We’re running with the wolves


We’re running with the wolves

South Africa is essentially a small dog sniffing at the alpha dogs' hind quarters, writes MAX DU PREEZ.


MY instinct is always to greet foreign criticism of South Africa with counterarguments. I'm quite seasoned in pointing out shortcomings in other countries too. I'm almost jingoistic when I overemphasise our own strengths.

I've had two such conversations in the past few days, one with a former South African who has been living in America for many years, the other with a French journalist-academic who shuttles between Europe and the US.

When conversing with intelligent non-South Africans, you're forced to think more analytically than in a debate with fellow South Africans. It helps a lot to strip your thoughts of the local back-and-forth nonsense.

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I walked away from both conversations with the feeling that I had made my point thoroughly; that I had undermined Western cynicism and pessimism about South Africa, and effectively highlighted the falsehoods and contradictions. I might have even convinced my conversation partners here and there.

It's just unfortunate that I didn't entirely convince myself. Afterwards, I felt a bit like a second-hand car salesman.

These conversations happened in the aftermath of the Brics summit. My conversation partners were highly sceptical of South Africa's participation in what they see as China's offensive to establish itself as a counterbalance to US dominance in the world by gathering enough partners to form an alternative to the G7 bloc (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, the US, and the European Union).

The Americans and others in the West can't properly process the reality that the US is a rapidly fading power with a deeply flawed democracy.

Many of us outside this sphere are tired of the US dominance of the past century. We, especially in the English-speaking world, will still watch their films, listen to their music, read their books, magazines and poetry, and use their technology, but there's very little worth emulating, few reasons to make America a role model.

Being the strongest economy and military in the world is no longer enough — and it won't be the case very soon anyway.

This is the country that elected a megalomaniacal liar and autocrat as president a few years ago — and might do it again next year.

The country where the almighty supreme court justices are appointed as political pawns for life.

Where a voted-out president refuses to accept the election results and tries to alter them through violence and cheating.

The country where there were 650 mass shootings last year; where there are 121 licensed private firearms per 100 citizens; where young black men are slaughtered by the police on an almost weekly basis.

The civilisation that has fuelled global homophobia, and is now doing the same with transphobia.

It is the country that wants to dictate who the rest of the world's friends should be, but is thick friends with murderous regimes such as  Saudi Arabia and supports Israel's version of apartheid with weapons and financial aid; a country that has supported coups in South America and elsewhere over the past few decades.

This is the country that blatantly lied to the world about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify a military invasion.

This is the country where the Republican Party's likely candidate for next year's election, Donald Trump, said this week that he will throw his political opponents in jail if he wins.

America's political leadership is dominated by elderly people. Joe Biden is 80, Trump is 77, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate who froze up again the day before yesterday and couldn't utter a word at a press conference, is 81. Influential Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, long no longer compos mentis, is 91 and has recently appointed her daughter to make decisions on her behalf.

“The leader of the free world," they say.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

China is the emerging power, economically and militarily. Isn't it understandable that South Africa has already started sucking up to  Beijing?

No, China is not a democracy in any sense of the word. There is very limited freedom of speech in China. The Communist Party rules with an iron fist, and opponents disappear by the dozens. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are held in reeducation camps.

It's a cruel, nasty regime.

It was a bitter pill for me to swallow to see how my country's president last week hung the Order of South Africa medal around the neck of Xi Jinping, a dictator with blood on his hands. If Xi were a South African, he would have been in prison for life long ago.

(Almost like President Joe Biden welcoming Mohammed bin Salman with open arms shortly after the the Saudi crown prince had the journalist Jamal Khashoggi murdered and his body dismembered.)

Unfortunately, this is the future of the international order — it's increasingly about economic and military power, not about rules, human rights or democracy. It helps if you have a lot of oil.

This wasn't South Africa's doing. We are a small, insignificant country outside of our region, tagging along with the big dogs and trying not to anger any of them. And we must constantly watch who the alpha dog is and sniff at his hind quarters.

It's distasteful to belong to the same club as dictatorships, but South Africa's primary interest is what these countries can do for our development and economy. With China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates' abundant money, the Brics bank becomes a potentially valuable asset for us.

But does this mean China's bad habits will infect South Africa because we're members of the same international club?

No, and it hasn't in the 13 years we've been part of Brics. We have an incompetent, corrupt ruling party, but we still have a vigilant, energetic civil society and media that guard our progressive constitution and a functioning, independent judiciary that enforces it.

The founding provisions of our constitution, which include human dignity, human rights, the supremacy of the constitution, the rule of law and a multiparty system with regular elections, can be amended only with a majority of 75% in the national assembly and the consent of six provinces. The Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech, movement and association, can be amended only with a two-thirds majority and the consent of six provinces.

Unlike Zimbabwe and a whole string of countries in west and central Africa — and Russia — the military and police in South Africa are not a political power. There's zero chance of a coup, and not just because the men in uniform would be too useless to get it right.

South Africa has held 12 national and local elections since 1994, each time with greater credibility than most elections in America and many other countries. We have nearly foolproof legislation and processes that guarantee the freedom and fairness of elections under the supervision of an independent electoral commission.

Things are not going well for South Africa at the moment. But three of our biggest assets — our free media, our independent judiciary and the fact that we are an open society in the fullest sense of the word — are largely intact.

We, the people, know we have inept, corrupt rulers at all three levels of government. We, the poor and the wealthy, black and white and brown, complain about it every day. We, as a nation, know we are better than our rulers.

And we have started to do something about it.

Opposition groups are collaborating and mobilising, the business sector has begun ambitious interventions to assist the state, and at the local level, citizens are coming together to improve their own communities.

The DA in Cape Town and the opposition coalition in Tshwane insisting on the application of rules and refusing to yield to violent pressure are good signs.

If we, the people, can't rid ourselves of the ANC next year, we will at least weaken the ANC significantly and strengthen the opposition. Opposition coalitions can take two more provinces from the ANC and in 2026, all metros and a large number of local authorities.

The process of rescuing the entire country from the clutches of the corrupt, power-abusing and cadre-deployed can then be completed in 2029.

When you sup with the devil, you have to have a long spoon. We must seek nothing other than trade and assistance from our dictator friends. And we mustn't alienate the G7 countries to the extent that it adversely affects our trade relations with them. The idea is to be non-aligned, not realigned.

We should expect that China, and to a lesser extent Russia, will try to funnel money to the ANC, over, under and around the table, to keep it in power and on their side. Journalists, civil activists and opposition parties will have to be vigilant about this and make sure the revenue service, the reserve bank, the public protector and other institutional watchdogs do their jobs properly.

One of our most challenging problems is the grip that organised crime, crime cartels and mafias have on our economy and national life. I hope  the involvement in a counteroffensive by two of our most prominent and talented business leaders, Jannie Durand of Remgro and Neal Froneman of Sibanye Stillwater, will make a significant difference.

We'll have to hold our noses in the future. Our friend Russia supports coups in West Africa and sows destruction in Ukraine. Our friends Iran and Saudi Arabia suppress women and murder critics. A civil war is raging in Ethiopia. There are thousands of political prisoners in Egypt.

Of all the 11 countries in Brics Plus, South Africa is by far the best democracy.

We'll have to soothe our consciences from now on by saying, “It's not personal, it's just business".


♦ VWB ♦

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