South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), the movement-turned-party that brought down apartheid, has been the somewhat unlikely focus of the global Tibet movement this week, following the outrageous decision to deny the Dalai Lama an entry visa to attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s eightieth birthday celebrations.
At a critical time for Tibet, with the fifth self-immolation protest since January, and an on-going military crackdown in response, the snub was seen as an appalling lack of support for the Tibetan people- not least by Tutu himself, who launched an unprecedented attack on the ANC, declaring it “worse than apartheid”, whilst comparing the rule of President Jacob Zuma to that of Hosnai Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi.
Yet whilst activists around the world have rightly responded with anger and lobbying, pointing to the utter hypocrisy of a party founded in its own struggle against oppression, the narrative of an inspirational movement being corrupted by China’s economic and political influence fails to tell the full story.
Of course, no one disputes that the Chinese government pressured South Africa to deny the visa, just as it has done with every state that he has attempted to visit from the USA, to Ireland, to Russia. However this is far from a solitary blemish in the ANC’s record on foreign affairs; rather it is simply the latest indication of a problem that runs far deeper.
Take for example, the decision to vote against a resolution condemning the Burmese junta’s suppression of opposition and massacres of ethnic minorities, when South Africa first took a seat on the UN Security Council in 2007. On Tuesday, Aung San Suu Kyi, often referred to as “Burma’s Nelson Mandela”, cited the ANC’s poor record in supporting her people , pointing out that it has regularly fallen far short of the backing given by individuals such as Mandela and Tutu.
Yet the following day, South African representatives at the UN once again failed to support a people struggling for freedom, this time in Syria. Abstaining on a resolution that had already been watered down in the (ultimately futile) hope of avoiding Chinese and Russian vetoes, the ANC categorically balked at the opportunity to stand behind those putting their lives on the line to take on Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime.
Closer to home, the ANC has long been criticised for its appalling track-record in addressing the abuses committed by Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. Whilst Jacob Zuma has been marginally more critical than his predecessor Theo Mbeki, who stood idly by as his old friend had opposition supporters beaten and killed during the 2008 election, he still panders up to the tyrant and has no qualms about deporting thousands of Zimbabwean refugees back to face the horrors that await them. The ANC position on Darfur has been arguably worse still, with officials not only vetoing a resolution condemning President Omar Al-Bashir’s genocide, but actively courting the war criminal and welcoming him to Cape Town, whilst vocally condemning those seeking to bring about his downfall.
Given this background, along with the previous denial of a visa for the Dalai Lama two years ago, the recent turn of events should come as no surprise. China’s profoundly negative influence in Africa, including South Africa, must unequivocally be addressed and opposed; but so too must the fact that the ANC itself is rotten, abusive and utterly disregarding of human rights.
Like the Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front or Mugabe’s ZANU, it once fought a just cause…but today its dominant contribution to international affairs is to deny others the very same freedoms it first set out to achieve.