Being all we can be this Africa Day

2015-05-25 14:27

Coming as soon as it does after yet another outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa and amidst reports of the horrors faced by desperate African migrants as they flee bitter, and seemingly implacable inter-group animosities, and intolerable socioeconomic conditions, few Africans are likely to be in celebratory mood this coming Africa Day. Twenty one years ago, South Africa’s relatively peaceful transition to democracy gave Africans much to celebrate by proving Afro-pessimists wrong and showing the world that it was possible for Africans to settle their differences peacefully. Given the strife that racks many African countries today, now might be time for South Africans to act courageously once more to quell the anxieties which threaten to plunge our continent into despair.

A bold policy which may lift the spirits of all who strive for more harmonious continental relations and indeed, all who strive to create more peaceful societies, would be if we unilaterally pledged to abolish our standing army of 70 000 and dismantle our armaments industry. Dismantling the capacity to wage war sends a clear message that a nation seeks alternative ways to resolve conflicts and to project its influence. There is no clearer indication of its commitment to fostering international relationships that are based on mutual respect, where parties rely solely on the force of their ideas and the appeal of their ideals to advance their interests.

It is readily conceded that many will dismiss this suggestion as impractical or mere fantasy. On closer inspection, however, the main objections which are likely to be raised to this suggestion are not as insurmountable as they at first appear.

Take national defence for example. South Africa is in the enviable position of not facing an existential threat from any of her immediate neighbours. This state of affairs seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Using recent history as a guide, it is in fact they who have more to fear from us. The only plausible military threats come from outside the subcontinent. It is doubtful if our army would be able to protect us should we be attacked by those capable of doing so. In any event, as the events that have collectively come to be known as the Arab Spring vividly illustrate, it is frequently internal forces, particularly economic factors and citizens’ frustration with governments not addressing their basic needs, which represent the greatest threats to the stability of a nation. It is also doubtful if the force we are able to muster bestows much advantage in a rapidly changing world where the major threats facing states are global ones. By definition, these affect all humanity. Responding to these threats requires closer cooperation rather than coercion, more so as frequently this means that individual states may have to act outside of the narrow confines of their national interest to effectively counter these threats.

Regarding our obligations to international, especially continental, peacekeeping operations, observe that the nature of war is changing. Consequently, peacekeeping operations nowadays usually entail the maintenance of a civilian peace rather than the separation of conventional armies per se. There is nothing which prevents these from being police and intelligence-gathering, rather than strictly military, operations. Arguably, long-term stability and nation-building are more heavily dependent upon states’ fulfilling these functions, directed as they are towards fostering and maintaining the conditions for dialogue rather than attaining short-term military objectives. Likewise, protecting our national waters and those of our impoverished neighbours need not require the deployment of vast amounts of naval power but instead the upgrading of our coast guard’s ability to effectively patrol these vast areas.

Setting a courageous precedent may also assert our claims to the moral authority that seems so lacking in our current leaders and the prevailing geopolitical calculus that is used to determine a nation’s national interests and inform governments’ conduct in international affairs. Such perceptions could strengthen our diplomatic position and erode the resistance which existing powers may have towards diplomatic efforts to renegotiate the unequal terms of the relationships which currently dominate international relations. Disarming may also go a long way towards restoring our relations with other African countries by alleviating concerns that may have been fuelled by the increasingly belligerent tone which our diplomats have adopted when it comes to military intervention on the continent. Furthermore, at a time when our partners in the BRICS group of countries are increasing their military expenditures, disarming may also clearly signal our foreign policy independence and enable us to garner much-needed political capital internationally. Seen from this perspective, disarming may represent a sound diplomatic strategy for an emerging nation which aspires to a more prominent profile on the global stage.

Yes, this will be a costly exercise. Demobilising and retraining battle-ready personnel and scrapping military hardware is likely to incur significant financial and political costs. Sceptics too will cite the economic benefits of the arms manufacturing industry that will be forgone. Although persuasive economic arguments that costs might not be as high as initially envisaged can be prepared; military technology can be put to other uses in future for example whilst military personnel can be re-assigned to perform other public services; it is pointed out that economic considerations alone are but one facet of the decision to disarm. Any decision of this magnitude must also take other considerations into account. There is no a-priori evidence to lead one to believe that the benefits associated therewith would not outweigh the costs that are estimated using strict economic criteria, especially during an era in which we are witnessing the increased militarisation of nations’ responses to a range of social, economic, political and ideological threats.

Yet perhaps even more important than our relationships with other states, disarmament may be the first step towards transforming our own society into the peaceful society which South Africans yearn to live in. Arguably, there are few more forceful declarations that all forms of violence will no longer be tolerated that a society can make than disavowing violence at the state level. Making such a bold collective declaration may also empower individuals to combat the creeping militarisation of their communities which we see reflected in increasingly organised community vigilantism, apparent popular support for more repressive police practices and the normalisation of practices which could threaten our hard-won civic liberties in future. More significantly in a society where a ‘culture of violence’ has reputedly taken hold, it offers a way to teach our children the importance of dialogue and the virtue of the peaceful resolution of differences. A way to impart, in other words, the spirit which ushered in our democracy in 1994. And isn’t this the sort of message we would like to send to them and all future generations of Africans this Africa Day?

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