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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Opinion | Syria: A lesson from Apartheid South Africa

South Africa recently witnessed the death of Apartheid’s last leader, former president FW de Klerk. A controversial figure, the late president de Klerk was lauded by some for bringing Apartheid to an end, unbanning the anti-Apartheid movement, the African National Congress, and setting its leader, Nelson Mandela, free after serving 27 years in jail. Others could not overlook his complicity in aiding the racist, white-supremacist rule of the National Party, given that de Klerk was an active participant of this regime for more than 20 years of his political career. 

One would naturally be inclined to ask why the sudden change in political trajectory and sentiment after decades of oppressive rule on the part of South Africa’s white minority government. Well, let’s examine the political and economic milieu in which South African found itself at this turning point in its history. 

Arguably, one needs to look at the political economy within which South Africa found itself at the beginning of the 1990s. Indeed, many global changes were unfolding before a global audience including the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany and many others. After being a pariah state for more than four decades, it would only make sense that a country such as South Africa jump on the bandwagon of radical political change and make strides toward the social and political transformation that the world had been beckoning it to do for so long. And indeed, the international community had placed a tremendous amount of pressure on the Apartheid state for decades. The international pressure placed on South Africa included various economic sanctions, banning South African sports teams from competing internationally and extreme political sanctions that severed diplomatic ties with trading partners that would later play a key role in its international integration after its first democratic elections in 1994. These collective measures eventually brought the South African government to its knees as the status quo was clearly untenable – the country was in dire political and economic straits. 

Bringing down a brutal and oppressive regime in South Africa took domestic and international pressure and collective action from governments, civil society groups and many other key role players. The world banded together to ‘free’ South Africa. 

Fast forward to a different place, during a different time – the Syrian Arab Republic, March 2011. The dawn of what was termed the Arab Spring has swept through the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region from Tunisia onwards. People who endured decades of repressive and totalitarian rule took to the streets in their thousands to call for much-needed political reform and greater social change. 

Bashar Assad and his gang of militia men used murderous techniques similar to that of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany to gas innocent children to death.

Not unlike its neighbors, the Syrian people saw this radical political movement as an opportunity to unseat the authoritarian and murderous regime of the Assad family that had been terrorizing Syrian citizens for half a century – since the late Hafez Assad took control of the country in 1971. A docile and gentle nation, the citizens of Syria took to the streets of their country en masse and demanded essential social change that would ensure a more democratic future for generations of Syrians to come. The civility of the Syrian people was met with unrelenting police and military force. The Syrian conflict has turned into a raging inferno that can for all intents and purposes be termed a genocide of the Syrian people. Bashar Assad and his gang of militia men used murderous techniques similar to that of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany to gas innocent children to death. People have been placed in solitary confinement for being critical of this regime on social media platforms and Syria’s intelligentsia is living in exile, fearing for their lives and longing to go home. 

Freedom of speech, association and political expression are the most basic of human aspirations, but a despot such as Bashar Assad will shed the blood of all around him just to secure his own position. Much like the oppressive leaders of the South African regime, a blood-thirsty regime does not give a single thought to who has to pay for its sustenance.

Why juxtapose two seemingly very different nations one would ask? Although demography and geography will vary, the fact of the matter is that the international community engaged in collective action to put an end to the brutality in South Africa, while it has chosen to ignore the plight of the Syrian people. Blood of the innocent continues to flow across the Syrian terrain, but the world treats this as mere white noise. This disproportionate treatment and action between the two scenarios will be one of the most critical historic ‘errors’ to be examined by future generations. 

Blanche Michael
Blanche Michael
Blanche Michael was born in Cape Town, South Africa, where she lives to this day. Growing up in Apartheid South Africa and witnessing political violence and tyranny first hand as a child, instilled within her a heightened sense of social and political awareness.


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