Solly Moeng: South Africa cannot be scared to lead from the front on crucial social issues | Fin24
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Solly Moeng: South Africa cannot be scared to lead from the front on crucial social issues

Nov 13 2019 06:00
Solly Moeng

Back in 2016, the South African delegation at the United Nations – no doubt instructed by Pretoria – took many by surprise when it opted to abstain from a key UN Human Rights Council vote to appoint an independent watchdog for the protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Other African countries that abstained included Botswana, Ghana and Namibia. Of the African countries included in the vote, Burundi, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Morocco all voted against the resolution. No African nation voted in favour of it. 

When asked in a subsequent media interview to explain this stance, then-Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, responded with something to the effect that South Africa could not afford to be seen walking too far ahead of its African peers.   

More recently, in fact just last week, Deputy President David Mabuza refused, when asked, to condemn policies in Uganda that discriminate against the LGBTQI+ community.

News24 reported that the question was posed by Kwazulu-Natal DA MP Tim Brauteseth, who wanted to know "how the South African constitutional imperatives to protect marginalised persons and communities are aligned with the silence on the part of the department [.... ] on the developments in Uganda, whose parliament is considering an Anti-Homosexuality Bill that intends to impose sentences ranging from seven years in prison to death for either being gay or supporting anyone who is?"

The deputy president, in his response, waxed lyrical about South Africa’s own Bill of Rights in which the rights of the LGBTQI+ community are enshrined and protected. Mabuza went on to urge parliamentarians to guard against interfering in the “internal affairs of other states”.

The wise deputy president reminded his audience that “South Africa only intervenes in situations where parties in conflict officially request her assistance and or intervention. Similarly, South Africa, therefore, respects the sovereignty of the Republic of Uganda and any other nation”.

Now, anyone who knows how the governing ANC and other former liberation organisations went around the world knocking on doors to ask countries to “interfere” in the sovereignty of apartheid South Africa in the fight for the human rights of the country’s black citizens would be forgiven for wondering if this is the same ANC that, now comfortably ensconced in power, resorts to foreign affairs technicalities in refusing to help others. 

But we know, of course, that it is not the same ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg, Albertina Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and many others. We also have more than ample reason to believe that the ANC has long been swallowed up by an uncaring monster masquerading as the once glorious movement on this and many other issues here at home.  Arrogance, impunity, and the ongoing shielding and redeployment of criminally-suspected individuals into positions of public trust and influence are just a few indicators of how far down the reputation stakes the party has fallen.     

LGBTQI+ rights are human rights. Former president Nelson Mandela was very clear when he reminded those who could listen that South Africa’s foreign policy would always be underpinned by the protection and promotion of human rights and the fight against their violation, wherever such a violation might happen. Crucially, he understood that leadership was not a popularity contest, and it would necessarily be a lonely place to be in from time to time. 

South Africa’s Constitution and Bill of Rights could serve as shining light in an African continent where respect for and the protection of human rights often depend on the changing moods and goodwill of despots who are known to cling to power at whatever cost – including human life - instead of independent democratic institutions.    

No integrated African economic development without policy harmony

Despite oft repeated claims in Africa and elsewhere that Africa may have been one large culturally homogeneous patch of land before colonialism and apartheid – even though there is no documented proof of that – it is certainly not homogeneous today. Instead, it is a massive, imperfect and often conflicting patchwork of cultures, traditional practices, democratic (used loosely) traditions and, crucially, a mismatch of government policies on almost every aspect of modern human economic, social and political life. 

To realise truly effective and sustainable integrated economic development, African states must honestly engage in uncomfortable discussions that will culminate in the harmonisation of key national policies. The protection and promotion of universal human rights, with specific and deliberate mention of the human rights of LGBTQI+ Africans, are at the centre of such harmonisation.

In the end, a shared set of democratic values must be agreed on. It must be clear what is and what is not acceptable, with certainty on what happens when a country engages in behaviour that goes against a conducive climate for the seamless cross-border movement of goods, skills, and funds. Armed with a most progressive Constitution and Bill of Rights, South Africa does not have to be arrogant. But it must also not be scared to lead from the front on relevant crucial issues. 

Many ordinary Africans still look to South Africa for leadership on the continent, even if their own leaders will not say so loudly. But South Africa cannot lead where it must when it lacks the calibre of leaders who fear to walk “too far ahead of its peers on the continent". When it comes to human rights, the kind of “quiet diplomacy” that Deputy President Mabuza seems to prefer doesn’t have a place. 

If South Africa continues to shy away from leadership, and if its stance on membership of the International Criminal Court continues to send out conflicting messages by appearing to prefer to shield the rights of despotic African human rights violators at the expense of the rights of ordinary Africans - we’re going to end up with South African companies being caught-up in ridiculous positions where they will have to deny opportunities to qualified African professionals who happen to be LGBTQI+, for fear that they might be attacked or imprisoned without legal protection in countries that are still fuelled by archaic, nonsensical, and business unfriendly policies that reject the future we could build together.    

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.

solly moeng  |  david mabuza


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