South Africa’s hu­man rights’ stance ap­pears to lack dis­cern­ment

The Star Early Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - Pierre Heis­tein Pierre Heis­tein is the con­vener of UCT’s Ap­plied Eco­nomics for Smart Decision Mak­ing course. Follow him on Twit­ter @Pier­reHeis­tein

IN OC­TO­BER I had the op­por­tu­nity to meet Yeonmi Park at the One Young World Sum­mit. Yeonmi is from North Korea. At nine-years-old she watched her friend’s mother be­ing ex­e­cuted for watch­ing a Hol­ly­wood movie. At four­teen she and her fam­ily es­caped from North Korea but shortly after cross­ing the Chi­nese bor­der her fa­ther died and she had to bury him in si­lence so that no­body would find them. While in China, an of­fi­cial tried to rape her but he was stopped by Yeonmi’s mother – of­fer­ing her­self in place of her daugh­ter. Yeonmi is now 21-years-old.

As she brought her speech to a close, call­ing for global pres­sure on China to stop the repa­tri­a­tion of North Kore­ans, she broke into tears. “When I was cross­ing the Gobi Desert, scared of dy­ing, I thought that no­body in this world cared; that only the stars were with me. But you have lis­tened to my story, you have cared.” Ex­cept – we haven’t. If we ac­cept our gov­ern­ment to be a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of our coun­try, our peo­ple, and our col­lec­tive de­ci­sions then South Africans do not care about Yeonmi or her fel­low North Kore­ans. And if we do not ac­cept the gov­ern­ment to be our rep­re­sen­ta­tives then we should not be al­low­ing them to lead us; we are ac­count­able.

Last Tues­day, the UN voted to re­fer North Korea’s lead­er­ship to the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court. Vot­ing in favour were 111 coun­tries, 19 against and 55 did not vote. South Africa ar­gued against the mo­tion, and then ab­stained from vot­ing.

This is un­usual for South Africa be­cause it has a good track of sup­port­ing mo­tions against hu­man rights abuses. Last Sun­day, the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil voted on es­tab­lish­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into war crimes in Gaza – South Africa voted in favour.

And it is per­fectly nor­mal, of­ten nec­es­sary, for gov­ern­ment to make un­pop­u­lar de­ci­sions for the bet­ter good of the coun­try and its peo­ple. But what fu­ture in­ter­est do we have in en­dors­ing cru­elty such as that of Kim Jong-un? We don’t need to re­mem­ber our own great lead­er­ship to know that not stand­ing against unim­peded mur­der, op­pres­sion and im­pris­on­ment is wrong.

Yet China doesn’t want us to stand. We have sold our freewill and moral fi­bre un­der the banner of “good in­ter­na­tional eco­nomic re­la­tions”, but even the banner is false. Good eco­nomics takes care of the peo­ple and ab­stain­ing from vot­ing against North Korea does not make eco­nomic sense. While part­ner­ing with China can bring huge vol­umes of in­vest­ment, it is clear that the qual­ity of this in­vest­ment and its con­di­tions are highly prob­lem­atic.

We might make one pow­er­ful friend but we are quickly isolating the rest. In Septem­ber the Global Peace Sum­mit – the first sum­mit of Nobel Peace lau­re­ates to be held in Africa – was sus­pended and moved from Cape Town to Rome be­cause the gov­ern­ment would not grant a visa to the Dalai Lama. More press­ing than the ac­tual de­ci­sions that the gov­ern­ment made re­gard­ing North Korea and the Dalai Lama is that they are not the de­ci­sions that rep­re­sent the peo­ple of South Africa.

Such a dis­con­nect be­tween a gov­ern­ment and its peo­ple is a huge warn­ing sign for any other mean­ing­ful in­vestors.

This is clear for all to see and such a dis­con­nect be­tween a gov­ern­ment and its peo­ple is a huge warn­ing sign for any other mean­ing­ful in­vestors look­ing for a sta­ble and for­ward-look­ing econ­omy to invest in.

In Oc­to­ber 2011, I wrote of South Africa’s in­clu­sion in Brics (Brazil, Rus­sia, In­dia, China, South Africa), that “un­less we stand up for our own goals and val­ues, our vote will be­come noth­ing more than an ad­di­tion to theirs”. It is up­set­ting to see this play­ing out.

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