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Africa

Opinion: South Africa's democracy eroding

As the debate over how Sudan's President al-Bashir escaped arrest despite a court order heats up, South Africans should be concerned about the direction their country is taking, says DW's Daniel Pelz.

It could hardly have been any more embarrassing. The South African government saw nothing wrong in inviting war crimes suspect Omar al-Bashir to their country, rolling out the red carpet and then surreptitiously smuggling back the Sudanese leader to Khartoum. South Africa, which is ruled by a party that was once a symbol for the preservation of peace, liberty and human rights, now faces accusations of shielding an individual alleged to have committed genocide.

If that weren't enough, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) then went one stage further. Secretary General Gwede Mantashe denounced the International Criminal Court in a radio interview "as a tool of the powerful, intent on destroying the weak." South Africa should cease cooperation with the court, he said.

South Africa's late President and iconic figure Nelson Mandela wanted democracy and respect for human rights to be spread to all the nations of Africa. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, desired "an African renaissance." But President Jacob Zuma and Gwede Mantashe have sunk to the level of run-of-the-mill autocrats.

The sentiments expressed by Mantashe could just as easily have come from Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta. He faced charges at the ICC linked to ethnic, post-election violence in Kenya in 2007.

They could also have come from Yoweri Museveni who intimidates both opponents and the media - and amends the constitution - in order to stay in power in Uganda. Or they could have come from Bashir himself, whom prosecutors in The Hague blame for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Darfur.

Blaming the ICC

Criticism of the ICC is certainly justified. Of course, it is a matter of concern that all the current cases before the court are Africa-related. But that is not entirely due to the activities of the court. Remember the case against the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony - it was transferred to the court by the UN Security Council. Then there was the case of the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga. It was instigated at the request of the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is legitimate to complain that the prosecution did not work as thoroughly as it should have done in some instances and that some cases have dragged on for years. It is equally legitimate to complain that the court only hears cases from Africa.

Portrait of Daniel Pelz head of DW English for Africa service.

Daniel Pelz heads the DW English for Africa service

But to criticize the ICC because it has Bashir on its wanted list and is ignoring other cases is tantamount to blaming the fire brigade for not putting out a fire because they arrived too late. The real culprit is of course the person who started it.

It is also legitimate to note that the West has been all too ready to exert pressure on Africa in the past. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund imposed programs on African nations which made poverty, illiteracy and disease worse than they were before. Western countries also propped up dictators who found favor with them, such as the late dictator of Zaire [now Democratic Republic of Congo] Mobutu Sese Seko. Nobody these days disputes that crimes were committed under colonialism.

South Africa's image at stake

But the International Criminal Court is not some neo-colonialist outpost. And South Africa is far from being a leading power in the region if Gwede Mantashe's words reflect South African government policy. If South Africa wishes to lead, then Mantashe should stop behaving like a schoolboy who bursts into tears over a reprimand from a teacher.

Mantashe and his supporters want the ICC to pursue investigations on other continents. In such cases they should use their influence at the United Nations to ensure that the court acquires the necessary jurisdiction.

But neither the ANC's secretary general nor President Zuma really want to go down that road. South Africa is seeking closer ties with other African nations because it is growing increasingly similar to other African nations. The times when South Africa was the model country in the region are now gone.

Even though South Africa's constitution is one of the most liberal in the world, its civil society alert and its media vigilant, democracy is still being eroded.

ANC's grip on South Africans

This is because the ANC as the ruling party is politically unassailable; a genuine opposition is not on the horizon. The ANC leadership knows how to use this to its advantage.

Jacob Zuma regards the South African state as his personal property. Otherwise, he would not have spent 18 million euros ($20 million) on refurbishing his private Nkandla residence or to give another example, ANC party membership would not be a fast track to well-paying government jobs.

In the case of Omar al-Bashir, the government even rode roughshod over that crucial dividing line separating the executive from the judiciary. It ignored a court ruling that Bashir should not leave South Africa until the issue of his extradition to the ICC had been clarified. Government as practiced in this manner is incompatible with the work of an International Criminal Court in which crimes do not go unpunished.

South Africans ought to be very worried about the future of their country. It has ignored a court ruling, duped the ICC and treated a war crimes suspect as a friend.

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