Quote of the week

From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into the system.

Edouard Louis
The End of Eddy
23 March 2009

The Dalai Lama and human rights day

The only surprising thing about the news that the South African government has declined to issue a visa for the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa to attend a peace conference, is that anyone was surprised by this callous and mercenary decision.  One can only be surprised by this decision if one assumes that human rights principles come in to play in the formulation of South Africa’s foreign policy.

But human rights principles have not had any role in South Africa’s foreign policy since Thabo Mbeki took over as President of South Africa in the late nineties. Our foreign policy is based on naked self-interest, power politics, a misplaced loyalty to scoundrels and the leaders of rogue nations and a wish – born out of insecurity, vengefullness and a lack of pride and self respect – to try and embarrass the United States and other Western states. In the process our foreign policy has ironically mirrored the deeply unethical and unwise foreign policy of the United States under George W Bush.

It should also not surprise us that the South African government, in dealing with the inevitable fallout of the decision not to issue a visa for the Dalai Lama, has been amateurish and confused, leaping from one explanation to the other to try and justify what it surely knows is unjustifiable. That is why Foreign Affairs and the Presidency are contradicting each other on this issue, looking like the rank amateurs they are. Real tyrants would have anticipated the outcry and would have decided on a single lie to tell the world before getting tied up in all kinds of knots.

Thus we get Foreign Affairs spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa saying on Sunday that it was in South Africa’s “best interests” not to issue the visa to the Dalai Lama, who was due to attend conference to be held on Friday and insisting that no pressure had been placed on South Africa by the Chinese government to deny the visa to the Dalai Lama. At the same time, in a move that would have pleased Thabo Mbeki, he immediately contradicted himself by making claims that were clearly not true. As the The Times reports:

“As far as the SA government is concerned, no invitation was extended to the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa,” Mamoepa said. “So therefore the question of the visas doesn’t exist. This is an independent, sovereign decision. I am not aware of any approach by the Chinese.” Dai Bing, ministerial counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Pretoria, said his government had appealed to the South African government not to allow the Dalai Lama into the country, warning that if it did so, it would harm bilateral relations. South Africa is one of China’s key trade partners in Africa, accounting for around 20.8 percent of China’s trade with the continent.

But today President Kgalema Motlanthe’s spokesperson Thabo Masebe seems to have changed the story a bit. The South African government does not have a problem with the Dalai Lama, he said. Then he used the oldest trick in the book to hide his misrepresentation, namely to deny what was never claimed:

“But at this time the whole world will be focused on the country as hosts of the 2010 World Cup. We want the focus to remain on South Africa. A visit now by the Dalai Lama would move the focus from South Africa onto issues in Tibet.” Masebe said China, a major trading partner of South Africa, had played no role in the government’s decision. “The decision was made by the government and not by the People’s Republic of China,” he said. “This issue is that this simply would not be in the best interests of South Africa at this stage.”

Of course, no one had claimed that the government of China had made the decision – only that it had placed pressure on the South African government, so for Masebe to deny that the decision was made by the Chinese government is laughable. It is obvious that there was pressure from China as the Chinese embassy had confirmed this. Why now try and deny the undeniable? If one is going to lie one  should really try and stick as closely to the truth as possible. Not doing so and denying that which was never claimed is just amateurish.

It should be obvious to anyone with more than three brain cells (and maybe even to those with less than three brain cells, of whom many seem to work for Foreign Affairs or the Presidency) that China placed pressure on South Africa not to issue the visa, given the fact that the 60th anniversary of the uprising in Tibet is approaching and given the fact that China is a big trading partner with South Africa.

It would be far better to have an honest debate about South Africa’s foreign policy and to ask whether human rights principles should play a role in our foreign policy at all. Maybe we can dispense with this charade that we are champions of human rights across the world and just admit that we are mercenary and unprincipled and that we do not really believe in the protection of human rights – unless it can embarrass the West.

Should we vote against gay rights at the UN – as our government has done more than once – because we want to retain influence with tyrants, sexists and homophobes in the rest of Africa? Should we vote at the UN to protect murderous regimes in Sudan, Burma and Zimbabwe because we want to act like insecure bullies who can also throw its weight around and can embarrass the USA? In short, should we act like Africa’s own Republican Party-led USA government, or should we acknowledge the difficult choices to be made between respect for human rights and pragmatic foreign policy?

Our government has long since opted for the former approach and it is laughable to suggest that a concern for human rights plays ANY role in our foreign policy. Please, we are not the good guys and we have not been for at least ten years. Not that it would make a difference to ordinary South Africans or even those “principled” politicians of the South African Communist Party and Cosatu. Who cares about the abuse of human rights in other countries?

Yes, the people of many of these countries supported the struggle against apartheid – often at great financial or physical cost – and yes, without the international community apartheid would have taken a lot longer to get rid of, but hey, who cares. We are free now to steal as much money from our taxpayers as we can get away with, so stuff the rest of the world. And the Dalai Lama too. Time to make money, my China.

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