I’ve heard some howls of impotent rage from South Africa’s liberals and chattering classes down the years, but the one that went up in the wake of the departure by Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir was probably the most futile.
Let’s be absolutely clear. There was no chance at all, none whatsoever, that anything would have kept him here against his will and most definitely not an arrest warrant from the ICC. There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs.
First, the South African government was of the opinion – as presumably was al-Bashir himself – that diplomatic immunity had been granted to all the attendees at the AU Summit. Diplomats worldwide are notoriously – and correctly – touchy about their immune status and this applies to British, American and European diplomats, just as much as it does to African heads of state. If al-Bashir had been advised before his trip that immunity was not in place, he would not have come.
There’s a long history of diplomatic immunity trumping any kind of court action.
Second, South Africa has a government that for a variety of very obvious historical reasons, places allegiance with other African states ahead of just about anything else. The ANC will remind you at the drop of a hat how many of its now-very senior members were succoured while in exile by fellow Africans. You tend to remember the people who looked after you and gave you refuge when apartheid assassins were trying to hunt you down and kill you.
Have we forgotten so soon the furore in 1999 when then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi visited this country at the behest of Nelson Mandela? Before that, of course, Mandela had visited Libya twice, once shortly after his inauguration in 1994 and again in October, 1997. TO many, especially in the West, Gaddafi was Satan incrnate, but as Madiba so famously said, “Those who feel irritated by our friendship with President Gaddafi can go jump in the pool.” It was not until the end of 2003 that Libya renounced nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and began an attempt to transform itself from the neighbourhood pariah into a welcome guest.
Libya is just one example of African solidarity. Perhaps the most egregious is Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe. It is unnecessary to once again rake over the facts: the Matabeleland genocide, the destruction of the economy, the murderous attacks on white farmers and the complete lack of civil rights are all well known. Yet who is the current President of the African Union? Of course, we know that answer too, so it’s obvious that even if South Africa had followed the directive of its High Court and detained al-Bashir, the African Union itself would have overruled such a decision and allowed al-Bashir to leave.
It’s also worth remembering that Mugabe may be loathed and detested by the ruling elites in London and Washington, but to many, he remains a hero. These include the significant number of Zimbabweans who – irritatingly – keep voting for him, but also to many others across this continent who see him as one of the great anti-colonialists and the man who took on and beat Ian Smith.
There’s an old line about “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.” Many of his supporters would also contend that the ICC is imperialist, colonialist and racist.
Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, another trait of our government – at least since Jacob Zuma came to office – is absolute insouciance when it comes to court decisions. How many times has the opposition had to return to court to have a previous decision enforced, only to see that same process repeated? How many times have flagrant breaches of the law simply been ignored or gone unpunished? The examples are legion, but another instance at Waterkloof airbase, this one involving the Guptas, springs to mind, as, of course, do the shenanigans over Nkandla.
One significant achievement of the ANC over the past 21 years has been to transform South Africa into another very firmly African state – with all that that implies in terms of diplomacy, alliances and the rule of law, for good or bad, depending on your point of view.
That being the case, there was never the remotest possibility of Umar al-Bashir being held here and to pretend otherwise is an utter waste of time and effort.