Last week, Brazil elected a fascist as its next Prime Minister. Not a boorish, corrupt, bigoted, racist, sexist kleptocrat (as exists in the United States) but an actual, real-life fascist whose stated aim is to kill leftists and communists, and who celebrates torture, and who is highly likely to act on these beliefs. This means that, of the BRICS members, South Africa is the only country whose government does not believe in state-sanctioned murder of political opponents (Brazil, Russia, China), the “reeducation” of Muslims (China) or the vigilante execution of Muslims (India) or the maintenance of a racially based caste system (India, again). In short, of the BRICS nations, South Africa’s government alone believes in human rights.
When we hear Julius Malema remind us how far we have to go before our people have the rights promised in our Constitution and derived from the Freedom Charter, it is worth briefly recognising how far we have come. In our partners’ regimes, a firebrand like Malema would likely be dead. In our own country, just thirty years ago, Malema’s fate would be some combination of torture, prison or death. I mention this not to argue that he – or we – should be grateful to be able to criticise our government. We shouldn’t; it is our right. But it is a right we will need to defend — from our partners.
Thirty years ago, and in the decades preceding, the world was going through the only “human rights moment” in human history (South Africa was a pariah). Human rights are a very recent thing. Prior to the Second World War, states were free to treat their people as they liked. The Nazi’s atrocities changed this. Starting in 1948 at Nuremberg, individual leaders were held accountable for state actions including crimes against humanity. The crime of genocide was born.
This was closely followed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international covenants on the protection of civil, political, social and economic rights. Soon a general body of international standards was established. Discrimination in any state became the concern of all nations. Apartheid became a crime. Only apartheid South Africa and a few other rogue states continued to reject this new framework. In the subsequent decades, human rights provided a moral compass to all nations. Even when states deviated, they felt obliged to pay lip service to it.
If we recognise how far we have come, we must also notice how far others have regressed. Today, the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, the United States, Israel, Italy and ever more previously-civilised nations reject human rights outright.
Human rights should not be dismissed as a white liberal concept, a bonus for those who can afford it, or something that can be traded away for the right price. Because while there may be a right price to make the “country” rich, most South African people will never see the money. In those sort of trade-offs, they never do. Money from foreign powers comes with pressures to behave in ways acceptable to those powers: to provide and protect the “return” on their investment, even over the rights of those workers delivering that return. China does not respect the rights of workers in its own country; it certainly does not care for the rights of workers in ours.
South Africa is a small country, and not a wealthy one. Our people’s lives need lifting up to a degree greater than even extreme redistribution could solve. We need foreign investment. This is a fact. But we also need to recognise how our trading partners see the world, and how little they care for the values to which we aspire. And to stand steadfastly against the growing pressures they will apply to us to water down the human rights protections of our workers, our protesters, our homeless, our minorities, our poor, our sick, and ultimately of all of us.
Michael Donen is an advocate at the Cape Bar and a listed counsel of the International Criminal Court.