YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A leading Catholic commentator on Africa has blasted the South African government for what he described as its glaring “inconsistency” in condemning the US and Israel on the Gaza war while simultaneously cozying up to autocrats within the emerging BRICS global alliance.
“As an example of our own inconsistency, we have just been party to an enthusiastic welcome into BRICS of Saudi Arabia, a country which beheads people in public and tortures its political critics to death, [for instance] the horrific end of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” said Jesuit Father Christopher Chatteris, a veteran South African journalist and administrator of the Jesuit community in Johannesburg.
“BRICS has thus admitted a new petro-dictatorship,” said Chatteris.
Launched in 2009, the BRICS alliance originally brought together Brazil, Russia, India and China as a rival economic and political bloc to the western-dominated G7, with South Africa joining a year later.
During a summit in Johannesburg last August, and led in part by South Africa, the BRICS nations decided to admit six new members to the club: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Chatteris, who was born in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) in 1950 and who would go on to lead South Africa’s Jesuit community during the last days of apartheid and the country’s first democratic election in 1994, argued that a country such as South Africa seeking to occupy “the moral high ground in international affairs” should practice moral consistency.
Noting that South Africa has filed a case with the International Criminal Court in the Hague alleging that Israel is engaging in gross violations of international law in Gaza, including genocide, and that South African officials have criticized the United States over its support for Israel, Chatteris said that South Africa should be held to the same moral standards it’s proposing for other nations.
In that context, Chatteris charged the BRICS alliance, with South Africa’s support, is led by countries that don’t believe in democracy, and has decided to admit nations known for violating human rights.
“The Chinese dictatorship is in the process of colonizing Tibet,” Chatteris said, with President Xi and his government incarcerating “enormous numbers of the restive Muslim Uyghur population,” underlining the irony that “we fight for the rights of Palestinian Muslims under Israeli rule and fall silent when it comes to Turkic Muslims under Chinese rule.”
Chatteris also pointed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as another morally dubious case.
“Russia, which will chair BRICS this year, relentlessly continues its pitiless genocidal war in Ukraine,” he wrote. “Who would doubt that Putin will use his chairmanship of BRICS as a diplomatic weapon in his ‘special military operation’?
“Egypt and Iran are also recent authoritarian entrants to this growing motley crew of authoritarians,” Chatteris wrote in a commentary for the Jesuit Institute South Africa.
Chatteris concluded his Jan. 18 piece by suggesting that South Africa may need a “BRICSXIT” movement, analogous to BREXIT in the U.K., to withdraw from the alliance.
“Apart from backing the wrong moral side, we may also be backing the wrong economic and real political one,” he wrote.
In comments to Crux, Chatteris argued that South Africa’s legal challenge to Israel is hypocritical given its relationship with Russia.
“South Africa is taking Israel to the International Criminal Court for genocide but our stance towards Russia, is at odds with that,” he said. “You can be sure that we will not be taking Russia to court ever. We may even have been quietly supplying Russia with military equipment.”
“When Putin opines that Ukraine does not really exist as a country and when he is accused of deporting Ukrainian children to Russia, I think it is justified to make accusations of genocide,” he said.
Chatteris was quick to emphasize that he wasn’t attempting to defend Israel’s war in Gaza.
“Is Israel committing genocide? Israel’s highly destructive means, the terrible civilian casualties, along with some of the wild statements of some members of its government, certainly suggest that there is a case to answer,” he said.
Nevertheless, not every Catholic commentator in South Africa shares his view that Russia and Israel are, in a sense, equally at fault.
Johan Viljoen, director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute of the Southern African Bishops’ Conference, told Crux that he rejects suggestions of moral equivalence between Israel’s invasion of Gaza and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“In all fairness, the war in Ukraine has not seen the indiscriminate mass destruction of urban infrastructure, the deliberate attacks on hospitals and the mass killings of children, women, the elderly that has happened in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces,” Viljoen told Crux.
[The Russian war on Ukraine] has been more “conventional warfare,” he said.
“The day Russian forces surround and occupy Kiev, carpet bomb its residential areas, hospitals, schools, killing everyone in sight, then this question can be revisited,” Viljoen said. “But for now the two situations are not the same.”