In this article, RW Johnson critically examines the contemporary relevance and contradictions surrounding the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the broader concept of the “Global South.” Focusing on President Ramaphosa’s decision to attend the NAM conference in Uganda, Johnson traces the historical origins of NAM, which emerged in 1961 with a focus on neutrality during the Cold War. However, the author highlights the tumultuous fates of its founding members, such as Sukarno, Nkrumah, Tito, Nasser, and Nehru. Johnson argues that NAM’s original purpose, rooted in anti-colonialism and non-alignment, has become increasingly unclear in the post-Cold War era. He points out the inherent contradictions within NAM, including the lack of emphasis on democracy and the coexistence of members with conflicting interests and conflicts. The term “Global South” is criticised for its vagueness, allowing countries to simultaneously criticise the West while accepting aid. Johnson concludes that NAM’s unresolved contradictions persist, reflecting the vacuity of the “Global South” notion. Johnson, provides a historical perspective to underscore the challenges and inconsistencies associated with these geopolitical concepts.
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By RW Johnson
President Ramaphosa’s decision to attend the 19th conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Uganda is, we are told, in line with South Africa’s role as a member of “the Global South” which is the latest and not very satisfactory euphemism for poor countries. Both India and China lie in the Northern Hemisphere, after all, as do a large number of other developing countries. But the larger question is what does NAM/the Global South stand for ?
In 1961 when the first NAM was held the idea seemed clear enough: neutrality in the Cold War, though even then there was a strong overlay of anti-Western anti-colonialism. The sponsors of that first NAM were Nkrumah (Ghana), Sukarno (Indonesia), Tito (Yugoslavia), Nasser (Egypt) and Nehru (India). They were an odd bunch and none of them ended well.
Sukarno had collaborated with the Japanese in the War, despite the fact that over a million Indonesians had died due to Japan’s use of forced labour. He was endlessly polygamous and his continual liaisons with young girls so disgusted Khruschev on a visit to Indonesia that the Soviet leader walked out. Sukarno was also a megalomaniac: furious that Malaysia had been elected to the UN Security Council he withdrew Indonesia from the UN and set up his own UN – the Conference of the New Emerging Forces (Conefo). He also decided to set up his own Olympics – the Ganefo (Games of the New Emerging Forces), though only one such games were held. But he was deposed by Suharto in 1967 and placed under house arrest. All his major policies were reversed and he died due to a deliberate denial of medical care.
Nkrumah lasted just nine years as President. His economic policies produced chaos and the army deposed him in 1966, after which he lived in exile in Guinea. (I remember seeing him at Guinea’s independence celebrations in 1968, standing upright in a limo as it slowly toured the stadium. Guineans tended to resent him and his entourage, living well off the public purse in a bone-poor country.) But Nkrumah had become paranoid. When his cook died suddenly he decided that someone might poison him and so would hoard food in his private room. He lived in mortal fear of abduction and assassination though no one was actually interested in such schemes while he lived in obscurity in Conakry. He died aged 62
Tito lived to 87 but by the time he died in 1980 Yugoslavia was falling apart. It split up into no less than seven countries – surely a record (Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Slovenia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina). None of these countries is socialist so nothing at all remains of Tito’s lengthy reign.
Nasser had also known his best days by 1961. In 1967 Radio Cairo broadcast news of sweeping Egyptian victories over Israel. It was all nonsense and Egypt was routed in six days. Nasser, a chain smoker, died at only 52 in 1970. Within three years his successor had entirely reversed his policies and made a peace with Israel which has already lasted over fifty years.
Nehru had been a great star of the Bandung Conference in 1955 where the slogan had been “Indians and Chinese are Brothers”. Nonetheless, on returning to India he had embarked on his Forward Policy, setting up 43 outposts in border areas with China not previously controlled by India. In 1962 China invaded, comprehensively defeating the Indian army. With his non-alignment policy in ruins Nehru appealed to the USA for military aid. The final indignity was that Pakistan supported India against China on anti-Communist grounds. Utterly humiliated, Nehru died two years later.
Today, of course, the Cold War is over so there is nothing for NAM to be non-aligned about. This didn’t seem to bother NAM’s current chairman, Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president. Democracy is not one of NAM’s principles so there was no embarrassment about Museveni having been president for 37 years with every single one of his elections being declared not free or fair by outside election monitors. Museveni also appealed to delegates “not to impose your uni-ideological orientation”, leaving it completely unclear what he meant. But in the rest of his speech he claimed that the universe was 30 billion years old (geologists say 13.5 billion) and he claimed man had been on earth for 4.5 million years, which is far too long if he meant homo sapiens but nothing like long enough if he meant man’s hominid ancestors. But NAM delegates are far too used to nonsense being spouted from the podium for anyone to object. Similarly, no one remarked on the fact that the retiring NAM chair (Azerbaijan) had recently been at war with a NAM observer, Armenia, or that two other NAM members, Pakistan and Iran, were currently hurling missiles at one another. Similarly, the fact that not a few NAM members are currently in the midst of civil wars did not excite any comment. Non-alignment has nothing to do with being peaceful.
But to return to Museveni’s remark about a “uni-ideological orientation”, there are really three possibilities. One is that NAM means being non-aligned between Western democracies on the one hand and the camp of authoritarian anti-democracies on the other (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea etc), though the problem in that case is that NAM already includes members of both camps. The second possibility is that NAM is to be understood as essentially anti-colonial. Museveni may have had that in mind when he said “Empires always collapse. The idea of Empire is an evil idea”. The third possibility, which Museveni may have been warning against, is the conception of NAM as fundamentally anti-Western, which is what countries like Iran and South Africa clearly want. A country like Uganda, with a partly free market system and a high rate of growth would not want the severance of links with the West that such an attitude might entail.
But questions like that are not going to be resolved. As may be seen, NAM thrives on unresolved contradictions of every kind. And even so, NAM itself is now an out-dated term and nothing like as popular as the even more vacuous “Global South”. Inasmuch as one can discern any coherent ideas about what the Global South is, there seems to be a general notion that these are poor countries because they are in some sense victims of a West-centred world system. There is, though, a crucial ambivalence about the fact that some previously poor countries (Singapore, China, Chile, South Korea etc) are now highly developed. On the one hand their achievement is a source of pride and an object held up for emulation. On the other hand as they move into the more developed camp there is an obvious loss of solidarity. Moreover, if countries can become more developed simply through their own efforts this rather weakens the argument that they are victims of a West-centred system.
Such arguments and distinctions will not be settled precisely because the appeal of the “Global South” notion is its vacuity. It enables anti-Westerners to vent themselves against their imagined enemies while it also simultaneously allows the Global South to pocket aid from Western donors. For while the West will be continuously pilloried for its “double standards”, much of the Global South believes it has an inalienable right to double standards of its own.
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