Success at ICJ means SA has won moral authority across much of the world

Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI

Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI

Published Feb 8, 2024


The extraordinary victory by South Africa at the International Court of Justice in The Hague has been met with an exhilarated response by most South Africans, the global Left and across most of the Global South.

Israel might well ignore the judgment, as it has done with many UN resolutions, and it might not provide immediate relief to the residents of Gaza but it has broken the key ideological fiction of the West.

The West, led by the US, relentlessly claims that it leads the “rules-based liberal order” and defends it against authoritarian rivals such as Iran, Russia, China and so on. The local proxies of the West organised in an archipelago of well-funded NGOs and media projects, such as the Brenthurst Foundation, the Institute for Race Relations, The Daily Friend, Chai FM and others, parrot the line and are often given plum spots in the media to do so.

Of course, the line is nonsense. The West does not believe in international law. The US organised invasion of Iraq in 2003 was illegal and accompanied by numerous war crimes. Some credible studies have put the number of people who died as a result of the invasion as high as 1 500 000.

But, of course, US president George Bush and UK president Tony Blair were not hauled before the International Criminal Court and the US and the UK did not become global pariahs. The ICC was founded in 2002 and 20 years later, it had tried only Africans.

The West ignores international law when it comes to its own actions and those of its allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and India, but applies it to its enemies, such as Russia. This brazen hypocrisy has flourished for years because of the power of the West’s military, universities and media.

There have been eviscerating critiques of this hypocrisy from academics like Noam Chomsky and Edward Said but the mainstream media and Western governments have simply ignored them.

Israel’s defeat at the ICJ was not complete but it was devastating nonetheless. It is not just a defeat for Israel. It is also a defeat for the US, the UK, the EU and the often extremely arrogant and notably white pro-West chorus here at home.

When imperialism justifies itself in the name of international law but suffers this kind of defeat in this kind of international court, it is thrown into an ideological crisis.

This is a development of massive significance, one that could open possibilities for a more just world order not seen since the great days of the Bandung Conference in 1955. Of course, this is not guaranteed. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that while the West has suffered a devastating blow to its ideological project it retains massive military and media power and will do all in its power to quickly regain ground and repair its system of ideological cover.

The second is that while there is growing unity among the Global South, evidenced by the growing power and confidence of BRICS, many of the leading countries in the Global South have serious international political problems. For instance, Russia is run by an authoritarian and corrupt strongman whose nationalism does lead him to stand up to the West but does not take a democratic form.

If South Africa wishes to build a progressive alternative to the domination of the West, one rooted in the sort of principled politics that led us to stand with Palestine, then our strategic priority in terms of alliances should be the Left-learning democracies in Latin America such as those in Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico and Colombia.

None of the democracies are without their contradictions and problems but they remain generally progressive and, significantly, democratic societies.

The success at the ICJ has meant that South Africa has, almost overnight, won huge moral authority across much of the world. Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor has suddenly become a major global figure, one seen in heroic terms by many people.

Our country has not enjoyed this sort of moral authority since the days of Nelson Mandela. Jacob Zuma’s appalling administration destroyed that moral authority, and people like Pandor and Director-General of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation Zane Dangor have restored it.

We dare not squander the power and influence that this sort of moral authority brings. We need to protect it, nurture it and use it to restore the integrity of our politics at home, and build a progressive and democratic bloc that can become the nucleus of a challenge to Western power.

After years of pessimism and sometimes despair as Zuma brought a wrecking ball to our hopes, and then the deep disappointment of the Ramaphosa presidency, we have a sense that hope is possible. We need to build it here.

And if the ANC is serious about renewal; Cyril Rampahosa, a vacillating and failed president, should step down and allow Pandor to lead the party into this year’s election.

Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI


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