SA can’t condemn US and China on human rights - we’re just like them
Activists who fled to US consulate in 80s would be kicked out of it today - and we'd do the same to Zimbabweans
On September 13 1988 four anti-apartheid activists held in detention under the apartheid government’s brutal emergency regulations – routinely beaten and tortured by security police – decided to make a break for it.
The four activists were Murphy Morobe, the publicity secretary of the United Democratic Front at the time and later a senior government figure after the fall of apartheid; Vusi Khanyile, later a major SA business figure; and Mohammed Valli Moosa, who later served in Nelson Mandela's administration as minister of the environment. The fourth activist was Clifford Ngcobo.
The four men were taken for medical treatment at a Johannesburg facility where they decided to execute their escape plan. They could have fled into exile, where many of their comrades were. They decided that they wanted to underline the plight of the 1,300 people still under detention without trial in 1988. More than 30,000 people had been detained without trial in SA in just the two years since 1986. More than 15,000 of those were children under 18.
Where could the activists go where they would not be thrown back into the jaws of the apartheid monster? Where could they go where they would at least be sure that a human rights argument would trump one which would be all about the fact that whatever country they chose had significant investments – even after the divestment campaign – in SA?
They chose the US consulate. Just two years before, in September 1986, the US House of Representatives had voted 313-83 to override President Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Apartheid Act, which imposed economic sanctions against the apartheid regime.
The US, if not its president, was with the people of SA. And so the three fled to the US consulate in Johannesburg and sought succour within its halls. They were to spend 37 days there as their plight – and that of their comrades wallowing in jails and under the yoke of apartheid – was broadcast to the world, shaming the PW Botha government and its dwindling support base.
Those men were on my mind last week. If they were to embark on their action today who would they choose? Would they run to the Chinese consulate? They would have to consider the fact that, in August, Chinese police arrested more than 50 student activists who helped organise workers at a welding equipment factory in the city of Shenzhen. Ironically, these students were Marxists trying to live the communist injunction to organise workers! Of those students, many remain under surveillance or banished to their home towns. At least two of them are still missing.
Would the activists go to the US consulate? Well, this week President Donald Trump chose to side with a dictator and a possible murderer when he issued an extraordinary statement declaring his support for Saudi Arabia and questioning whether the leader of that country, Mohammed bin Salman, knew about the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
In the extraordinary statement – which begins with the words “The world is a very dangerous place!” – Trump quotes Saudi officials as describing Khashoggi as an “enemy of the state”. He goes on to defy his own agency, the CIA, which has concluded that Bin Salman most probably ordered the killing of the journalist.
Trump went on to essentially declare that because the Saudis do so much business with the US they can go right ahead and maim and kill journalists and activists. He chose money over human rights.
What it means is that every dictator and despot in the world can pursue, kidnap and kill journalists and activists and, depending on how much business they do with the US, Trump will smile and support their killers.
Those four anti-apartheid activists of 1988 would have been kicked out of the US consulate today. Chillingly, though, if similar activists in Zimbabwe or Myanmar tried to find succour in the SA consulate today they would be kicked out, too. Last month we, SA, kept mum when we were called to condemn the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar. It means SA cannot condemn its allies, the US and China, on human rights. We are just like them.
Trump is right. The world is a very dangerous place today for activists such as Morobe, Moosa, Khanyile and Ngcobo.