South Africa's post-apartheid gains in peril


WORLD VIEW:ANDREW FEINSTEIN, a former MP for South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), has quit politics and now lives in London after refusing to co-operate with party efforts to cover up details of a 70 billion rand (€6.6 billion) arms deal. It allegedly involved two billion rand in bribes to the party and officials.

His is the sort of story that, unfortunately, speaks volumes about South Africa, its politics and media today: of a party seriously tainted by corruption, whose democratic instincts after 18 years of power are increasingly being worn down by a control mentality that bodes ill for democracy in the country, and indeed the region.

At a meeting organised by Frontline in Dublin on Thursday night, the veteran human rights activist Aryeh Neier, head of George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, spoke of the rights movement’s great gains globally over the last 20 years. Not least, he said, should be acknowledged the quiet reality of Africa’s own democratic spring and the fact at least half of the countries of West Africa, from Ghana to Sierra Leone to Senegal, have in that time cast off dictatorships, and in some cases extreme violence and civil war, to embrace broadly democratic values.

Undoubtedly the shining light in this regard has been the powerhouse of the continent, South Africa. But many human rights activists, involved in areas from politics to the media and the arts, are now joining Feinstein in warning the gains made since the overthrow of apartheid may be in jeopardy. That could also, they say, send an encouraging signal to the continent’s remaining tyrants, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Specifically, they fear what they see as draconian secrecy legislation, the Protection of Information Act, which, if signed into law, would mean journalists and their sources face up to 25 years in prison without recourse to a public interest defence for publishing material deemed to be important to state security.

Feinstein has no doubt his own revelations would have qualified and seen him jailed, while Nobel prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer, a long-standing supporter of the anti-apartheid cause, complains that “it is quite obvious why this Bill has come about – the government is making no attempt to hide the truth that its intention is to aid the cover-up of corruption. Sadly, when we fought apartheid, we didn’t have time to consider what came next . . .”

Growing autocratic tendencies in the ANC are associated with what has been described by journalist Justice Malala as “the emergence of a paranoid, securocratic cadre of leaders under Zuma”.

Despite its overwhelming political majority, the ANC has seen the beginnings of erosion of its base, with the opposition Democratic Alliance now polling close to a quarter of votes. The ANC’s vulnerability to charges of corruption and cronyism, persistent mass unemployment and poverty, and the growing enfranchisement of a younger post-apartheid electorate with no memory of the years of liberation struggle, are all contributing to the party’s sense of being threatened. Its response – to lash out at the messenger.

“We must realise that in this election the main opposition is the media,” ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe claimed in the run-up to local polls last year. Last week he walked out of a Johannesburg art gallery and told jubilant supporters outside it was “mission accomplished”, having just forced the gallery to take down a satirical painting showing Zuma in a Lenin-style pose with his genitals exposed.

The party also bullied a newspaper to remove the image from its website. It seems the offence of lèse-majesté trumps freedom of expression.

South Africa’s experience was also the basis of a fascinating and important debate on Thursday night between Neier and former president Mary Robinson about the place of social and economic rights in the human rights agenda. The latter argued that such rights as the right to food, water, or housing were intrinsically the same as civil rights, and an important element of the popular understanding of rights, particularly in the developing world, and hence of campaigners’ armoury.

Neier, while emphasising that he supported the global struggle for social justice and against inequality, argued that social/economic rights were essentially different in that they represented a dimension of the political struggle for the allocation of resources. They would inevitably always involve trade-offs or negotiations, while a trade-off or dilution of civil rights could “never” be justified.

In South Africa, he argued, whose constitution is almost unique in the degree to which it explicitly enshrines the notion of social rights, such rights are in practice unenforceable. In only one case (the Treatment Action Campaign case) had litigants successfully forced the hand of the state – in this case to allow access to a HIV drug, nevirapine. The court did so because South Africa had been offered the drug free for three years and the state could not plead that it was a resource issue.

The courts have turned down claims from citizens for rights to access to kidney dialysis on resource grounds, while a right-to-housing claim, although approved, has proved unenforceable. The courts, Neier argues, cannot deal with resource allocation issues, which, inevitably in a democracy, remain in the political domain of government and can be decided only through political struggle.

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