Leadership in a global crisis: Lawyers show best of us at ICJ

The South African Delegation at the International Court of Justice: John Dugard, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, Adila Hassim, Ronald Lamola (the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services in South Africa) and Vusi Madonsela. Picture: X/International Court of Justice

The South African delegation at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), from left, John Dugard, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, AdilaHassim, Ronald Lamola (Minister of Justice and Correctional Services in South Africa) and Vusi Madonsela. | International Courtof Justice

Published Jan 20, 2024


Aside from a shrill right-wing minority, South Africans are experiencing a shared sense of pride after the superb performance of our excellent legal team at The Hague. As Nontobeko Hlela argued in an important piece in the Mail & Guardian, South Africa gave global leadership in a time of global crisis.

Our country had huge global respect and moral authority during the Mandela Presidency but this began to be squandered with Thabo Mbeki’s appeasement of the brutal regime in Harare, and then his Aids debacle. When Jacob Zuma came to power, our international standing crashed. Our confidence as a people also declined as we witnessed the thieving and lying, and the shameless misuse of the liberation Struggle to try to legitimate an awful kleptocracy.

But this week, we saw the best of ourselves and our country on display and, as with our victory at the Rugby World Cup, we saw the vision of a better future for ourselves. There was an extraordinary coming together. Differences were set aside in the interest of the greater good. Popular organisations that are usually extremely hostile to the ANC, such as the National Union of Metalworkers of SA and Abahlali baseMjondolo, came out in strong support of the action.

The South African legal team mounted a compelling case founded in evidence and legal argument to show that the Israeli state is committing a genocide against the people of Gaza. We have a superb set of human rights lawyers in our country. Much like with our excellent medical doctors, the progressive tradition that developed during the Struggle against apartheid exists in the professions.

To see lawyers of the superb calibre of Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, Adila Hassim and John Dugard, all among our best, being tasked with such an important brief shows us just how brilliant we can be as a country when our best people are appointed to the most urgent tasks.

But the sense of shared pride that most of us felt goes beyond all this. We were also proud and excited to see a state that been in a steep descent into corruption, lawlessness and simple contempt for the people of our country suddenly taking a courageously ethical stance. We could suddenly see that the destruction of basic ethical principles during the torrid years of the Zuma presidency had not destroyed all ethical awareness and that something had survived.

The courageous South African decision to challenge the Israeli state, and by implication its US backers, will be a turning point in international relations. If the judgment goes against Israel, its impunity, and that of the US, will be called into question in a way that has not previously happened. If the judgment goes in favour of Israel despite all the evidence and first-class legal argumentation, the court and the so-called “rules based international order” will lose its credibility with most of humanity. Either way, Western domination of the global will be dealt a blow.

Of course, the South Africa government will face blowback. The US and its local allies and proxies have been extremely hostile to the non-aligned position taken on the Russian-Ukraine war and the expansion of Brics. They will go into a frenzy, and we’ll see hysterical attacks from local US aligned actors.

But by standing up for principle, and doing so through an international court, we have taken the moral high ground and it’s clear that the South African people will not waiver. When the attacks come, as they surely will, we must remember that people across the world are in strong support of South Africa, and that a growing number of countries in the Global South are breaking ranks with the West to assert a new confidence and independence.

We will find our support from our own people, including the organised popular formations, from people in much of the world, including many people in the West, and for increasingly assertive governments in the Global South such as Bolivia and Colombia. Now is the time to seize the moment and build a progressive bloc across the Global South, and aligned to progressive forces in the West, to ensure a more just and equitable international order.

We, as South Africans, need to insist that the sudden and surprising turn to principled action by the ANC is not a one-hit wonder, not just some sort of aberration. We need the same kind of ethical stance to be taken against the dictatorship in Harare and in support of the victims of the largely hidden wars in Yemen, Sudan and Ethiopia, as well as the worsening conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Now that we have seen what the South African government is capable of, we need to demand the same level of bold ethical action when it comes to combating corruption at home and dealing with the vast swathes of the civil service that treat our people with contempt. If members of our government can walk with their heads held high in the Netherlands, they need to be able to do the same at home.

And we, as citizens, need to play our part in continuing to build support for the people of Palestine. We cannot delegate that to our government. We need to be on the streets, working in our organisations, engaging in the public sphere and linking with progressive forces across the world to ensure that the oppression of the Palestinians finally comes to an end.

We have seen the best of ourselves. Our task is to hold ourselves and our government to that very high standard at home and abroad.

Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI