People power

2008-04-22 00:00

ONE of the heartening things about the new South Africa is the degree to which ordinary people and civic organisations have been prepared to empower themselves in the face of state incapacity, incompetence or sheer unwillingness to act. Individual homeowners, for instance, have made their own security arrangements and, in some instances, banded together to patrol an area when the police have been unable to contain crime.

Organisations like Business against Crime have set up closed-circuit television cameras in the city to be the eyes and ears of the police. High performance motorcars have been donated to the traffic police to assist in fighting lawlessness on the roads. In the face of the Eskom meltdown, individuals have taken steps, quite literally, to empower themselves.

President Thabo Mbeki’s two most striking instances of myopia, the Aids pandemic and Zimbabwe, have similarly evoked a response from civil society. In the case of Aids, organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign have not only campaigned against official denialism but actually forced the state to provide antiretroviral medication for the needy by successful court action.

There are certain codes used in diplomacy. The picture of Mbeki, a seraphic smile on his face, fondly holding President Robert Mugabe’s hand, did not require any decoding. He’s in Mugabe’s pocket and the initial South African government reaction to the arrival off Durban of a Chinese ship, the An Yue Jiang, laden with arms for Zimbabwe, was equally sympathetic.

Not so civil society. In a commendable display of democratic muscle, trade unions whose members would have been involved in handling the ship announced that they would not be prepared to unload it, while the churches went the legal route and secured a court interdict that the arms were to be held in secure storage by the Sheriff of Durban. It is no coincidence that as the sheriff approached the vessel in the outer anchorage to deliver that order, it weighed anchor and fled.

What happens now? This newspaper has previously taken the view that the one aspect of the arms deal which was justifiable was the money spent on the South African navy — which had been starved of funding by the apartheid government for half a century. Now that we have the naval ships capable of dealing with a gun runner, are they going to be required or allowed to do so? Or will the authorities remain passive?

The An Yue Jiang will not be able to keep going indefinitely without bunkering. The fact that she appeared off Durban was probably because she was not welcome in Mozambique waters. If she puts into a South African port for fuel, what will happen? What will the attitude of Namibia be if she puts into Walvis Bay, or Angola, if she appears off Luanda? Will they impound her deadly cargo? Whatever happens, it should not fall into the hands of Mugabe’s forces of repression.

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