Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Safeguarding democracy in Germany and South Africa

Like Germany, South Africa hosted a successful World Cup. Unfortunately, we will not turn overnight into a global powerhouse as Germany is. We are a middle-income, developing, African country. A former colony located in the southern hemisphere. Germany is the world’s fourth largest economy, a dominant European power that possessed African colonies until 1918. But we share a few things. We both receive immigrants. Previously, southern European migrants, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, and others, went north in search of work and found a new home in Germany - now it is largely workers from Turkey and their families who do so. South Africa, ever since apartheid ended, has become a promised land for many Africans from across the continent in search of a better life.

We both lived through darkness, but regained respectability. Germany was ruled by a ruthless dictator from 1933 to 1945 who was responsible for the devastation of the whole of Europe in World War II during which Germans conceived and implemented the holocaust, the near annihilation of the European Jewry. In South Africa, the apartheid state held on to white supremacy, exploited black people, made them second class citizens in their own lands and laid waste to neighbouring countries. Both had committed crimes against humanity. After the war, from what Germans call die Stunde Null on, the hour zero, a new state and nation emerged, a democratic republic, with a liberal constitution and provisions to safeguard fundamental human rights. So did South Africa. Apartheid injustice gave way to democracy and liberal constitutionalism – all citizens, independent of their origins, beliefs, and gender, share equal rights and duties.

Despite these commonalities, how the issues of migration and fundamental freedoms are currently played out could not be more different. In Germany, Ms. Aygül Özkan became the first minister of Turkish origins in the region of Niedersachsen. This is unprecedented in a country that still struggles to live harmoniously with its sizable Turkish minority, of which most are Muslim. However, as often is the case with newcomers, the minister, with little experience in politics after a successful career in business, made a major mistake. In a letter to local media, she asked them to support the government’s efforts to integrate foreigners by signing a media charter that prescribed a common practice when reporting on integration. In a swift response, the media, the opposition and eventually her own ruling Christian Democratic Party condemned what was widely seen as an attempt to threaten media freedom. The president of Niedersachsen apologized to the public and reiterated his commitment to media freedom.

In South Africa, our government is at pains to acknowledge that we need to change the way we treat African immigrants. Continued disregard for their human rights is undermining our own social fabric and our standing across the continent and the world. Given the way our government chose to respond until now, it will be by chance, not design, if less xenophobic violence will take place. And the same apparent carelessness is now undermining access to information and media freedom. The information bill and the media tribunal are testimony to how little awareness about the fragility of democracy and the constitutional state there is among the ANC members of parliament. As the common history of Germany and South Africa shows, once democratic values and practices are lost, regaining them comes at a high cost.

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