The company we keep

2011-06-02 00:00

SIPHO Ngcobo (The Witness, May 27) defends South Africa's membership of the Brics bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) on economic grounds and attacks critics as "short-sighted intellectual snobs". In doing so, he offers little more for the future than the recolonisation­ of Africa by the club which is going to rule the world, in other words, China. The latter is apparently going to build the Johannesburg to Durban high-speed rail link. It will be intriguing to see what the Chinese make of South Africa's (justifiably) generous labour laws and its work ethic or the Congress of South African­ Trade Unions (Cosatu) reaction to the introduction of hardworking imported labour (the Chinese­ prefer to supply their own).

What Ngcobo totally ignores are the human rights records of the Brics countries. If he were to abandon the stance of a one-eyed economist, he might at least withdraw the unwarranted remark about short-sightedness. South Africans should take very seriously with whom their government is getting into bed.

Russia is so corrupt it is described as a mafia state. The independence of civil society is under severe pressure, and human rights activists and sympathetic lawyers and journalists are accused of lack of patriotism. The police use torture to extract confessions and there are serious doubts about the fairness of trials. Freedom of assembly is restricted, and in 2009 there were 71 deaths and 330 injuries resulting from racist attacks by right-wing groups. Women suffer from widespread family violence and in Moscow there is reportedly just one shelter.

Chinese business methods are well known — a toxic brew of crude capitalism and communist repression. The exploitation of workers has undercut the manufacturing capacity of many countries, including South Africa. More broadly, there are severe restrictions on freedoms of assembly, association and expression, and controls over the media extend as far as the Internet.

The harshness of the regime is particularly pronounced on the margins of the Chinese Empire in Tibet and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Religious dissidents and signatories of Charter 08 are specific targets for persecution. Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to prison­ for 11 years in a trial lasting three hours during which his lawyer­ was given 20 minutes. Detained in re-education and labour camps are 190 000 people, most of them for insisting on religious freedom. Torture is rife and hundreds of people are executed every­ year.

In Brazil, police are heavily involved in organised crime and extrajudicial killings by death squads. Militias are run by off- duty­ police who, in their official capacity, engage in military-style operations to crack down on poor areas. In the past, police were implicated in the killing of street children­. And, away from the big urban centres, indigenous people, rural communities and the environment are all at the mercy of land seizures by rapacious commercial interests.

India is correctly adjudged the world's largest democracy and has historical bilateral ties with South Africa. But a quarter of its people live in extreme poverty, and land rights are abused with development frequently preceded by forced evictions. The Dalit community of untouchables is heavily discriminated against, particularly in rural areas. In conflicts with Maoist groups in west Bengal both sides have abused civilians. The police are quick to use excessive force and have been implicated in extrajudicial killings.

South Africa's judicial system, constitutional rights and progressive legislation in areas such as labour­ relations are highly valued­. Emerging economies are seductive places, but it is necessary to look behind and beyond economic data and bland assumptions about development at the state of civil rights. Indeed, many of the methods driving the economies­ of these countries would not be tolerated by South Africans.

Most cultures have a proverb or saying putting across the idea that you are known by the company you keep. It is fair to say that South Africa is still very uncertain about the kind of country it wishes to be. While it is difficult to generalise about four other countries from three continents, the other Bric partners are all tainted to some degree by corruption, police brutality­ and restrictions on civil liberty. In spite of its well-crafted Constitution all these are emerging characteristics of South Africa today, suggesting that its mem- bership­ of Brics is no accident. Our government appears to favour the outward signs of economic development over human rights.

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