18 April 2007

18 April 2007 - More human rights confusion

Picking up from yesterday, I thought I’d note that South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils recently traveled to Iran, and endorsed that country’s nuclear program, calling it “wise.” Other South African ministers have been making high-profile visits to Iran ever since August 2004, when defense minister Mosioua Lekota signed a trade agreement there, the contents of which are unknown.

At the time, Ha’aretz speculated that South Africa could start selling uranium to Iran. This was never confirmed, but in addition to uranium, South Africa also has considerable nuclear know-how to offer. In exchange, Iran can provide vast supplies of oil. And who knows? Iran might even have offered contracts to South Africa’s ruling party, which may have once hoped to make billions from Saddam’s Iraq.

So South Africa, which remains the only country ever to voluntarily dismantle its own nuclear weapons program, is now providing diplomatic cover for—and perhaps direct assistance to—Iran’s nuclear project. That is not the role Nelson Mandela envisioned for South Africa at the dawn of democracy, and it is a complete inversion of South Africa’s former image as a leader in human rights, peace and democracy.

South African opposition leader Tony Leon made similar points in his address last Thursday at Harvard Law School, where he was a guest of the Harvard African Law Association (HALA). The video of the event has now been made available here. Leon noted South Africa’s foreign policy successes, but also discussed its support for eccentric anti-Western states and its failure to defend human rights at the UN.

The most recent weekly letter of South African President Thabo Mbeki, posted on the ruling party’s website, further illustrates that government’s confusion about basic human rights issues. Mbeki devoted his letter to the topic of slavery, but failed to acknowledge even once that slavery is still ongoing in several African countries, not to mention Haiti, which Mbeki is fond of citing as a paragon of liberation.

Instead, Mbeki condemned ordinary wage labor as a form of slavery, quoting Karl Marx: “All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World.” He also described the work given to “the large numbers of Africans who, driven by dire poverty, daily risk their lives to reach Europe in search of even the meanest of jobs” as a contemporary form of slavery.

Illegal labor in Europe is no picnic, and many migrant workers are, no doubt, exploited, but they are not being carried to Europe and America in chains. They are not bought and sold as property. And some go on to achieve astounding success. Frankly, only a man who has never had to work his entire life could describe the immigrant experience as a form of slavery. For many, it is sweet liberation!

Mbeki may not realize it, but in equating free labor to slave labor, he emulates the nineteenth-century defenders of slavery in the American South, who argued that migrant factory work would be worse than anything black men and women had encountered in the insular world of the plantation. His argument, which poses as a defense of African liberation is, in fact, closer to its opposite.

This is the sort of confusion that an emphasis on socio-economic rights produces. Instead of recognizing and condemning real slavery—i.e. work compelled by violence or the threat thereof—Mbeki attacks a caricature of free labor, which even at its hardest is still the choice of millions of people moving from south to north, east to west, every year. South Africa, too, has immigrants; why not welcome them?

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