Nelson Mandela

405 views | Dr. David Monyae | July 22, 2020

On 18 July 2020, Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of United Nations, delivered the annual Nelson Mandela lecture. For the first time in its 18 years run, the lecture was delivered to an online audience because of the restrictions that the coronavirus pandemic has forced. The contents of the speech were timely and breathtaking in their candour. Guterres tapped into the current of the prevalent international system, exposing its falsehoods, myths and delusions that seek to put a veneer of equality and progress on a deeply divided international system. His frankness followed what Mandela represents. Mandela was one of the most influential voices of conscience in the second half of the twentieth century. He was thrust in the political spotlight because he chafed at the indignity that black people in a predominantly black South Africa were subjected to. His struggle bore kindred motives with the struggle against colonial and settler rule elsewhere on the African continent. History rewarded Mandela’s efforts, as Africa emerged from the yoke of colonial and settler rule. However, the end of colonial and settler domination did not automatically lead to equality in the international system. The inherent racism that the colonial and settler structures embodied lives on to this day, and it is this uncomfortable reality that Guterres belaboured.

Guterres was bold and uncharacteristic in his almost blatant blame of the West and the P-5, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, for perpetuating global inequality. He might forfeit the support of the powerful players who benefit from an unjust status quo, but no doubt, Guterres has endeared himself to the many people in the world who endure the indignities of racism, political exclusion and economic deprivation. He is indeed manifesting the moral certainty of someone who thinks in the mould of Mandela. When delivering his defence at the legendary Rivonia Trial in 1964, Mandela indicted the apartheid structure and gave a moral peroration of why the African National Congress, a party that prided itself as a non-violent organization, had taken up arms as the last resort. Being a lawyer himself, Mandela knew the gravity of the charges before him and his co-accused, and that the end of his trial could see them herded to the scaffold. He nonetheless stated what needed to be stated, and declared that he was ready to die for it.

Guterres, like many other people that have challenged beneficiaries of global inequality, should prepare himself for a figurative death. This might come from strong rebukes from supporters of the status quo to outright sabotage by those who are pushing back against multilateralism. The World Health Organization has suffered such sabotage from the United States. Nonetheless, the uncomfortable truths need to be addressed and those who benefit from the suffering of the rest of the world should not do so comfortably and unchallenged. Some dogma, such as free-market economics that have filled the coffers of the West while condemning the poorest to permanent poverty should be challenged. The voice of the world’s poorest, especially Africa, could only be amplified when their material conditions improve. This will entail a change in the manner of doing business and an acknowledgement that the economic stratification of colonialism lingers on. Without this admission, the better-off parties will not understand that they have a role to play in improving the conditions of the historically disadvantaged. The post-World War II international structure has shown that it serves the interests of the historically privileged. This invites calls for transforming a system that is patently and undeniably lopsided. It is heartening that Guterres, as head of the United Nations, made an admission that the United Nations is not inclusive in terms of giving influence to its members. Through the Ezulwini Consensus, the African Union has called for changes in the Security Council. 

No doubt, then, Guterres’ speech is in tandem with the aspirations of the African Union. In addition to security concerns, which are in the purview of the United Nations, there has to be changes in how the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank do their business. They have to introspect on why, after 75 years of their operation, they have failed to turn around the impoverished conditions of poor regions such as Africa. How much input do they get from Africa? Changing the continent’s economic situation for the better will have far-reaching results and will improve Africa’s posture on global affairs. Economic development will help Africa to mitigate longstanding problems such as health crises and the dearth of adequate education systems. The continent will also navigate the advent of the technological age and march in tandem with other players. For Africa’s part, the continent has to be more effective in dealing with maladies such as corruption and conflict. Africa is also feeling the environmental degradation that has to a large part been wrought by the industrialized West. In an increasingly integrated global system, many problems usually have a global dimension, as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic have shown us.

In the final analysis, it is indeed a good thing that such a candid lecture was delivered by an incumbent chief of the United Nations who comes from a country that was once a colonial power. The persisting gulf between the Global North and the Global South becomes apparent when people of Guterres’s ilk point it out and condemn it. In an increasingly fraught international system, infected by racism and anti-immigration, Guterres was a voice of reason and good counsel. For his vision to succeed, however, he will need the support of influential global players, not least the permanent members of the Security Council. The yawning inequalities in the international system call for urgent transformation of structures that have trapped the poor in perpetual poverty. All those who espouse the ideals that Mandela pursued will lend a hand to helping the efforts that Guterres has called for. Understandably, this will be a difficult thing to do by those who benefit from the longstanding injustice. This, notwithstanding, continued poverty and inequality in poor regions will endanger the security of the well off, through conscription of desperate youth in extremist groups, and irregular and illegal immigration.

David Monyae is the Director for the Centre for Africa – China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

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