Ivo Vegter: South Africa’s selective condemnation of ‘genocide’

In a questionable diplomatic move, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa engaged in talks with Sudanese rebel leader Hemedti, accused of ethnic killings and ties to past genocides. Ramaphosa’s meeting lacked substance, as a ceasefire had already been in-principle agreed upon by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. Ivo Vegter highlights South Africa’s inconsistent stance on genocide, citing instances in Myanmar, China’s treatment of Uyghurs, Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and the ongoing crisis in Tigray. He suggests that South Africa’s current pursuit of justice against Israel at the ICJ is primarily driven by electoral motives rather than genuine concern for preventing genocide.

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South Africa deplores ‚Äėgenocide‚Äô only when it‚Äôs expedient

By Ivo Vegter*

In principle, being concerned about¬†‚Äėgenocide‚Äô is laudable, but not if that concern is highly selective.

Last week Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa had lovely chat with Sudanese general Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti. 

Hemedti assured the president that the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which he leads in Sudan, stand ready to cease fire in that country‚Äôs latest civil war. 

The conflict began in April 2023, and led to the deaths of perhaps 10 000 people and the displacement of more than seven million, making it the largest displacement crisis in the world, Gaza included.

What Ramaphosa had to do with the matter is unclear. South Africa was included on Hemedti‚Äôs public relations tour, which travelled to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, and Somalia. 

South Africa is not involved in the mediation process, unlike all the other countries on the itinerary, which are all members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). 

The meeting with Ramaphosa also did not achieve anything new. IGAD had already announced, weeks earlier, the in-principle agreement to a ceasefire and a face-to-face meeting with Sudan‚Äôs army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who leads the opposing force in the civil war. 

It is notable that Ramaphosa did not meet with al-Burhan, who is the de facto ruler of Sudan, as the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the head of the governing Transitional Military Council. Hemedti is, nominally, his second-in-command, and his RSF is a rebel grouping.

At best, it is a serious diplomatic faux pas for a head of state to meet with a rebel leader of a faction waging war against the legitimate military of another country.

Darfur

More importantly, the RSF has been credibly accused of having engaged in a new ‚Äėepisode of ethnically targeted killings‚Äô amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2023. 

Darfur is where its roots lie. It was then the Janjaweed militia, founded by ousted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in 2003. He needed an Arab militia to combat restless black Africans, and the Janjaweed answered the call. 

This is how it became central to the events of the first genocide against black African tribes in Darfur

Hemedti, then a young trader and Janjaweed militiaman, rebelled against the government in 2007, but was eventually bribed to return to the fold, complete with the title of brigadier general. He was made head of the RSF, founded by al-Bashir in 2013. 

The RSF would act as al-Bashir‚Äôs personal army, distinct from the formal SAF. Hemedti became insanely rich out of this deal, and was often described as the most powerful man in Sudan. 

This didn‚Äôt change until 2019, when al-Bashir was overthrown by the SAF in a military coup. General al-Burhan was installed as the effective head of state. The friction between the two generals, Hemedti and al-Burhan, boiled over into open warfare in April 2023

Ramaphosa, therefore, met with someone who has been very closely involved with the genocide in Darfur, as well as with a new spate of ethnic killings, and is a close ally of Sudan‚Äôs ousted president al-Bashir. 

Al-Bashir

Al-Bashir, of course, is infamous for being a fugitive from the International Criminal Court (ICC), established by the Rome Statute to which South Africa is a party. 

When al-Bashir visited South Africa in 2015, for the 25th African Union Summit held in Johannesburg in June of that year, the South African government, despite its duty towards the ICC, refused to execute the arrest warrants against al-Bashir

Two domestic courts and the ICC itself ruled that South Africa had erred in failing to arrest al-Bashir. 

No sanctions were levied against South Africa, but by letting al-Bashir go, the government thwarted the pursuit of justice for the victims of the genocide in Darfur. 

Rohingya

In South Africa‚Äôs representations to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the Israel case, heard as this column was being written, the court was reminded that it ordered ‚Äėprovisional measures‚Äô to be instituted against Myanmar, over its genocidal actions against the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group.

United Nations (UN) fact-finding mission found  ‚Äėmassive violations‚Äô by the Myanmar military, including ‚Äėgenocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes‚Äô. Yet when a resolution to condemn the violence against the Rohingya was brought to a vote at the UN in 2018, South Africa did not support the resolution. It abstained.

At least the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) has on more recent occasions made statements condemning the violence in Myanmar and expressing concern about the plight of the Rohingya.

Uyghurs

The Uyghurs are not so lucky. Ethnic Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China‚Äôs remote west, the Uyghurs are the victims of concentration camps at a scale not seen since World War II, and subject to what scholars fear amounts to genocide. The measures employed against them are as brutal as they are genocidal, yet a search of the term on the DIRCO website returns absolutely no results.

Ukraine

The army of South African legal bigwigs also reminded the ICJ that it had instituted ‚Äėprovisional measures‚Äô against Russia, in its war against Ukraine, to ensure the former would comply with its obligations under the Genocide Convention. (Russia has, of course, ignored these.)

Not only has South Africa refused to describe Russia’s actions as genocidal. It has refused to condemn its invasion of a sovereign neighbour at all.

Tigray

Up to 800 000 people have died in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, in what is euphemistically called a ‚Äėcivil war‚Äô. In 2020, Genocide Watch updated its assessment of the conflict, classifying the situation in Ethiopia to be at stage nine of the ten stages of genocide: extermination.

The DIRCO website has two statements on the subject, neither of which condemn anyone for the brutal massacres, or accuse anyone of genocide.

The first celebrates the successful conclusion of peace talks between the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People‚Äôs Liberation Front, on 3 November 2022, to which South Africa played host. 

The second celebrates the first anniversary of what came to be called the Pretoria Agreement, which, it says, helped ‚Äėsilence the guns, [usher] in peace and stability, and [pave] the way for the gradual normalisation of life in northern Ethiopia‚Äô.

Except it didn‚Äôt. This anniversary celebration came only days after a report by UN experts reported that mass killings continue, and there is a great risk of further large-scale atrocities in Tigray.

Yet South Africa has expressed great friendship towards Ethiopia, despite that country’s complicity in what appears to be an ongoing genocide.

Silence

In the Central African Republic, war crimes fugitives openly serve as cabinet ministers. Not a peep from South Africa.

Nigeria? Sri Lanka? Chechnya? Congo? Yemen? Armenia? Nothing.

I cannot find any evidence that South Africa has ever openly accused anyone other than Israel of failing to comply with their obligations under the Genocide Convention, even though such cases lie thick on the ground.

There is clearly one set of rules for Israel, and another for the rest of the world.

Electoral gain

In its application to the ICJ, South Africa declares itself to be ‚Äėacutely aware of its own obligation‚Äô under the Genocide Convention, to act to prevent genocide.

That may be true in this case, but it clearly isn‚Äôt the case in other cases of genocide. South Africa is ‚Äėacutely aware‚Äô of its obligation to prevent genocide only when it is politically expedient to be so.

This very expensive exercise of taking Israel to the ICJ is not really motivated by the desire for justice and preventing genocide. It is motivated by but one purpose: electoral gain. 

In seeking re-election this year, the ANC cannot point to any significant domestic successes. In fact, it needs to distract the electorate from its litany of failures, neglect, incompetence and corruption.

Creating a narrative that ‚Äėwe fought apartheid then, and we‚Äôre fighting global apartheid today‚Äô would make a stirring rallying cry for its constituency, even if it means nothing for the alleviation of poverty and unemployment, or the improvement of the declining living standards of South Africans. 

Low bar

Given the low bar South Africa needs to meet to get the ICJ to order ‚Äėprovisional measures‚Äô against Israel ‚Äď it only needs to show that some of its claims are plausible under some interpretation of the Genocide Convention ‚Äď the government is fairly likely to walk away with a short-term propaganda victory, even if the court later rules against it on the merits of the case.

It is that propaganda victory the government is after. Caring about genocide is just not something the South African government does, unless it is politically expedient to do so.

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By Ivo Vegter* is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission

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