In April 1994, the heinous apartheid regime in my country, South Africa, came to an end as its citizens celebrated its first democratic elections. April 1994 was also the beginning of the Rwandan genocide with almost a million Tutsis killed – a stark reminder of the dangers of ethnocentric nationalism. The demise of apartheid South Africa, more than anything else, was a demonstration of global solidarity in action. Anti-apartheid movements existed across the globe and put pressure on their respective governments, which in turn sanctioned the apartheid pariah.
At one point, 90% of all South African exports were under some sanction or other, compelling the National Party into negotiations with its arch-rival, the African National Congress. This then paved the way for a democratic dispensation to come into being. There was no similar attention or international solidarity with Rwanda as the massacres unfolded. Indeed, the United Nations responses were woefully inadequate – a fact acknowledged by Kofi Annan himself. But it is unfair to place the blame on the UN itself. The UN is held hostage by the national interests of its member states, and these national interests do not always accord with the global interest.
Recognising the imperative for global solidarity and action and in an effort to prevent more Rwandas and Bosnias, I joined other like-minded people across the globe in the form of Global Action to Prevent War to push for the creation of the United Nations Emergency Peace Service (UNEPS), which was to serve as a rapid response force under the direct authority of the UN. The force was to comprise between 15 000 and 18 000 personnel and were to be a permanent, standing force pre-positioned at UNEPS-designated bases around the world. Despite our best lobbying efforts, no UNEPS was established, as nation-states still operated within the framework of the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648.
As conflicts raged across the globe, with death and destitution becoming the norm from Mindanao to Darfur and Columbia, states stubbornly guarded their sovereignty while paying mere lip service to global solidarity. In an act reeking of selfishness, political elites recognised that in a rapidly globalising world, insecurity anywhere threatens security everywhere; while at the same time refusing to surrender an iota of sovereignty to an international body to secure the very citizens whom they are legally obliged to protect.
Fast forward to 2020 – with the Covid-19 virus having infected 2,2 million people and resulting in the deaths of almost 145 000 of the world’s citizens, political elites continue to act as if national responses will turn the tide against a pandemic that shows no respect for sovereignty or national borders. The European Union’s shocking aloofness to Italy’s plight in the face of Covid-19 demonstrates that, even at a regional level, such solidarity does not exist. Perhaps the most selfish display of this kind of ‘leadership’ emanates from Trump’s America which saw him attack the World Health Organization and threatening to cut off funds to the organisation at the very point when the WHO constitutes the only truly international body to coordinate responses to a global pandemic.
In facing an existential threat of this magnitude, we now more than ever need to surrender aspects of national sovereignty and embrace global solidarity. It would mean strengthening the authority and capabilities of the WHO. It would mean compiling a global roster of health professionals. It would mean truly global efforts at finding a vaccine. It would mean global production of everything, from masks and face shields to ventilators. Only global solidarity can see us through this crisis.
As the pandemic moves to African shores, such solidarity would mean strengthening regional structures such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the continental body – the African Union. It would mean accepting and taking our lead from the WHO. It would mean bringing onboard expertise from non-state actors such as Doctors without Borders, and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent. It would mean embracing the true spirit of Ubuntu.
Professor Hussein Solomon lectures in the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State.