The US's dodgy human rights report

James Myburgh says country report on SA is riddled with self-plagiarism and racial bias

On Friday April 8 the US State Department published its annual 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. These have to be submitted to Congress every year. In the preface to the reports the Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, noted that they "were initially envisioned as a tool to help guide the United States in its foreign policy, but they have grown to be something much greater. Other governments, individuals, and organizations now use the human rights reports as essential sources of information about conditions in countries around the world."

The idea that anyone would use the department's country report on South Africa as an "essential source" of information is a somewhat disconcerting one.

The most obvious weakness of this year's report on South Africa is that it contains a number of striking omissions. For instance the section on "Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: a. Freedom of Speech and Press" makes no mention of two of the biggest threats to media freedom that arose last year: namely, the ANC's proposal for a Media Appeals Tribunal or the Protection of Information Bill - not to mention the arrest of Mzilikazi wa Afrika on trumped up charges.

Instead, it makes the following assertion: "Government and political officials often criticized the media for lack of professionalism and reacted sharply to media criticism, often accusing black journalists of disloyalty and white journalists of racism. Some journalists believed that the government's sensitivity to criticism resulted in media self-censorship."

This claim is slightly jarring. Accusations of racism and racial disloyalty were common in the Mbeki-era but they have little purchase now. The press today can be accused of many failings but self-censorship is hardly one of them.

The report provides no reference. The source seems to be the 2009 report which makes almost exactly the same claim. It in turn repeats a statement made in the 2008 report. Indeed, the same claim has been cut and pasted from one year to the next since it was first inserted in 1999 (see here).

This use of self-plagiarism in place of proper research congeals into systematic bias on issues affecting racial minorities. There is no mention in the report of the evidence of racial discrimination against white policeman in the SAPS that emerged in the various cases successfully taken to the Labour Court by Solidarity. Nor is there any discussion of the proposed amendments to the Employment Equity Act, released last year, that have been the source of so much recent controversy.

Instead, the report once again unreflectively endorses the application of the old anti-Semitic principle of demographic representivity against the white minority. It complains - as it has every year since 2001 -"Notwithstanding the country's antidiscrimination legislation... Blacks remained underrepresented, particularly at the professional and managerial levels."

More perturbing than the US government's support for Jimmy Manyi style racialism is the manner in which generalized and unsubstantiated claims against white farmers are recycled from one year to the next.

For the ninth year in a row the 2010 report states that "Allegations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment of black and foreign female farm workers by farm owners, managers, and other farm workers were common." The only alteration since 2002 has been the addition of the qualifier "Allegations of" in the 2007 report.

It also claims, for the tenth year in a row, "Twelve-hour days were common during harvest time, and few farmers provided overtime benefits." This particular regurgitation is contradicted by an audit of 1744 farms conducted by the Department of Labour in June 2010. Only 14 cases were found where workers were not paid for overtime worked. In 29 cases workers received less than the prescribed minimum wage.

On the issue of farm killings the 2010 report states: "The continued killings of mostly white farm owners by black assailants created concern among white farmers that they were being targeted for racial and political reasons, although studies showed perpetrators were generally common criminals motivated by financial gain." It then states: "There also were reports that white employers abused and killed black farm laborers and complaints that white employers received preferential treatment from the authorities."

This paragraph has been recycled, from one year to the next since 1999, although the reference to "continued killings" is still accurate enough. Curiously, the report makes no mention of the controversy over ANCYL President Julius Malema's chanting of ‘shoot the boer' (though Eugene Terre'Blanche's murder is mentioned.)

More problematic is the repetition, for the twelfth year running, of the allegations of murder against "white employers" and, more ludicrously, the claim that they still get "preferential treatment" from the authorities. This apparently despite over a decade of aggressive cadre deployment and Africanisation within the criminal justice system.

The original substantiation for these claims against white farmers seems to date from the late 1990s/early 2000s and two (less than impartial) inquiries conducted by the Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Watch, which published a flawed report on the matter in August 2001.

Since 2002 the evidence used to justify the repetition of these claims have been three incidents of culpable homicide - in which the perpetrators were prosecuted and convicted. In these cases both perpetrators and victims were named by the reports, and one-sided versions of the incidents presented as fact. The effect has been to create highly misleading equivalence between the hundreds of recorded farm murders - committed against a politically powerless and vulnerable minority - and a handful of homicides perpetrated by white farmers.

The 2006 report, published on March 6 2007, stated that there "were incidents in which white employers abused their black South African farm labourers... After Western Cape authorities refused to prosecute four white Rawsonville farmers accused of sexually assaulting female farm workers, the NGOs Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Women on Farms Project alleged a pattern of refusal to prosecute whites for worker abuses and demanded a senior-level investigation. The issue was raised in the National Assembly on November 27, but no response had been received by year's end."

The 2007 report, published on March 11 2008, simply repeats this paragraph stating: "There were incidents in which white employers abused their black farm laborers. After Western Cape authorities refused to prosecute four white Rawsonville farmers accused of sexually assaulting female farm workers in 2005 [sic], the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Women on Farms Project alleged a pattern of refusal to prosecute whites for worker abuses and demanded a senior‑level investigation. The issue was raised in the National Assembly in November 2006; at year's end, however, no investigation had been initiated and no further action had been taken by SAPS or the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA)."

It does not say all that much for the US State Department's sense of justice that it tried, convicted and morally condemned these farmers - twice - despite the accuser having already confessed that her claims were malicious and false. Anneline Davids, 22, told the Witness (January 13 2007) she had been pressured into making the claims by two black shebeen owners in the area.

"It surfaced in conversations that they wanted the farms and money of two of the farmers. They said the farmers would leave barefoot, as they wouldn't even have a vehicle to drive away with," she said. Davids also told the newspaper "she has never experienced any problems with the farmers and isn't aware of any of the alleged abuse of farmworkers in the area."

Subsequent reports failed to publish corrections. The 2008, 2009 and 2010 reports also provide no supporting evidence for their claim that "white employers abused and killed black farm labourers".

These allegations against white farmers, when originally made, were highly ideological and already of highly questionable veracity. However, they have become increasingly distanced from reality. And yet the US State Department has recycled them as if nothing and nobody has changed over the past decade. It is strange indeed that a "human rights report" should provide such proof for the old totalitarian maxim that "A lie told often enough becomes the truth."

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