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Has the COVID-19 Pandemic triggered a Return of Human Solidarity and Progressive Internationalism?

Celebrating Africa Month

By Jaimal Anand and Nicholas Wolpe

24 May 2020

As Ahmed Kathrada remarked, “it would be a wrong interpretation of history if we ignored the role of the international community in our struggle”. This quote by the late struggle icon vividly captures the important role played by the international community in the struggle against apartheid and the pursuit to attain democracy and human rights in South Africa.

Photo: Jaimal Anand, Dirco and Nicholas Wolpe, CEO of Liliesleaf Foundation

The momentum produced by the struggle against apartheid stimulated and harnessed international support that transcended geo-political fault lines, which at the time were pronounced and rigid. As the world rose in unison against apartheid, we witnessed what could be achieved when the world came together as one voice, bound together by a common bond and purpose.

The essence of international solidarity lay in the singularity of purpose of countries. The fight against the injustices of apartheid was a clear articulation of this singularity of purpose. It was much more than just unified political beliefs, ideals, purpose and opposition to a repugnant ideology. It transcended politics and went into the realm of friendship, which was most vividly exemplified by the relationship between ANC president OR Tambo and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. The latter remarked, “there exists no they and we, only us.  Solidarity is and has to be indivisible”. This notion has unfortunately faded with a resurgence of realpolitik in our discourse. The political discourse now is increasingly about a return to preserving borders and keeping the “other” out.

The geo-political order is characterised not by the bonds that define and shape solidarity, but by an inward looking, protectionist view, defined by “I”, not “us”. Today the world is an increasingly unsafe place, starkly illustrated by major flashpoints such as those in Libya, Syria, and Palestine, to name a few. Anxieties around the ongoing tensions between the United States, Iran and China remain high.

The reality is that, in recent years our responses to global conflicts, challenges, threats and opportunities have not been shaped and defined by a common focus and purpose, but by self-interest and self-preservation.


The shift in sentiment away from “us” has seen a rise in global strife, which has manifested in various forms, exacerbated by an inherent unwillingness to collectively address and solve the growing conflicts that have come to shape global relations. Now, in 2020, we seem to be on the verge of a new story as we are battling to manage the effects of the Covid-19 virus ravaging the planet.

Africa Day represents a history that is bound to the values of progressive internationalism and human solidarity. The global discourse on the history of the post-colonial era is a mixed bag of praise, cynical commentary and criticism. On an individual basis, many of us share views that straddle optimism and pessimism, depending on the issue at hand. Internationalism demands that we express our views and formulate our analysis in order to strengthen and build Africa, the world’s wealthiest continent, to enjoy its endowments through development, peace, stability and importantly, an environment in which her sons and daughters will flourish and make maximum use of our inherent talent and strength.

South Africa has assumed chairmanship of the African Union during this Covid-19 pandemic, at a time when the world has to confront this devastating public health threat. We have seen how Covid-19 has led to the development of a duopoly; a contradictory and controversial global approach.

The COVID pandemic is pushing nations to recognise and acknowledge the need for solidarity in tackling global pandemics, but simultaneously it is driving many to become more inward looking, insular, fearful and intolerant. The rise of traditional nationalist politics, anti-immigrant sentiments and the rising tide of self-preservation has seen unprecedented attacks on our multilateral institution. The recent attack on the WHO in the midst of a global pandemic is disturbing, yet conversely Africa’s austere defence of the institution has demonstrated the resilience of our internationalism when we act as a collective.

Encouragingly, this crisis has brought to the fore our traditional approach to dealing with crises, international solidarity and cooperation. We understand very well that our sense of Ubuntu will always come to the fore in times of crisis and once again it has. Solidarity is reflected in our level of concern of the plight of our fellow man. Under normal circumstances, millions in the world are hungry, poor, victims of conflict and violence, homeless, displaced and without hope. Covid-19 has brought this shameful situation into stark relief – might the world pay attention?  

At this moment of significant change, surely it is time to rekindle old notions of solidarity between people and, importantly, between countries in southern Africa? How can we control the ‘virus that knows no boundaries’ to break down barriers and establish a new, progressive order based on social justice and equal opportunity?  


We are undoubtedly in a time of severe crisis. Climate change is threatening the most vulnerable and the future of youth, social inequality is on the rise, and right-wing movements are framing a political agenda predicated on “I” and intolerance. The crises confronting us also offer us an opportunity to address and change the way we do things.  In this regard we cannot escape the reality that a post COVID-19 world will be different not only in how we interact with each other but how we go about doing business.

As Rudi Muhammad, in a 2010 report to the UN Human Rights Council stated, “International solidarity is a precondition to human dignity, the basis of all human rights, and a human-centred approach to development, and has a bridge-building function across all divides and distinctions. It encompasses the values of social justice and equity; goodwill among peoples and nations, and integrity of the international community; sovereignty and sovereign equality of all States, and friendly relations among them.”

The 20th century was marked by two devastating world wars and the long and protracted Cold War, which threatened a superpower fallout that would have left the planet in pieces. Creating a better life for all humanity was set to be a complex and daunting task for the new millennium, and indeed, the 21st century started on a somewhat surreal note with the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The events of September 11, 2001, were to launch a new, more sinister global trajectory. Suddenly, extremism, terrorism, fundamentalism – concepts which had existed for decades – were now set to occupy and dominate the global discourse of the 2000s.
The 20th century was also marked by a period of decolonisation, but it did not take long for liberated states, especially in resource-rich Africa, to experience elements of recolonisation. Neo-colonialism did not necessarily take the traditional form of invading armies; this time it was a process of seizing control through proxy mechanisms that included global corporations with vested interests in Africa’s resource base. The global power elites were compelled to ensure that governments and governance systems reflected and also served such interests.
With the Asian African Conference in Bandung in 1955, and the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade in 1961, it was clear that the newly liberated states understood the need to organise themselves and prevent the emerging threat of neo-imperialist forces, especially given the dynamics of the Cold War.
The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence were to represent the core values of the Non-Aligned Movement: Mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in domestic affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.
On 25 May 1963 the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was formed, and the 32 liberated African states took a clear position on colonialism and apartheid in South Africa. These developments reflected the need to understand the implications of the 1884-5 Berlin Conference that created an Africa that was to serve the interests and needs of the colonial powers, not the continent or her people.
African leaders (increasingly world leaders) understood very well that the Berlin Conference was the product of demigods who took it upon themselves to displace Africa’s centuries’ old indigenous histories, territories, and most of all dignity. With that, the OAU was determined to ensure that sovereignty, territorial integrity and dignity of Africa and her people would be restored.
Will the post COVID era reaffirm our noble virtues? As our former President Nelson Mandela would remind us, it is in your hands, on this affirmation we dare not falter.

 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
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February/March 2020

 
 
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