Deadly Diamonds, Violence, and the Future of South Africa’s Democracy
by Matt Meyer
As the World Economic Forum summit took place in Cape Town in early May 2013, the question of South Africa’s role on the continent and around the globe came into sharp focus. Though the remarks of Zambian Vice President Guy Scott — that South Africa is disliked among Africans for “the same reason that Latin Americans dislike the United States” — were uncharacteristically undiplomatic, many South Africans were forced to admit that Scott’s impression is increasingly on the mark. With South African National Defense Force (SANDF) troops deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the Central African Republic, in Liberia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, the Sudan, Burundi and elsewhere, it is not surprising that some analysts — such as University KwaZulu-Natal’s Patrick Bond — call South Africa’s current position nothing short of “sub-imperialist.”
A year after the headline-making “Marikana massacre” of 34 striking mineworkers, and the publication of anti-arms trade whistleblower Terry Crawford-Browne’s damning book Eye on the Diamonds (Penguin, 2012) — which asserts that South Africa has been complicit in the marketing of “conflict” or “blood diamonds” — the question emerges: on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the end of apartheid and next year’s South African Presidential elections, what does the future hold for this symbol of continental resistance and revolution?
Militarism and Organized Violence, South Africa Style
The accumulated evidence regarding the problems of militarism and structural violence in South Africa is overwhelming. On the domestic level, the Marikana massacre was just the tip of the iceberg. From 2012 to the present, South African President Jacob Zuma’s long-developed plans for the overall re-militarization of the police has been put into devastating effect. “A cultural climate” exists, according to policy analyst Adele Kirsten, “which encourages police to use maximum force.” Calling the current government “paranoid” and “defensive,” Kirsten — who founded and led Gun Free South Africa and is now coordinator of Local Government Action (an alliance of social movements and non-governmental organizations) — predicts that “we are going to see increased levels of violence” on both the part of protesters and the state. In groundbreaking research on contemporary community protest, Kirsten and her co-authors investigated eight localities which had experienced collective violence amidst an “insurgent citizenship,” and found a variety of factors tied to the growing unrest — including the paradoxical sentiment, given widespread electoral participation and the many institutional open spaces for change and improvement, that many believe “violence is the only language that the government knows.”
On the international level, it is noteworthy that despite the scandal and ensuing high-level constitutional investigations regarding South Africa’s illegal arms deals, the country remains — according to a recent Amnesty International study — one of the largest arms traders in the world. Crawford-Browne, whose work forcing the Arms Procurement commission and subsequent role as an expert witness prompted him to delve deeper into the roots of South Africa’s military industrial ties, sees the placement of troops throughout the continent as an outgrowth of economic policies centered on the diamond industry. Though DeBeers is no longer a South African-controlled company, he maintains, collaboration with the Israeli Defense industry has created a new process through which the sale of diamonds reinforces militarism — including the ongoing Israeli “apartheid” policies of settlements in Palestine.
“Diamonds,” Crawford-Browne noted, are “the rocks on which apartheid was built” and remain “an ongoing metaphor for global greed” — connecting Africa’s colonial legacy with current corruption in the highest levels of contemporary governments. In a private discussion with the author, Crawford-Browne suggested that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) shifted substantially when their armed division uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) “attempted to seize the initiative, with its dependence on violence and corruption.” The “real priorities which the South African government should be funding — education, health care, jobs, housing” have, in Crawford-Browne’s view, “been tossed aside.” He believes that the lack of accountability around issues of South Africa’s role in global militarization and its effects on domestic spending have been the cause of increased gender-based violence, violence against children, homicides, xenophobia, and the like. Dealing with these issues must be “a civil society imperative.”
Governments, Commissions, and Disappointments
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute confirms that, over the past decade, South Africa’s overall military spending has gone up over 40 percent. The Ceasefire Campaign, South Africa’s leading NGO committed to the demilitarization of southern Africa in general and South Africa in particular, submitted testimony to the May 2012 Defense Review Committee suggesting that these militaristic trends not only ran counter to the principles of the nonviolent-based mass democratic movement which helped put the ANC in power, but also endangered the future potential for a peaceful South Africa. “The proposals regarding the centralization of power in the Ministry of Defense,” they wrote, together with “the massive new arms purchase program, the expansion of arms manufacturing capacity, and the insidious militarization both of non-military functions and of the youth of South Africa, signals a fundamental departure from our hard-won democratic state towards a military state.”
Indeed, the prominent Institute for Democracy in Africa (IDASA) described the arms deal scandal and its relationship to South Africa’s increasing militarism as “the litmus test of South Africa’s commitment to democracy and good governance.” A failing grade seemed likely early this year, as one of the senior investigators of the Arms Procurement Commission resigned alleging that chief Commission Judge Willie Seriti had, in addition to his mandate to uncover illegal arms dealings, a “second agenda to silence the Terry Crawford-Brownes of this world.” That IDASA itself was forced to close later in the year due to funding issues, after 27 years of operation, suggests some of the weaknesses and challenges facing the country and its grassroots movements.
Crawford-Browne, for his part, wrote in late August that the Commission which came into existence due to his successful arguments before South Africa’s Constitutional Court should be closed down altogether due to gross negligence. In a letter to the editor published by South Africa’s Business Day magazine on September 6, 2013, Crawford-Browne asserted that “the Seriti Commission has degenerated into a farce, and is a gross waste of public money.” Far from watch-dogging and curtailing the wasteful excesses of the military, the Commission has become a showcase for the incompetent commanders who Crawford-Browne refers to as “toy soldiers.”
All may not be lost; there are signs of resurgence in civil society resistance. In addition to some growing movements which are not beholden to the ANC leadership, there are cross-continental initiatives on the rise. The recently-formed Pan-African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network, in conjunction with the War Resisters International and the Women’s Peace-makers Program formerly part of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, is planning for a major series of events and conferences in Cape Town this July 2014. With a strong anti-neoliberal critique, these insurgencies can work beyond nepotism and the business-as-usual capitalist BRICS (the alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Working together, there are sticks that can be thrown into the gears of imperial design.
Matt Meyer is an educator-activist based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.