South Africa, Africa, and the United Nations Security Council
(Seminar Report No. 38)

This CCR seminar report is based on a policy advisory group seminar held in Somerset West, South Africa, from 13 to 14 December 2011. The meeting took place as South Africa approached the end of the first year of its second two-year term (2011-2012) as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. The seminar focused on: South Africa's role on the UN Security Council; the relationship between the African Union (AU) and the UN Security Council; and the politics and reform of the Council. The policy seminar, which was held in partnership with the Centre for African Studies at Dalarna University, Sweden, was made possible through the support of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa (OSF-SA), Cape Town, and the Swedish Embassy in South Africa.
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Posted to the Web: 5 April 2012

South Africa, Africa, and the United Nations Security Council
(Policy Brief No. 10)

This CCR policy brief is based on a policy advisory group seminar held in Somerset West, South Africa, from 13 to 14 December 2011. The meeting took place as South Africa approached the end of the first year of its second two-year term (2011-2012) as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. The seminar focused on: South Africa's role on the UN Security Council; the relationship between the African Union (AU) and the UN Security Council; and the politics and reform of the Council. The policy seminar was held in partnership with the Centre for African Studies at Dalarna University, Sweden, and was made possible through the support of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa (OSF-SA), Cape Town, and the Swedish Embassy in South Africa.
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Updated on the Web: 21 March 2012

Ruth First, a South African liberation fighter and Pan-African intellectual activist, was killed 29 years ago today in Mozambique by a letter bomb sent by the apartheid regime. One of her most important books was 1974's Libya: The Elusive Revolution, based on field interviews, including with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Four years earlier, she published The Barrel of A Gun, a tour de force on military rule in postcolonial Africa. With the regime of the Libyan strongman facing its most serious challenge in its 42 years, it is interesting to recall First's prescient analysis of Gaddafi's rule.

First's book on Libya provides a historical background of European colonial rule followed by a western-controlled puppet monarchy. It seeks to untangle the contradictions of Gaddafi's "perverse" revolution of September 1969, following an act of regicide against King Idris. An oil-rich state wished to avoid becoming a conservative sheikhdom; Gaddafi simultaneously pursued a social revolution and a revival of Islamic fundamentalism; power was held by 11 young soldiers yet the regime claimed to represent a mass-based popular revolution; it launched a cultural revolution against the bureaucracy while stalling any nonstate political action; the putschists condemned the corruption of the monarchical ancien regime while cutting deals with global oil cartels to create a new ruling elite; Gadaffi pursued Pan-Arab unity even as he became diplomatically isolated.

In short, First describes the remarkably durable, eccentric rule of Gaddafi, who modelled his rule on that of Egypt's charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser. She shows how, despite the radical rhetoric, Gaddafi's authoritarian rule actually comes to resemble the monarchical rule he has displaced, running an oil- dependent rentier state. Her concluding point is that one has first to understand the idiosyncratic Gaddafi in order to explain the Libyan revolution, but that understanding him alone is insufficient to explain Libyan history and society.

Gaddafi's traditional, religious approach led him to live in a Bedouin tent and to criticise the decadent West, even as he relied on its technology and companies to finance his domestic revolution and foreign adventures. First elegantly summarised this style of rule: "From him comes an inexhaustible flow; didactic, at times incoherent; peppered with snatches of half-formed opinions, cryptic self-spun philosophy, inaccurate or partial information; admonitions; confidences; some sound common sense, and as much prejudice. Few of his speeches do not contain the germ of at least one sound idea.... For Gaddafi's view of the world is uncomplicated by any real knowledge of it."

Despite its insights, First's work on Libya was not always nuanced. She noted that "Gaddafi's view of religion as politics meant that setbacks to the Arab cause were attributable to human corruptibility, to a failure of true belief, to a departure from the moral principles of Islam." This was a caricature, since Gaddafi has clearly been a shrewd, ruthless, calculating politician who has sought to maintain his own survival by tying his rule to the most fundamental beliefs of his people.

First later criticised her own analysis of Libya for framing the key issue as "national development" in a vague populist manner. She also rejected her earlier Marxist class analysis of the "petite bourgeoisie" as having been inappropriate to understanding Libyan politics.

One wonders what First would have made of Gaddafi's harebrained suggestion, in April last year, for the dismembering of Nigeria into two independent states: one Muslim and one Christian. She had written intelligently about the Nigerian military and its role in the country's civil war of 1967-70. Gaddafi supported dissident groups against "neocolonial" regimes in Africa, from Chad to Liberia. He controversially became chairman of the African Union in 2009-10, spending lavishly to win political support. After the eruption of the "Arab Spring" at the beginning of this year, Libya was poised to become the next autocratic domino to fall after Egypt and Tunisia. Gaddafi has, however, clung on tenaciously, despite frequent North Atlantic Treaty Organisation bombings that have clearly gone beyond the actions mandated by the United Nations. Libya is now partitioned between Tripoli and the rebel-controlled Benghazi, even as fighting continues. Were she alive today, the fiercely independent First would surely have written eloquently about the strange demise of Libya's self-proclaimed "King of Kings".

Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution

 



When President Jacob Zuma recently expressed the belief that popular uprising of the kind that has been seen in Tunisia is "impossible" in South Africa, he made a strong argument: "We have a constitutional democracy here; every person has the right to say what he wants and to vote."

An evident and simple truth, it would seem. The revolutions that have ousted the former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power and former president Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt as a dictator for three decades, and now threaten Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi after 41 years of autocratic rule, may indeed appear unlikely here.

After all, this is the home of Nelson Mandela; it is also Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu's Rainbow Nation; and it is the site of the miraculously and relatively peaceful overthrow of one of contemporary history's most vicious political systems: apartheid.

But sustainable democracy should be about more than the uncontroversial implementation of a voting system — and may not be best served by living off past glories.

While Zuma has shown he has something of the populist touch — apparently unlike his former fellow leaders in North Africa — critics say his political style falls short of bringing the substantive benefits that many South Africans seek.

South Africa remains the world's most unequal society. Closer analysis reveals some uncomfortably close parallels between the political and socio-economic realities in Tunisia — where revolution triggered wider North African unrest — and those of South Africa.

Tunisia — like South Africa — has recently experienced relative economic health, reporting strong growth. Before his ouster, Ben Ali was praised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Western donors for having introduced beneficial economic reforms.

The country seemed to be making progress with a sizeable middle class.

But then, an unemployed graduate who had resorted to selling fruit and vegetables in the market to make a living was stripped by police of his means of survival.

After continually harassing 21-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, police in Sidi Bouzid, a town in central Tunisia, arrested him for trading without a permit. Driven to despair, Bouazizi committed suicide in spectacular fashion — as an act of protest, he set himself alight and burned to death.

This suicidal act of self-immolation in December sparked a popular uprising that, within weeks, forced Ben Ali to flee the country.

An unemployed graduate left with little choice but to sell fruit had been driven to despair. This is a plight that is not uncommon in our own country, where university graduates often have little access to the job market. One such disillusioned former student came to the public's attention at the end of last year when he wrote an open letter to the Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande, which was reported in the Mail & Guardian on December 1.

Fikile Dube had graduated from UCT six years earlier. Now, after years without a job and with an education debt that had doubled to R80 000 since graduation, the 43-year-old human resources graduate described how, despite his best efforts, he had remained trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Poverty and hunger in Tunisia and Egypt drove the dispossessed to the point where they could no longer just wait and hope. Instead, they gathered their last strength and used it to express their anger.

South Africa also is sitting on a poverty time bomb.

The economic reality is no secret — all our presidents since 1994 have acknowledged the high levels of deprivation.

The UN's South African Human Development Report of 2003 noted that 48.5 percent of, or 21.9 million, South Africans were living below the poverty line. The UN reported that between 28 and 40 percent of working-age South Africans were jobless — compared with Tunisia's relatively low unemployment rate of 14 percent.

Some members of the South African government have recognised the scale and urgency of the problems.

Higher Education and Training Department spokesman, Moloantoa Molaba, replied in the M&G to Dube's open letter: "It is a national disaster that there are these millions of unemployable youths walking the streets."

Such responses indicate that some in the government are working to forestall the potential arrival of South Africa's "Tunisia moment", which political commentator Moeletsi Mbeki recently predicted would occur in 2020.

Other members of South Africa's leadership would also do well to acknowledge the warning signs and address urgently the issues of poverty and lack of service delivery that have already prompted frequent street protests.

Of course, South Africa's political system is much more sensitive to popular sentiment than those systems in North Africa, where the leaders targeted by popular revolt adopted emergency laws instead of democratic elections to prop up their rule for decades.

In South Africa, by contrast, national elections take place every five years, providing a useful litmus test of the strength of the present government's mandate.

Unsurprisingly, the ANC — which continues to enjoy the advantages of a grand historical legacy as the party that freed the country from apartheid — won the last election easily. However, little long-term comfort was offered by other aspects of the poll — for example, COPE won 1.4 million votes although it had only been formed six months earlier and had run a shambolic election campaign. The DA also grew in strength, gaining almost 17 percent of the vote in 2009, more than 4 percent more than it had won five years earlier.

Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, in his recent budget speech promised much action and billions of rand to train and employ young South Africans. Whether these pledges prove merely rhetorical remains to be seen. But the ruling party should note that similar promises were made over the years to the citizens of North Africa. In the end, the surest guarantee against the kind of political revolt seen in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya is to fulfill the political promises.

Oscar Siwali is a Senior Project Officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town

 



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