/ 25 January 2024

Neither the West nor the ANC support rights for all

Graphic Tl Pithouse Holdonworld Twitter 1200px
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

The decision by the South African government to institute proceedings against Israel at the International Court of Justice is not the first time that it has directly opposed the West. Nelson Mandela repeatedly made it clear that he would not disavow his personal relationship with Fidel Castro or undo the close relations between the South African and Cuban states. 

Nobody should have been surprised by this. Mandela’s arrest in 1962 followed a tip-off to Hendrik Verwoed’s government from the CIA. The US continued to back the apartheid state well into the 1980s, while the Cubans forced PW Botha’s army to turn and flee in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola in 1988.

Mandela, who also affirmed his support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation, largely got a pass on his refusal to surrender his autonomy to the West. Thabo Mbeki was not given the same indulgence. 

Mbeki braved intense hostility from the leading Western powers when he travelled to Port-au-Prince to mark the bicentenary of the revolution against slavery in Haiti in an event held on 1 January 2004.

At home, there was a very colonial condescension, along with hostility and ridicule from Western-aligned protagonists in the public sphere. 

Tony Leon, who was then the leader of Democratic Alliance (DA), condemned Mbeki’s “over-emotional response to Haiti’s 200th anniversary”. Long-time columnist Peter Fabricius informed his readers that: “The model which Africa needs today is not one of heroic revolution and liberation.”

Two months later, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected president of Haiti, was kidnapped at gunpoint by US marines and removed from office. When Aristide arrived in Pretoria in May 2004, Mbeki was met with shrill derision as he welcomed an elected president with the formalities accorded to a head of state.

As with the coup in Bolivia in 2019, the Haitian coup was driven by an alliance between Western actors and local elites. In both instances, local support for the coups had a clear racial dimension, with white or light-skinned people taking a leading role.

South Africa is in no danger of a coup. We do, though, have a situation in which the DA, NGOs such as The Brenthurst Foundation and the Institute for Race Relations and commentators such as Frans Cronje, Greg Mills, Pieter du Toit and Fabricius are stridently pro-West. 

The standard cut-and-paste argument made by these kinds of commentators asserts that the West is a collection of rights-based, democratic societies and that by opposing the West’s assumption of a planetary right to rule, South Africa is turning towards authoritarianism. 

This line of argument invariably leaves out the most salient fact about the West’s claim to be a democratising force. That fact is that, while Western democracies, although far from perfect, are freer than those of some of the powerful states in the Global South, they have never been committed to rights or democracy for the majority of humanity. 

Centuries of Western domination

The planetary power of the West began to take form in 1492 when Europe began to cohere as a political project with a global reach. On 2 January, Muhammad XII of Granada surrendered to the Catholic monarchs Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, bringing a final end to Al-Andalus, the centuries of Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula. On 31 March, an edict was issued, forcing Jews to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. On 12 October 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in the Bahamas. 

Europe was now understood as a Christian project and the enslavement and genocide of the indigenous people in the Caribbean and North and South America that began in 1492 was justified in the name of Christianity. Religion was also used to justify the enslavement of Africans. People who were not Christian were not deemed human. 

By the 17th century, the power of the church was giving way to science and the justification for expelling most people from the count of the human was shifting to race, a fabrication assiduously advanced by leading European scientists and philosophers. 

The scale of the destruction of human life is beyond any meaningful comprehension. Between two million and five million indigenous people were enslaved in the Americas. One study concludes that about 56 million indigenous people died in the Americas from 1491 to 1600 as a result of European colonialism. 

Estimates of the number of African captives taken to the Americas to work as slaves range from 9.4 million to 12.6 million. 

It has been argued that, in the later part of the 19th century, somewhere between 30 and 60 million people perished in famines resulting from the deliberately inhumane economic policies of colonial governments. 

From 1885 to 1908, millions of people died in the Congo under the rule of the Belgian King Leopold II. The figure of 10 million is most often given but there are higher estimates. 

In Australia, organised mass killings of indigenous people began in 1794 and continued till 1926. 

The killing has never stopped. Millions died in the colonial wars in Vietnam and Algeria. The US-backed massacre of the left in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 took more than a million lives. A similar number of people died as a result of the destruction of Iraq following the US led invasion in 2003. Saudi Arabia and Israel, both Western-backed regimes, continue the killing in Yemen and Gaza.

The borders of the West’s commitment to rights and democracy do not only mark out the lines between those who can be murdered with impunity and those who cannot. They also separate those who have a right to collective political and economic autonomy from those who do not. 

Destructive economic policies, often enforced by debt as well as persuasion, have devastated societies across the formerly colonised world. The US, acting with the backing of the wider West, has repeatedly organised and supported coups against elected governments such as, among many others, those in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, Haiti in 1991 and 2004 and Bolivia in 2019. It has also bombed and invaded a long list of countries and backed an equally long list of brutal pro-Western dictatorships.

No respect for universal rights

To assert that the West is democratic, and therefore morally superior to the rest of the world, without noting that its stated commitments to rights and democracy do not extend to most of humanity, and that this often follows the lines first drawn by colonialism, is to collude in the more than 500 years of denial of the full and equal humanity of the majority of humanity by Europe and its settler colonies. 

Frantz Fanon was not wrong to suggest that, for most of humanity, the meaning of Europe is “an avalanche of murders”.

No credible politics takes this fact to mean that there should be automatic and uncritical support for non-Western states. Many are appalling. The ANC is far from being among the worst but it frequently violates the rights of its own citizens, has no meaningful political vision for the emancipation of its own people and is deeply corrupt. 

Like the West, the ANC does not have a universal commitment to rights and democracy and has no compunction in making alliances or sustaining relations with authoritarian regimes. 

It simultaneously supports the dictatorship in Harare and turns on Zimbabwean migrants. It would, therefore, be mistaken to see its approach to the  International Court of Justice as a defence of universal human rights. 

But the ANC is opposed to the enduring assumption of a global right to dominate and to kill by the leading Western powers — to the power relations that have governed the world since 1492 and that endure into the present. In this respect, it is on the right side of history. 

It is necessary to affirm and support the South African government’s courageous and principled challenge to Israel and its backers in the West, along with their local allies. It is equally necessary to oppose the ways in which the ANC is a predatory, and at times oppressive, force at home, as well as its collusion with oppressive regimes.

Richard Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut.