly is sending a mixed message. You can't promote human rights and at the same time vote against a UN resolution to deal with the human rights violations of the Burmese junta, no matter how relevant and correct your procedural issues were.

You can't speak human rights and then allow a country which has massive human rights issues like China dictate who may or may not enter the country. No matter how much they invest in this country, China has a shameful human rights record and to allow them to veto a visit by the Dalai Lama, or anyone else, for that matter, is also shameful.

The ANC would do well to heed the slogan of one of their alliance partners: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

The question of human rights, as Sharpeville should remind us, is central to democracy, central to our hard-won freedom. We would do well to heed the warning issued recently by Centre for Policy Studies analyst Aubrey Matshiqi, according to SAPA on Friday, that “South Africa was at risk of becoming a so-called deep state where what happens is determined by the covert, converging interests of politicians, big business, crime bosses and the intelligence community.”

The only antidote to that dangerous disease is a strong human rights culture in which everyone has a stake. And so Kollapen's warning of the two systems is an urgent one, one which should be heard and heeded more and more as we head to our most important election since the advent of democracy 15 years ago.

May the struggles and sacrifices of so many people not be rendered vain by a lack of vigilance on the part of all who care for human rights. It's a daily struggle, but its the only one that matters in the end.

The Dalai Lama refused entry to South Africa

I had, earlier in the day, written about the denial of an entry visa to the Dalai Lama by the South African government. This is what I wrote.

Human rights vs. Realpolitik

I am not sure if I should be writing this blog as I'm speechless with anger and humiliation right now. But I'll have a go anyway.

I am not a huge fan of the Dalai Lama, let me put that out front. I think he represents a feudal society and an unenlightened political viewpoint. He has been accused of religious intolerance and of nepotism in his fiefdom-in-exile in India.

I am also not sure that there is not more than a grain of truth in the Chinese claim to have liberated the Tibetan people from serfdom.

Having said all that, the Dalai Lama seems in his person to be a humble, peace-loving teacher of a particular religious practice who has, rightly or wrongly, a huge following, especially in the
West. That he is exploited by anti-communists is also not questionable. He has allowed himself to become a figurehead of anti-communism, and especially for people against the People's Republic of China (PRC).

So he is a figure of ambiguity – to some a human rights leader, to others a feudal tyrant.

And I guess the truth is he is a little of both. He represents a lie that I believe should have died a natural death at the time of the French Revolution – the “divine right” to rule concept. His followers though, have been persecuted by one of the most tyrannical regimes in the world today, although there is a great deal of positive to be said about the PRC – no more warlordism, very little starvation, a thriving economy.

At the same time there are many negatives to be said about the PRC also – not much respect for human rights, a very active legal killing machine, an almost medieval system of justice, and I fear, a rather rampant imperialism.

So the reported denial by South Africa of a visa to the holy man is not without some justification on political and, of course, economic grounds – we know on which side our bread is buttered, after all. But as a symbol of human rights the Dalai Lama is powerful PR, so denying him entry to South Africa is powerful negative PR for the country.

South Africa gained its democracy through a concerted human rights effort around the globe in support of the armed struggle. We have a constitution which is the most enlightened in the world. We are working hard to create a human rights culture to underpin and support our democracy. And then we deny entry to one of the most powerful human rights figureheads in the world.

It seems that our national commitment to human rights is not nearly as strong as our commitment to economics and ideology.

But I guess that's realpolitik.


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