Spurned ship a sign of hope for Africa

2008-04-30 00:00

The action by local and regional civil groups, trade unions and political parties that stopped the Chinese ship, An Yue Jiang, from off-loading 77 tons of weapons destined for volatile Zimbabwe, may yet prove to be one of the most decisive blows for democracy in Southern Africa.

For once, the will of ordinary people for more meaningful democracy on the continent has triumphed over Africa’s leaders’ often instinctively dictatorial tendencies.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, following the African grass roots opposition to the delivery, ordered by Zimbabwe’s increasingly unstable dictator, Robert Mugabe, recalled the ship.

It is shameful that the South African government had given permission for the weapons to be transported across the country to landlocked Zimbabwe. South African Defence Secretary January Masilela issued the An Yue Jiang with a permit to transport the deadly cargo, saying there was no international arms embargo against Zimbabwe.

Yet, South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Act makes it very clear that the country should not sell or transfer arms to governments “that violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

South Africa’s civil society and individual citizens responded heroically to defend the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe from more state-sponsored brutality. The South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union’s refusal to off-load the cargo was heart-warming.

Anglican bishop Rubin Phillip and Patrick Kearney, a former activist and executive of the Diakonia Council of Churches, who made a successful application to the Durban High Court to prevent the weapons from being transported across South Africa, are examples of model citizens, taking on the government — effectively using the democratic institutions — when the government undermines the spirit of democracy, human rights and liberty, not only in South Africa, but abroad.

Judge Kate Pillay’s ruling in favour of the application to bar the movement of the arms to Zimbabwe underscores the importance of an independent judiciary, which uses South Africa’s admirable Constitution as a guide in its judgments.

But the fact that trade unions, civil groups and political parties in other southern African countries also opposed the off-loading of the deadly weapons in their harbours is ground-breaking.

Dictators like Mugabe have remained in power for too long because regional leaders have propped them up or kept quiet. This has happened because being critical of a fellow African leader’s record in power would lead to them being seen as puppets of the former colonial powers or betraying the liberation struggle.

But keeping silent and doing nothing to denounce dictators because they are black, while they brutalise their citizens (who are mostly black), line their pockets and pillage their countries’ economies in the name of the liberation struggle, is soiling the glorious ideas of the liberation struggle.

Democracy in Africa is not going to be brought by outsiders although their partnership will obviously be helpful. It will be built locally on the kinds of actions that led to the An Yue Jiang returning to China.

It is instructive that immediately after the incident of solidarity for the people of Zimbabwe, Mugabe professed his interest in a government of national unity (of course, with Mugabe at its head, even though he lost the elections), which he has refused since 2000.

Now African civil groups, citizens and governments, in partnership with the Zimbabwean people, must refuse to recognise the government of Mugabe. If the An Ye Jiang action is repeated by African citizens, civil groups and governments, the ruins of Zimbabwe may yet give birth to a new movement for real democracy in Africa.

• William Gumede is Research Fellow at the School of Public and Development Management, University of the Witwatersrand.

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