South Africa, in some instances, is synonymous with democracy and human rights: The country that managed a transition from oppressive rule to rights-based constitutionalism through a peaceful election; Post-apartheid leaders known for their contribution to human rights and peace in the country, the continent and further abroad.

The governing ANC has spoken of rights and peace since its inception. We are reminded of its focus on human rights through various documents such as the Freedom Charter. And the Bill of Rights in South Africa’s supreme law, the Constitution, is tiringly hailed as the most progressive in the world.

Sometimes, disappointingly so, actions stand in opposition to the country’s human rights based legal and political literature. ANC leaders, from Nelson Mandela through to Jacob Zuma, have recited their party’s focus on equality, dignity, and a range of rights and freedoms. But the ANC’s decisions, especially on the global stage, tell a different story.

Since January 2015, there have been at least four human rights related motions on Syria in the General Assembly (GA); and nine before the Human Rights Council (HRC). South Africa abstained from all, not once “condemning human rights violations” in the war-torn country.

The reasons for every single decision are not entirely clear, but the most recent case might shed some light on South Africa’s reasoning.

Case studies

In early March 2018, there was another debate on the human rights situation in Syria, specifically Eastern Ghouta – where the Syrian government launched an attack in late February, hours after UN members voted in favour of a ceasefire. South Africa again abstained from voting on the resolution brought by the United Kingdom. Responding to criticism, the Deputy Director-General of Public Diplomacy at the Department of International Relations (DIRCO) Clayson Monyela explained South Africa’s abstention by pointing out that time constraints and general practice – of not aligning with any ‘geopolitical bloc’ – get preference over the rights of the Syrian people. Around half a million people are estimated to have died in the violence in Syria so far. (Fortunately for the Syrian people, DIRCO issued a statement this week condemnning the recent bombardments.)

But there are other more telling decisions by South Africa’s Permanent Mission to the UN.

“The South African Government has prioritized programmes aimed at the promotion, protection and fulfilment of all human rights on a non-discriminatory basis,” South Africa told the UN in May 2017. But less than a year earlier, South Africa voted against the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet” resolution. This is a resolution that highlighted the importance of the internet in furthering education, access to information, and development, while expressing concern over human rights violations online.

It further stated “that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression” and also called on states to “address security concerns in accordance with their human rights obligations”. Instead of supporting it, South Africa sided with China and Russia – the latter having recently banned Telegram, an encrypted messaging service.

Similarly, in October 2015 the Human Rights Council considered a resolution calling on states to respect human rights when combating violent extremism. The resolution said states have an obligation to “promote and protect human rights while preventing and countering violent extremism”, and even recognised racism and xenophobia as factors that could lead to radicalisation. 37 countries supported it, seven abstained, and South Africa, along with Russia and Venezuela, voted against it.

A recent article by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) noted inconsistencies with the country’s voting patterns for at least the last decade. It further described South Africa’s two terms on the UN Security Council as “shocking” and its record at the HRC as “even more ominous”.

“The crisis in its (South Africa) human rights diplomacies undermines its real and perceived normative leadership in Africa and the Global South, as well as its role as a bridge-builder,” wrote Alfredo Hengari.

Look inward

International human rights watchdogs have shifted their focus to South Africa, said Hengari, partly due to its worrying track record at the UN, but also because of concerning developments back home.

During a service delivery protest in Ficksburg in the Free State in April 2011, police were called to intervene. In a short video clip a group of police officers are seen assaulting 33-year-old Andries Tatane. He collapsed moments later and died.

The then police commissioner Bheki Cele - now minister - visited the Tatane family to apologise and convey his condolences. Regardless, the magnitude of the incident did not last long. A year later, police officers would shoot dead protesting mineworkers in a field on the Platinum Belt. This would be followed by other incidents, including the deaths of more than 140 mental health patients in Gauteng.

Former president Jacob Zuma’s administration also violated its obligation towards the International Criminal Court in 2015 when it did not arrest the Sudanese president when he attended a summit in Johannesburg. Beyond that, it also allowed Omar al-Bashir to leave the country when a court ordered the government to detain him. And beyond that, the incident led to South Africa’s decision to withdraw from the court – criticising it for being selective in its prosecution of human rights violations. (Al-Bashir is wanted on five counts of crimes against humanity, two counts of war crimes, and three counts of genocide, allegedly committed between 2003 and 2008.)

“These are just a glimpse of what is perceived as embarrassing developments, and a growing dossier that points to South Africa’s divergent path with human rights in its foreign policy,” wrote Hengari.

Balancing the human rights book

During his address to the United Nations in 2016, former president Zuma completely neglected to use the term ‘human rights’. A year later, that term surfaced only once in his address. While Zuma touched on matters of peace and security and other human rights related issues, the focus was predominantly on economic affairs.

When Zuma was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa as president, Monyela, in another article, titled Renewed interest in SA’s foreign policy welcomed, also paid little attention to the subject.

Instead it appears trade has been Pretoria’s focus on the global front for the past quarter of a century. Monyela points out that South Africa currently chairs BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), as well as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

In a country considered the most unequal with a state dogged by corruption and citizens frustrated with unemployment and poverty, human rights issues are likely to remain in the back seat. Not to suggest that financial independence and freedom is not a human rights issue, its focus does not excuse a young child drowning in a pit toilet at a school.

Finances and economic growth will remain centre stage for the foreseeable future, and this focus is not a concern within itself. But Pretoria’s approach to both international human rights issues and domestic violations thereof, needs urgent attention. If not, democratic South Africa’s founding principles are worth no more than the promises of the politicians who recite them.