Held to a higher standard

2015-06-17 10:42
Jonathan Erasmus.

Jonathan Erasmus. (File)

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AFRICA is home to more than 20 armed conflicts, so saying that the African Union has its work cut out is not merely a sad cliché, but a tangible and deadly concern.

While the African continent has seen a rise in improved governance and is finally being touted as a landmass that delivers great minds, we may have moved away from the geopolitically unstable label we once wore only because of the rise of other, more prominent crises.

Think China, Russia, Ukraine, Malaysia, the Middle East, Western imperialism, the one percent versus the 99%, and nuclear threats. Our instability doesn’t seem to pose as big a threat as these things, for the moment. This means the images that now emanate from Africa are not only of starving children. But, like any country or continent, our geopolitical and social problems have not vanished as the problems of others have been highlighted.

Instability, conflict, bizarre understandings of democracy and child starvation still exist in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, South Sudan, the DRC, Burundi, Central African Republic, Libya, Egypt, Somalia and Liberia. Despite this, the pockets of xenophobia/Afrophobia that we witnessed recently in South Africa have become chief talking points among African nations. It almost seems unfair.

None of us will disagree that the xenophobia we experienced here was revolting and deserves the strongest condemnation, but when we look at the rest of the continent’s problems it does pale in comparison to child soldiers of the Congo, 500-plus death sentences meted out in mass trials in Egypt (including the once democratically elected president Mohamed Mursi), the decades-old lawlessness of much of Somalia and Libya.

Our xenophobic violence was quelled. We held media campaigns, marches and dialogues. While we still have some deep soul-searching ahead of us, as a country we certainly mobilised and continue to do so. Yet it is still at the forefront of discussion among the AU.

The obvious question is why? Why on this continent, home to dictators and military coups, human-trafficking and kidnapping, unjustified arrests and a string of archaic laws, has South Africa been put under the microscope?

And while we are being diplomatically battered, we have been asked to increase our donations to the AU, to which we are already the biggest contributor, and no doubt to play a pivotal role in the Africa free-trade agreement to unlock inter-continental trade.

The only plausible reason is that as a country we are held to a higher standard than the rest of the continent. We are the closest to the AU’s 2063 vision — Africa’s set date to make immense changes that will turn the continent into a wealthy, healthy and safe place to be.

South Africa, while no longer the biggest economy, is the most powerful. We have strong ties with the West and the East. We are able to talk to Israel yet stand with Palestine. Our friends are among the most powerful in the world. We are relatively stable with a functioning democracy, rule of law, financial sophistication and an operating public service, and we are, despite what transpired earlier this year, a hotbed of multiculturalism with a vocal civil society.

Just this week, our own people called on us to arrest Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court, and Egyptian president General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose rise to power included a coup and imprisonment of an elected sitting president. Whether our state has the strength to carry out these arrests will reveal if we are true leaders or spineless.

It is important for us to realise that we are not only on the tip of Africa, but at the top of the pyramid. This is why we need to show leadership internally and outside of our borders. We also need to be frank with our compatriots.

For instance, we can’t simply open our borders until our neighbours at the very least have vastly improved the lives of their people, or else our economy will be greatly prejudiced.

We need to take a hard line on nations such as Zimbabwe, the government of which repeatedly victimises the opposition and minority groups. We need to lead a chorus for reform against Swazi King Mswati III and his fiefdom.

No doubt President Jacob Zuma’s precarious position on issues such as Nkandla, his fraud and corruption charges and a multitude of other issues, does make this difficult.

But one of the key reasons why our xenophobic violence reached an international audience or why Zuma’s past dirty laundry is continuously aired is because of our Fourth Estate. Our media wields considerable power and is able to hold power to account. The free flow of information is an absolute necessity for the vision of Pan-Africanism to be realised. It will bring greater accountability, ignite economic activity, reduce endemic corruption and, ultimately, lift this place we call home from the stigma of being helpless to a place of hope and aspiration.

• Jonathan Erasmus is The Witness Durban reporter

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