Saturday, October 15, 2011

South Africa: South African Government (mis)Representing its People?

Source: ISS

South African Government (mis)Representing its People?

Shireen Mukadam, Researcher, Corruption and Governance Programme, ISS Cape Town Office

“You and your government don’t represent me. You represent your own interests” an exasperated Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaimed directly to South African President Jacob Zuma at a press conference last week. This came after His Holiness the Dalai Lama called off his planned visit to South Africa on Tuesday 4 October as a result of the failure of the South African government to provide a visa timeously. Expressing his disbelief, Archbishop Tutu warned the African National Congress (ANC) government to “watch out!” and added that religious leaders may one day pray for the downfall of the ANC, just as they had for the hated apartheid regime. The incident has sparked a national debate about government decision-making and some suggest that this could represent a watershed moment in South African politics- between a regression to Apartheid era policies and those of representative democracy.

The spiritual leader of almost 300 million Buddhists worldwide has visited South Africa on three occasions in 1996, 1999 and 2002. The Dalai Lama was previously denied a visa to enter South Africa in 2009. This time, government officials’ spin is that the Dalai Lama only applied for his visa on 20 September, but the facts according to a timeline released by the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre paint a completely different picture. The South African High Commission in Delhi first received a submission for the Dalai Lama’s visa on the 20 June 2011. All the relevant documentation required for the visa was ready in August and his passport received on 20 September, which gave authorities ten full working days until 4 October to stamp the Dalai Lama’s passport for entry into South Africa. Instead a delaying tactic ensued thereafter, arguably part of the government’s strategy to effectively deny access, as the matter was referred from the Department of Home Affairs to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) with neither prepared to take responsibility for making a decision. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe subsequently claimed that the visa was to be issued, had the Dalai Lama not cancelled his trip. According to the Dalai Lama’s representative in Africa, Sonam Tenzing “the Dalai Lama waited and waited and when he realized nothing was coming out, that convinced him that inconvenience was being felt by someone and he came to the decision”. This handling of the application was remarkably disrespectful to the Dalai Lama and also begs the question of whether representatives in the South African government have misled the South African people. What has changed to turn his visits from a warm embrace to being given the cold shoulder?

Conflicting interests between government’s national and economic interests could be a reason for this disgraceful conduct. While at this stage it remains speculation, as government has not provided clarity, pressure from China, currently South Africa’s second largest trading partner after the European Union, is suspected. Motlanthe was in Bejing in September where he announced a $2.5 billion investment deal between South Africa and China. No official reasons have been provided this time for the delay and once again we are experiencing the inaccessibility of motivation behind government decisions, which undermines citizens’ right to know. Considering the Dalai Lama travelled recently to Brazil and that he lives in India- both major partners of BRICS- it is difficult to imagine that South Africa granting the right of access to the Dalai Lama would have damaging implications for economic relations with China.

And even if it did, has this consideration become more critical to the South African government than doing the morally right thing?

Yesterday, during a speech at the University of Pretoria, President Zuma asserted that nobody dictates South Africa’s foreign policy. His claim is disputable considering the recent incident involving the Dalai Lama,- which some would argue is only one example of a number of contentious government decisions. Contradictions in South African foreign policy and values as a nation bring to mind the decisions to vote against UN Security Council resolution to end human rights abuses in Burma, voting in support of a no fly zone over Libya and most recently a $355 million loan to the Swaziland government- criticized by a Danish NGO as de facto support of the repressive absolute monarchy.

South Africa has come a long way to finally have a Constitution underpinned by values of equality, justice and human dignity for all and this arbitrary denial of a visa of entry to a Nobel Peace Prize recipient should not be allowed to set a new tone. Tutu said this situation is reminiscent of Apartheid South Africa where “when we used to apply for visas from the South African government, we never knew until the last minute whether they would be issued”. It is not only a matter of contempt towards two of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders, Tutu and the Dalai Lama, but the issue runs far deeper and concerns the extent to which South African people feel they can relate to the decisions of their government, which at times appears to be misaligned with our Constitution. After last week’s events surrounding the effective denial of entry into South Africa for the Dalai Lama, Father John Oliver of the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum (WCRLF) contends that Tutu’s attack on the ruling party legitimizes a moral opposition to the ANC that increasingly appear disorientated from its 1994 moral compass and the vision enshrined in the Constitution. The question of who the ANC government represents and its commitment to moral principles is raised.

Tutu reminded the government of the role the international community played to help South Africa overcome Apartheid and that the world assumed South Africa would defend the rights of oppressed people. In an article in Foreign Policy published on 4 October, Eve Fairbanks asks whether the rainbow Nation is abandoning its identity as a moral torchbearer to rush to support whoever happens to be holding the biggest butter dish.

Decisions taken by a government representing the majority of its people must represent the people. Actions on the international level should be congruent with the views of the country’s domestic constituency, to ensure that internal tensions don’t rise excessively along with frustration and a sense of misrepresentation, a situation, which seems to be slowly brewing below the surface in our country. Over the past decade we have witnessed what can be described as the flourishing of civil society in South Africa advocating issues of social justice.

The Dalai Lama’s forced cancelation of his trip to South Africa and Tutu’s ensueing criticism of government came just the morning after a broad-based civil society campaign under the banner “Let him in Now! No pass laws for the Dalai Lama” held a peaceful vigil outside Parliament in Cape Town. The campaign is led by the WCRLF and the Interfaith Initiative amongst other civil society organizations.

While a country is often faced by numerous objectives that at times appear incompatible, decisions of principle must be guided by Constitutional values and not the whims of a political elite. This requires, courage, leadership and consistency in the face of pressure. One would expect nothing less of a democracy that currently hold a seat on the UN Security Council. South African politicians and the foreign policy mandarins have displayed none of these values. Rather they have acted inconsistently, with little foresight and embarrassed a country and its people.