United Nations: A theatre of the absurd

2012-10-01 08:05

As it happens routinely this time every year, the world witnesses the spectacle of heads of states and government making their lofty, self-serving speeches in the General Assembly.  And as usual, the speeches we heard this September were of little or no consequence: no problems were solved and the world was not changed into a better place. What did come through, once again, was that the United Nations has further regressed into a dysfunctional, toothless congregation, a house divided, a theatre of the absurd.

What it should be, as intended by its founding fathers, is an international concert of consensus-building, problem-solving, and peace-making. This year’s parade of government leaders has once again demonstrated how far it has meandered from its primary purpose and mission. Inadequacy and paralysis have become its trade mark. Led by a secretary-general with practically zero gravitas, it repeatedly fails to give leadership in times of crisis, allowing itself to become a battlefield of conflicting agendas and ideologies.  In this anarchical environment, leaders feel at liberty to exploit the organisation at will for their own purposes, playing war games in a house built for peace and conciliation.

What is particularly worrying in the extent of their hypocrisy. What leaders preach to the world from the lofty General Assembly rostrum is more often than not miles apart from what they actually do in their own countries and their own foreign policies. And amazing is their assumption that those who hear them are all that gullible to believe their bland propaganda.

Our president Jacob Zuma is a prime example. He used the occasion this year to pontificate about the importance of the rule of law and the democratization of the United Nations. No doubt all highly commendable things if it could be that way.  The cherry on the top for him was being given the high honour from the secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to become part of the UN initiative on education. The hypocrisy of it all is baffling. On none of these counts mr Zuma is a paragon, and many at home and abroad (perhaps not mr Ban) know it.

At home , in the rest of Africa and elsewhere in the developing world (take China and Zimbabwe as prime examples), the rule of law is being flouted as a matter of routine state policy. Mr Zuma keeps quiet about it. While he urges the UN to become democratic, his own democratic credentials (stating for instance that the majority has more right than the minority) as well as those of most of his closest allies in the developing world are non-existent or questionable. Mr Zuma also keeps quiet about this. The state of education in South Africa is an absolute and shameful disaster, noting in particular what happened in the Limpopo province. Mr Zuma shows, however, shows no responsibility or shame about this either.

There is an old adage that ‘foreign policy starts at home’.  In South African political history, people like Jan Smuts and Thabo Mbeki paid a high price for neglecting this truth. They were more active in matters foreign than domestic politics, alienating their home constituencies.  When Mr Zuma became president many people had hoped that he would spend more time at home to deal with our many pressing domestic issues. This has not happened. He finds it easier to deal with opaque international affairs’ issues without electoral responsibility than giving leadership at home that goes with responsibility.

Indeed, he is surpassing Mr Mbeki in terms of number of visits to foreign shores. Problems at home are being swept under the carpet. Instead of dealing politically with the Marikana catastrophe he side- stepped his responsibility by appointing a Commission of Inquiry, allowing the situation to ferment even further. Surely the chickens will come home to roost on this one.  Probably Mr Zuma calculates that the high diplomatic media exposure will bring him more domestic support and seal a victory in Mangaung.  But things do not work that way. The vast majority of South African people are worried and pre-occupied with mundane bread-and-butter issues.  Like his predecessor, Mr Zuma has lost sight of his primary task as South African president and leader. Will he also pay the highest price?

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