The South African Constitution is irrefutable on freedom of expression. Section 16 of the Bill of Rights says everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes
(a) freedom of the press and other media;
(b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas.

The South African constitution is what guides all spheres of government to act in a manner that respects and adheres to the constitutional principles. A country’s international policy must be in line with the constitution of the country and the majority of South Africans expect their government to have diplomatic relations with countries that respect human rights, and adhere to the principle of freedom of expression as stipulated in the bill of rights.

The South African government has in recent times supported countries with shocking records of human right abuses, media censorship and the murder of journalists. Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s life was cut short in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Despite Turkey’s horrific records of human rights abuses, the South African deputy minister of international relations Alvin Botes visited Turkey in what was termed Turkey – Africa Opportunities for Cooperation. It is clear that what countries like Turkey, India, Venezuela, Zambia, China, Russia, Iran and Zimbabwe do to journalists, media freedom and intellectual freedom is contrary to what our constitution espouses. The rise in persecution of journalists in India under Narendra Modi, whilst South Africa has direct diplomatic relations with India under the banner of Brics, defines the hypocrisy of the South African international policy.

Independent media and intellectual freedom is detrimental to a dictatorship such as Iran or China. Lately, Iran has directed its attention to Africa. Faced with crippling sanctions and diplomatic isolation, Iran has developed a close partnership with South Africa. Iranian – South African diplomatic relations is cause for concern, with the value of Iranian Foreign Direct Investment in South Africa in 2020 estimated at roughly $140 billion, South Africa seems to be an economic breathing ground for Iran. The investment in Iran by MTN, a South African mobile giant which in recent years was clouded by a corruption scandal, demonstrates that our country does not really care about human rights as we are made to believe. Iran is notorious for laws that go against universal principles of human rights.

In 2015, South African gangster and vigilante group People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) was allegedly linked to Iranian intelligence, in efforts to radicalise Muslim organizations in South Africa. The South African intelligence community struggled to establish facts, however the US intelligence reports that Iran was planning an assassination attempt on the US ambassador Lana Marks, clearly show the disregard Iran has for South Africa. Why would Iran want to retaliate against the United States by using South Africa as a playground for their dubious act? How many South Africans were going to be injured in that attempt had they carried it? It is evident that Iran doesn’t respect the sovereignty of South Africa, yet we continue trade relations with them.

In a report compiled by Committee to Protect Journalists, Iran is listed as the world seventh country that doesn’t respect Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to seek and receive news and express opinions. In Iran the government tightly controls the media, thus journalists need accreditation to work. The horrific stories of torture that journalists who do not adhere to government controls of the media space are subjected to, shows a country that wants to keep the public ignorant of the information that can potentially threaten their authority. 

In January 2019, over 7,000 people were arrested in Iran, including journalists. The Iranian judiciary sentenced Yashar Soltani to five years in prison on anti-state charges after he published a series of articles that unveiled alleged corruption in Tehran land deals which were linked to a former mayor. The execution of Ruhollah Zam, who was lured into Iraq and abducted by Iranian intelligence and sentenced to death in June 2020, has not received any condemnation from the South African government which quickly condemns Israel every time there is unrest. The exiled journalist’s work had helped inspire nationwide economic protests in 2017. He was executed in December 2020.

The South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) was quiet when Iran killed Ruhollah Zam. SANEF has styled itself as an organization that promotes media freedom and protects journalists in South Africa. One would expect an organization advocating for media freedom to have been vocal about Iran’s execution of the journalist.  

The bold decision taken by petrochemicals giant Sasol in 2013 to exit Iran, is a lesson that the government of South African should emulate in dealing with Iran and countries that don’t respect the human rights of its citizens. Why keep relations with countries like Iran and brand ourselves as a country with a world-best constitution that promotes universal human rights? What do we say about the execution of those who seek political freedom in these countries, when we ourselves fought for decades to be freed from apartheid? Is Iran not an apartheid state that feasts on the blood of its citizens whenever they complain about bad governance, corruption and atrocities committed against them?  There is no freedom of expression or intellectual freedom, and citizens are expected to adhere to repressive government policies that limit their human rights.

The posture of South Africa in dealing with the Middle East conflict is worrisome, as it only targets one country and is not saying anything about the conduct of autocratic states such as Iran. Palestinians recently protested against Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas following death of an activist in PA police custody. This is a wake-up call to South Africa to start treating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differently. The government has chosen a side when the majority of South Africans of Christian faith identify with Israel spiritually. The South African government has chosen to disregard the majority in taking a side with the Palestinian Authority when it supposed to be neutral.

If we can have relations with repressive dictatorship states such as Iran, we should start to rather have proper trade relations with countries such as Israel and benefit from the technological advancement and water solutions.

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