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The Despots' Democracy

Author: Michael J. Gerson, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow
May 28, 2008
Washington Post

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“Things on the ground,” e-mailed a friend from a groaning Zimbabwe, “are absolutely shocking—systematic violence, abductions, brutal murders. Hundreds of activists hospitalized, indeed starting to go possibly into the thousands.” The military, he says, is “going village by village with lists of MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] activists, identifying them and then either abducting them or beating them to a pulp, leaving them for dead.”

In late April, about the time this e-mail was written, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa—Zimbabwe’s influential neighbor—addressed a four-page letter to President Bush. Rather than coordinating strategy to end Zimbabwe’s nightmare, Mbeki criticized the United States, in a text packed with exclamation points, for taking sides against President Robert Mugabe’s government and disrespecting the views of the Zimbabwean people. “He said it was not our business,” recalls one American official, and “to butt out, that Africa belongs to him.” Adds another official, “Mbeki lost it; it was outrageous.”

It is also not an aberration. South Africa has actively blocked United Nations discussions about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe—and in Belarus, Cuba, North Korea and Uzbekistan. South Africa was the only real democracy to vote against a resolution demanding that the Burmese junta stop ethnic cleansing and free jailed dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. When Iranian nuclear proliferation was debated in the Security Council, South Africa dragged out discussions and demanded watered-down language in the resolution. South Africa opposed a resolution condemning rape and attacks on civilians in Darfur—and rolled out the red carpet for a visit from Sudan’s genocidal leader. In the General Assembly, South Africa fought against a resolution condemning the use of rape as a weapon of war because the resolution was not sufficiently anti-American.

When confronted by international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch about their apparent indifference to all rights but their own, South African officials have responded by attacking the groups themselves—which, they conspiratorially (and falsely) claim, are funded by “major Western powers.”

There are a variety of possible explanations for this irresponsibility. Stylistically, Mbeki seems to prefer quiet diplomacy with dictators instead of confrontation. Some of his colleagues in the African National Congress (ANC) -- South Africa’s ruling party—argue that because Mbeki was an exile during apartheid instead of a prisoner or freedom fighter, he has less intuitive sympathy for prisoners and freedom fighters in other countries. South Africa clearly is attempting to league itself with China and Brazil in a new nonaligned movement—to redress what one official calls an “imbalance of global power,” meaning an excess of American power. And longtime observers of Mbeki believe that racial issues—including Mbeki’s experience of raw discrimination during the London part of his exile—may also play a role. He lashes out whenever he believes that Westerners are telling Africans how to conduct their lives, or who their leaders should be. So for years he viewed AIDS treatment as a plot of Western pharmaceutical companies—and now he helps shield Mugabe from global outrage.

Whatever the reasons, South Africa increasingly requires a new foreign policy category: the rogue democracy. Along with China and Russia, South Africa makes the United Nations impotent. Along with Saudi Arabia and Sudan, it undermines the global human rights movement. South Africa remains an example of freedom—while devaluing and undermining the freedom of others. It is the product of a conscience it does not display.

Zimbabwe is the most pressing case in point—reflecting a political argument within South Africa and a broader philosophical debate.

The labor movement within the ANC, led by Jacob Zuma, is close to the opposition MDC in Zimbabwe (which also has labor roots) and is highly critical of Mbeki’s deference to Mugabe. Zuma’s faction has provided planes to transport MDC leaders. The labor faction of the ANC is using the Zimbabwe crisis to argue that Mbeki is “yesterday’s man”—indifferent to the cause that gave rise to the ANC itself.

And this debate is clarifying a question across southern Africa: Did revolutionary parties in the region fight for liberation or for liberty? If merely for liberation from Western imperialism, then aging despots and oppressive ruling parties have a claim to power. But if for liberty, those who work for freedom in Zimbabwe must also have their day.

So far, South Africa—of all places—sides with the despots.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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