National Interest

The Party of Nelson Mandela No Longer Deserves the World’s Deference

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during a meeting of African leaders with Russian President at the Konstantin Palace in Strelna on June 17, 2023 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Contributor via Getty Images)
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during a meeting of African leaders with Russian President at the Konstantin Palace in Strelna on June 17, 2023 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Contributor via Getty Images)

The ruling party of South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC), emerged three decades ago as a global voice of conscience due to its central role in overthrowing the oppressive Apartheid government. Nelson Mandela, the ANC’s most famous leader, remains a global icon more than ten years after his death. Since 1994, the year Apartheid ended, South Africa has been elected to the world’s most prominent human rights body at the United Nations more frequently than almost any other African country. 

South Africa and the ANC gladly accept the world’s recognition in these matters. Following Pretoria’s referral of Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the conflict in Gaza, the ANC trumpeted South Africa’s “unwavering commitment to justice, human rights, and the principles enshrined in international law.” Pretoria claimed that it is “under a treaty obligation to prevent genocide from occurring,” while a government spokesman piously declared that South Africa was “flex[ing] its diplomatic muscle in defense of humanity.”

If only words made it so. However, South Africa and the ANC’s actions at the United Nations and elsewhere have demonstrated something far from an “unwavering commitment” to human rights for decades. In reality, their moral judgments have been so demonstrably skewed for so long that any human rights claims they make, particularly concerning Israel, require deep skepticism.

I recently analyzed South Africa’s voting record at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and its successor, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). During its frequent membership of those bodies, South Africa has been eligible to vote on 111 contested draft resolutions—meaning at least one country voted against or abstained on the draft—and condemned the abuses of countries other than Israel. Despite frequently proclaiming its passion for human rights, Pretoria abstained more than two-thirds of the time on such drafts. It also voted against fifteen percent of them and supported a mere seventeen percent. 

Among the drafts on which Pretoria decided not to take a stand were twenty-two condemning the brutality of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which perpetrated one of the worst slaughters of the modern era. Similarly, it abstained from all eight drafts condemning North Korea’s gulag system and its many other crimes. 

Pretoria broke its string of abstentions on Iran-related UNHRC resolutions, including one that followed the Iranian police’s beating to death of a young woman for improper veiling, only long enough to oppose one of them. It also voted against every draft resolution that it could that condemned the abuses in Cuba, the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running communist dictatorship, and those of the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) regime, which has murdered tens of thousands of Zimbabweans and destroyed the country’s economy and society.

Compare this dismal record to South Africa’s unflagging support for anti-Israel resolutions. It voted in favor at every opportunity—ninety-nine times—on contested resolutions condemning Israeli actions and even sponsored forty-one of the anti-Israel resolutions. Remarkably, South Africa supported thirty-one resolutions condemning Israeli activity in the Golan Heights claimed by Syria but didn’t support a single one condemning the massacres inside Syria itself.

There is a particular irony in Pretoria claiming that its esteem for international law compelled it to refer Israel to the ICJ, given that it previously scorned its treaty obligations to a similar body, the International Criminal Court (ICC). In 2015, South Africa defied its own courts by refusing to arrest the visiting Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, who was wanted on an ICC warrant for genocide.

Pretoria’s diplomatic muscle in defense of humanity also went flabby recently when a beaming President Ramaphosa welcomed Sudanese general Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo to South Africa. Dagalo got his start as a commander in Bashir’s genocidal janjaweed militias, and his forces are at this very moment perpetrating an ethnic cleansing campaign in Darfur.

Then there is Russia and China. South Africa responded to the ICC indictment of Russian President Vladimir Putin for the forcible deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children by threatening to withdraw from the Rome Statute that founded the ICC. It has also continued business as usual with Moscow throughout the Ukraine atrocities. South Africa participated in joint naval exercises with Russia and China in February 2023, and President Ramaphosa attended the July 2023 Russia-Africa Summit, one of only sixteen of Africa’s fifty-four heads of state to do so.

Pretoria’s apparent commitment to preventing genocide is also noticeably subdued on the issue of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, an ethnic and religious minority group. In December last year, a senior ANC official proclaimed, “China’s ethnic minorities have enjoyed the best years in the last two decades.” Yet in August 2022, the United Nations found that Chinese policies in Xinjiang “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” In 2021, the United States declared what was happening in Xinjiang a genocide. Lawmakers in Canada, France, and the Netherlands have followed suit. In this instance, Pretoria has not simply declined to condemn genocide but is participating in the whitewashing of that terrible crime.

Understanding a Double Standard

The ANC’s double standard on human rights stems from its self-perception as a revolutionary national liberation movement. Alongside its longstanding ally, the South African Communist Party, it views the world as divided between the colonized and the colonizers, with the dominant West representing the latter and the victimized developing world embodying the former. The ANC and the government it leads, therefore, often refuse to condemn even the most barbaric regimes in developing countries, especially if the West is leading the condemnations. The ANC’s long affinity for the Palestinian cause and its decision to welcome a Hamas delegation to South Africa fewer than two months after the terrorist organization’s brutal invasion of Israel is consistent with that worldview.

A core element of the global revolutionary struggle to which the ANC subscribes is the task of reordering the international system that it sees as unjust. The ANC’s selective approach to human rights suggests it understands the concept as a tool to use against its enemies in the ongoing effort. The ANC and the government it leads seem unconcerned with the glaring hypocrisy of hosting General Dagalo, a leader of a known genocidal militia, while simultaneously pursuing Israel for genocide. They may not even recognize the hypocrisy, as their struggle against the oppressive forces of the world is virtuous enough that it allows—or even requires—almost any means, no matter how duplicitous. The world’s misplaced respect for the ANC’s moral judgments is immensely helpful to its campaign in this regard.

Israel, closely associated with the West and aligned with the United States, is a favored target of the ANC. This is especially true because the party can invoke South Africa’s history of Apartheid to strengthen its denunciations of Israel as a settler colonial state that practices its own Apartheid. Given this context, and considering the ANC’s disregard for people’s suffering in places like North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe, the party’s goal for the case against Israel is likely less about protecting Gazans and more about delegitimizing and isolating Israel globally. Doing so weakens a member of the Western coalition that upholds an international system the ANC loathes.

There are also more prosaic motives for the ICJ case. The ANC faces elections this year in which its vote share may fall below fifty percent for the first time since 1994, threatening its ability to control parliament and the presidency. The ANC has no record to sell voters other than its role as the leader of the liberation struggle. In the decades since 1994, the economy has been primarily dismal; infrastructure has crumbled, and the murder rate is at a crisis level. The ANC is running on the fumes of its liberation struggle legacy and the regard South Africans have for Nelson Mandela. By ostentatiously attacking Israel with the ICJ case, the ANC likely hopes to remind voters of its history. Additionally, it may seek to peel off some of the small but electorally important support the opposition enjoys from the South African Muslim community.

The ANC also bears a grudge against Israel for its ties to the old Apartheid regime. Furthermore, the ANC has admitted that much of its funding comes from foreign entities, possibly including China, Russia, and Iran. The extraordinary corruption within the ANC, along with its recurrent financial troubles and a recent unexplained revival of its pecuniary situation, suggest that the ANC rents out its moral credibility to the highest bidder.

The world should no longer grant the ANC and the South African government that credibility, given its cruel decisions to whitewash China’s genocide of Uyghurs, ignore the massacres in Syria, and diplomatically support genocidal forces in Sudan. This is particularly true on matters relating to Israel, the ANC’s antipathy for which is fueled by vengeance-seeking, domestic South African politics, and the party’s ideological commitments that align it with a movement hostile to the United States, its allies, and the West in general.

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