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South Africa’s Gall

Yesterday on contentions, Gordon Chang called for the United Nations Security Council to vote on a sanctions resolution against the Burmese military junta led by General Than Shwe. “It’s time to see who has the gall to vote against condemning the junta with words and sanctions,” he declared.

There are several countries that have such “gall,” though one of them might come as a surprise: South Africa. Back in January, the United States introduced a fairly innocuous resolution urging the Burmese junta to release political prisoners, enact democratic reforms, and halt violent attacks on ethnic minorities. South Africa, which had just assumed a temporary seat on the Council in January, joined human rights luminaries of China and Russia in siding against the Western democracies. How could the African National Congress-led government of South Africa oppose such a measure? This is a government that, during the apartheid years, called for similar international sanctions against the white-led regime, which was less repressive than the Burmese junta.

In response to a parliamentary question on the South African Security Council vote filed by a member of the opposition Democratic Alliance, the South African Minister of Foreign Affairs replied:

The adoption of this resolution would have set a precedent for the work of the Council, because any member of the Council could bring any country for consideration, even though it might not pose a threat to regional and international peace and security.

How is it that South African apartheid threatened “regional and international peace and security,” but the daily atrocities of the Burmese junta do not? The bizarre position of the South Africans is the product of much forward-thinking analysis on the part of the African National Congress, which has ruled the single-party-dominated democracy since 1994. South Africa has long opposed international and even regional efforts to stave off the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe, telling the world that the situation is one for the Zimbabwean people to deal with themselves. This is an abject impossibility, considering that one side to the dispute is a crazed tyrant who has no desire to negotiate any of his power away, and who controls the army, police force, and the distribution of scarce food supplies.

The African National Congress looks north to Zimbabwe in horror at what might become of its own political power in South Africa. No, South Africa is not about to become the nightmare situation for whites that Zimbabwe has become. Rather, the ANC sees that an upstart opposition—consisting of trade unionists, ethnic minorities, civil society activists, and white farmers—successfully challenged Zimbabwe’s legendary liberation hero in a series of democratic polls (only to be thwarted by physical intimidation and murder). The ANC worries, understandably, what precedent would be set if a liberation movement-cum-political party were thrown out of power in Zimbabwe, and what would happen if a similar fate were to befall them. It is for this reason that the African National Congress government allows Zimbabwe to fester, never approaching what can be the country’s only viable political solution: regime change.

Peter Vale, the Nelson Mandela Professor of Politics at South Africa’s Rhodes University, traveled to Burma over a decade ago at the behest of a Scandinavian government, in order to provide advice to opposition groups based upon the South African anti-apartheid experience. “Was SA’s experience instructive elsewhere?” he asks. This is what he reports:

But the high hopes that the African National Congress had promised for this country’s foreign policy had been largely muted. The cunning insertion of the 19th-century idea of “national interest” into the foreign policy agenda had emptied all high-sounding words of their content. In their place, a new procedural discourse purported to link SA to the “real world”—this held that the legal clause always carried greater weight than the liberation cause. . . .
It was both difficult and painful to explain this to the Burmese. Their understandings of this country glowed in the hype around the ending of apartheid and were embellished by Nelson Mandela’s commanding international standing. Surely, I was repeatedly asked, SA would do something that would both secure the release of Aung San Sui Kyi—who had been under house arrest for six years—and get conversations going between her and the junta.

Chang wants to know if any country has “the gall” to oppose sanctions on the miserable junta in Rangoon. South Africa, or, more precisely, the African National Congress, does.


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