In our era of doublespeak, dictators get peace prizes

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President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has ruled since 1980 as a despot responsible for major human right abuses, yet was offered a peace prize last year in China, and was received warmly in Japan this month

While South Africans have been preoccupied lately about Guptagate and the future of the country in which a liberation movement leader – President Jacob Zuma – has become a betrayer of the struggle for a democratic country, the bizarre antics of another African liberation leader in our northern neighbour should give us pause.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, 92, has led the country since independence in 1980, his rule characterised by violent land seizures, economic decline, mass emigration and systematic human rights abuses. Zimbabwe is a foreboding symbol for South Africans of the direction in which our country should never go. Yet the world of realpolitik is governed by different values.

On Monday, Mugabe was warmly received by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, although the United States and European countries have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe for human rights violations. He was visiting Japan for the fourth time as president.

The Japanese leader said he wanted to work with Mugabe to help with Japan’s push to reform the UN Security Council. He called him an esteemed African elder. Not surprising to some analysts, since Mugabe even chaired the African Union in 2015 – to the chagrin of human rights activists.

In October 2015, Chinese scholars awarded Mugabe the Confucius Peace Prize, which was set up in 2010 as a Chinese alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize. This happened after the Norwegian Nobel committee gave its peace prize to the jailed Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, enraging Chinese leaders who had jailed him for co-writing a pro-democracy manifesto.

At the time of the Confucius award, the Chinese President referred to Mugabe as a renowned African liberation leader and an “old friend” of the Chinese people. Previous winners of the Confucius prize include Vladimir Putin and Fidel Castro. Mugabe, however, was reported to have declined to follow up on the award.

The title “1984” was given by satirical author George Orwell in 1949 to his iconic book about doublespeak – the crazy world of Big Brother in which peace means war, freedom means slavery, love means hate, and other inversions deriving from politicians’ machinations. But he might just as well have called it 2016, so contradictory is the world these days.

Qiao Damo, the chairman of the Confucius award committee, said he supported recognising Mugabe’s achievements: “If Zimbabwe did not have Mugabe as its president, the country would be facing great difficulty…”

We live in a strange world, where a peace prize is offered to the despot of Zimbabwe and the world’s most powerful countries welcome him enthusiastically.

It is not that Japan and China are regarded as rogue regimes, however, engaging in indecent diplomacy. On the contrary, they are respected members of the international community with excellent relations with virtually the entire world, including South Africa and Israel.

The welcome mat laid out for Mugabe comes in the context of competition between China and Japan for influence in Africa, which is seen as presenting major economic growth potential. A conference on African development is due to be held in the near future in Kenya, sponsored by Japan. South Africa has amicable relations with both Asian countries.

When Dore Gold, DG of Israel’s foreign ministry visited South Africa last month, he enthusiastically told a Jewish community gathering in Sandton that Israel was also developing closer ties with both China and Japan, particularly on agriculture and technology, thus disproving allegations that it was becoming isolated internationally due the activities of BDS and its policies towards the Palestinians.

While Guptagate has caused embarrassment and anger among South Africans at the failure of the country’s first black government to govern properly, the fact that there is such a furore across the spectrum about Zuma’s corruption and self-enriching shenanigans should give us satisfaction. The uproar proves that the determination of South Africans for building a free, prosperous, non-racial country remains intact, despite the setbacks.

Also, the fact that it has been exposed by our vigorous free press to all and sundry is cause for celebration. This could not have happened in Zimbabwe, which still stands as a portent for where we don’t want to go.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email geoffs@icon.co.za)

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Guptagate: Beware the ethnic slippery slope

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Ajay and Atul Gupta, brothers of Indian origin, are accused of major corruption, including ‘buying’ and manipulating numerous SA government officials including President Jacob Zuma, leading to fingers being pointed at their ethnicity – a dangerous thing in race-obsessed South Africa

Wily politicians are adept at turning popular frustration about poverty and social ills against convenient targets to suit their aims. What might happen if rage against the Gupta business family for their “state capture” – in the form of the “buying” and manipulating of numerous government officials for their financial gain – were to take on a broad anti-Indian tone?

There have already been negative public references to the Gupta’s origins, demands that they “go back to India”, and politicians like Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema saying decisions about the country should not be made over a “bowl of curry”. One even hears ordinary South Africans of Indian descent being crassly described as “Guptas”. Comments about the country being run from the family’s palatial estate in the posh neighbourhood of Saxonwold, Johannesburg, evoke deep resentment. In a race-obsessed country like South Africa, this is fertile territory for an explosion of racial attacks.

Jews know the dangers of this from their own history – how a few Jews’ actions were exploited in different places by anti-Semites to condemn entire Jewish communities, regardless of their contributions and integration into society. Hitler’s blaming of Jews for Germany’s troubles to serve his sinister political ends, are one example among many – with catastrophic consequences.

Ethnic tensions simmer in this country amongst all groups. It doesn’t take much, for example, to ignite xenophobic violence by local Africans against Somalis, Malawians and other “foreign nationals” running businesses in townships who are perceived to be succeeding where they have failed. The iconic image of 35 year old Mozambican Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave’s gruesome death in 2008 in Ramaphosa township on the East Rand after he was set alight by a mob, provides an example of what happens when you go down that road.

The Guptas are the symptoms of our sick political culture, not the cause. In every country, business tries to influence politicians. Successful nations like the United States flourish through the interaction of government and the myriad businesses which create wealth and jobs and pay taxes. Businesses invest money where government policies are to their liking, and naturally try to influence things in this direction.

There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the political system has adequate safeguards to prevent corruption, and that those who break the law are punished.

Sadly, South Africa’s political system, despite our fine constitution and our institutions tasked with safeguarding democracy, has failed spectacularly in protecting the society. Bribery and corruption have become the norm. What a terrible disappointment, after the idealism to which Mandela’s generation inspired us not that long ago.

Making money through business should dovetail with a concern for the national good. Business leaders – Jewish businessmen among them – should be outspoken about the betterment of the society being the ultimate goal, and follow it up with concrete actions. We are indebted to those that already do – and there are many who give huge energy and funds to social causes.

South Africans’ outrage should be directed at the African National Congress and its leaders who succumbed to the Guptas’ temptations and demands, and used their positions to accumulate personal wealth and power. The Gupta family’s crass power-mongering for the sake of their own pockets, with no guiding vision for making a better country, evokes disgust. But the mafia they have created contains an entire network of government operatives, including the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, who has abrogated any sense of civic duty. Sadly, even after Zuma is hounded out of office – which hopefully will happen as soon as possible – the system of patronage he created will take far longer to dismantle.

Talk at Jewish dinner tables about Guptagate these days often includes the comment: “Thank God they are not Jewish”, showing Jews’ inherent insecurity. If the Gupta affair were to turn into a racial question, Jews might not be far behind as a convenient target for politicians to camouflage their own failures.

No particular ethnic group is responsible for South Africa’s ills, nor for its achievements. South Africans of Indian descent have long since paid their dues in the struggle against apartheid and other areas. Their South Africanness is as solid as anyone else’s; the Guptas’ shenanigans cannot sully this.

As Guptagate unfolds week after week like a soap opera with new, shocking revelations about their tentacles which reach into the innermost corridors of power, it serves as an urgent wake-up call for South Africans. The fact that the ANC as a liberation movement led the anti-apartheid struggle and became the key player in establishing democracy, doesn’t protect it from corrupt behaviour in its own ranks, including from its own president.

Indeed, the rot runs so deep in the ANC today that one wonders whether it is now the country’s biggest problem rather than its saviour.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email geoffs@icon.co.za)