Opinion | South Africa Sees Its Moral Conscience in a Genocide Case

Opinion | South Africa Sees Its Moral Conscience in a Genocide Case

The South Africans in the court that day represented the country that many of us had imagined as we tried to think beyond apartheid to a new country. The lawyers’ last names — Hassim, Ngcukaitobi, Dugard, Du Plessis — evoked a number of the nation’s population groups: Indian South Africans, Xhosas, English-speaking whites and Afrikaners. On the bench (countries that are party to a dispute at the International Court of Justice may nominate a judge to hear the case) was Judge Dikgang Moseneke. As a teenager, he had been imprisoned on Robben Island, where he met and befriended Nelson Mandela, and after democracy came, he was elevated to South Africa’s Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest judicial body.

This group in The Hague, in its diversity, represented a country whose national identity is a product of collective struggle and a rejection of the ethnonationalist blood-and-soil politics that South Africa left behind when we defeated legal apartheid. That kind of politics seemed to many of us to define Israel’s policy toward Palestinians; for years, the country’s now-governing African National Congress has made common cause with the Palestinians. In the international court, these South Africans were at once fighting for, and helping us imagine, nationhood built on shared struggles and ideals rather than group identities.

After the end of apartheid, there was a sense that South Africa, with its history of struggle and its progressive Constitution, would meaningfully transform its old racial order and be the world’s moral conscience. Except for a brief, hopeful period under President Nelson Mandela, the country has largely failed to live up to that ideal.

Some of this couldn’t be helped. The politics of nonalignment — an ideal that many developing countries at independence set for themselves — largely faded in the 1990s. The Washington consensus on free markets and trade, the exigencies of financial markets, and failures of political imagination further limited South Africa’s economic transformation and its hopes of forging a new path. The ideals of the nation’s liberation movement came up against a complicated world of compromise and accommodation. In the past month, we’ve received a glimpse of some of those old hopes.

The case before the court has aligned South Africa firmly with what used to be known as the third world and is now known as the global south, and it has attracted other allies. A barrister from Ireland, another country that experienced colonialism and colonial violence, joined the South Africans at court. Survivors of the Bosnian genocide are also petitioning the court in favor of international action to protect Palestinians.

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