Era of borderless world challenges South Africa

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN his speech to the joint US Congress Oct. 7, elder statesman Nelson Mandela proclaimed that the concept of a global village had become a reality that no nation-state could ignore.

This new reality, he said, had to become the cornerstone of a new world order in which poverty and injustice could be replaced by democracy, peace, and prosperity.

``The world is one stage and the action of all inhabitants part of the same drama,'' President Mandela said.

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``Does it not then follow that each one of us as nations, including yourselves, should begin to define the national interest to include the genuine happiness of others, however distant in time and space their domicile might be?''

Congress applauded the speech as a landmark statement on the growing economic and political interdependence of nations. ``It was the best, most eloquent and effective definition of the new world order ever heard,'' said Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri.

But the message resonated differently back in South Africa, where a flood of black immigrants was entering from neighboring countries in search of a better life.

Mandela's more vocal constituents are demanding tighter controls at the border, illustrating the dilemma his ideal faces across the globe: how to reconcile the noble ideals of universal democracy and human rights with the more specific interests of nation-states and broader trends sometimes driven more by the need for efficiency than justice.

In the new world order that Mandela envisages, the national interest is coming into ever more frequent conflict with social and economic factors operating across frontiers. International borders are increasingly challenged by the rise of ethnicity, transnational financial markets and trade blocs, and new information technology. South Africa wrestles with human rights and immigration

These developments in the ordering of international affairs beg the question: Why should human rights remain in the straightjacket of national boundaries?

Mandela's comments were directed at the United States in his quest for foreign aid and investment in a continent largely left behind by the industrialized world. His vision was all the more remarkable for having emerged from a country where apartheid and its legacy have kept South Africa trapped in a time-warp, isolated from global trends toward democratization and human rights.

The dilemma he faces is that he has taken his concept of human rights and economic justice way beyond that of his constituency. In South Africa, intolerance toward black immigrants is growing, as is the militancy of a black trade-union elite and the residual culture of resistance that complicates the reversal of apartheid-era rent and service boycotts and advocates mass protest.

The problem was highlighted at an Oct. 7 conference of the South Africa Political Studies Association near Johannesburg. What was remarkable about the conference was that the academics divided more or less along racial lines when it came to the issue of how to deal with immigrants from black-ruled states.

White political academics took the liberal line that South Africa cannot deny rights to black immigrants merely because they fall within different national boundaries of an interconnected region. Immigrants, the argument went, like South African citizens, have a right to life, and contribute to the national welfare through their involvement in the informal economy, doing jobs that black South Africans are not prepared to do.

The black political scientists at the conference disagreed sharply. As long as some 50 percent of black South Africans have no formal jobs, the country cannot afford to allow black immigrants to take coveted employment opportunities away from them.

Their solution was tougher immigration policies, tighter policing of the borders, and repatriation of illegal immmigrants already inside the country.

Mandela has remained silent on the issue of immigration but has actively promoted the idea of a regional trade bloc that would ultimately mean the scrapping of tariff, trade, and immigration barriers.

There are no reliable statistics on the number of illegal immigrants from neighboring states. Some put the total as high as 8 million or even 11 million. Others insist that the total is within the range of 2 million to 5 million. Regional leaders, torn between their expectations of the benefits that will flow from interacting with a democratic South Africa and their concerns of being dominated by their giant neighbor, plead for a more tolerant and understanding attitude toward their destitute citizens.

Over the past 10 years, tens of thousands of Mozambicans - and more recently, Zimbabweans, have streamed into South Africa to look for work. Attracted by the bright lights of Johannesburg - known in African languages as egoli (city of gold) - many never make it to the city and congregate in rural slums in the eastern Transvaal Province.

``The ethical dimension to the refugee question emerges clearly if we consider the relationship between human rights and illegal immigrants,'' says Natal University political scientist Mervyn Frost, who spoke on the ethical dimensions of South Africa's foreign policy. ``We normally take it for granted that states have a right to determine who may cross their borders.

``But it becomes far more problematic in Africa where the governments in many states have proved themselves incapable of protecting the rights of their citizens,'' he said. ``In such cases, what form of justification may we give for not only failing to protect their rights but for putting them in jeopardy?''

Professor Frost cited the example of the formerly independent black homelands, which were not recognized by the international community and their existence not excepted as an excuse for neglecting the rights of citizens in those quasi-states.

``It raises the questions: do state borders entitle us to neglect rights beyond those borders? What is the moral standing of states?''

Eugene Nyati, director for the Johannesburg and Washington-based Center for African Studies, offers the contrary view.

``I would hate to see the definition of human rights superseding national laws,'' Mr. Nyati said.

``Whether we like it or not South Africa cannot afford to be charitable to illegal immigrants when we have such high unemployment levels at home,'' he said.

``Any attempt to open up our borders could lead to further resentment, which could jeopardize future regional integration policies.

``Initially our focus will have to be internal and based on economic realities and the need to address the apartheid legacy,'' Nyati said.

In his paper, Frost also touched on the relationship between justice and efficiency in building a democratic order and pointed out that the two are not always complementary.

In the regional context, South Africa is committed to good relations with its neighbors and to the expansion of trade and economic links with neighboring states.

``For the moment, it looks as though these two activities may be pursued simultaneously,'' said Frost.

``But a time will soon come when the governments of states in the region start adopting policies which may hinder the access of South African businessmen in these markets.

``For example, the government of a neighboring state might decide to impose a tariff on the import of South African goods that might put their own less cost-effective industry out of business.

``It is at this point that the government will face an ethical choice,'' he said.

On the issue of armed intervention in neighboring states aimed at preserving or restoring democracy, Frost said the ethical question depended on what one believed the purpose of states was.

``If it is believed that states are there to maintain order, then aid in support of authoritarian rule would not be inappropriate. But if it is believed that states ought to be democratic, then intervention to forestall autocracy might be justified,'' he said.

In the field of development aid, Frost said there was an ethical question regarding the importance that ought to be attached to governmental autonomy on the part of the recipient country.

``The value of autonomy has to be weighed against the value of getting the aid delivered to individual right holders,'' he said.

Referring to Mandela's speech, Frost said that Mandela's leadership gave hope that a government led by the African National Congress would opt for a broader definition of human rights.

``It now seems apparent that the ANC has not taken an old-style state-centric view of this matter,'' he said. ``The human rights commitment of the party would seem to indicate that it would be inclined to see the state in service of human rights.''

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