The Problem of Humanitarian Interventions in the South Africa

South Africa is distinguished by cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity – on the territory of the country, a variety of ethnic groups is present, partially as the result of colonialism. The invasion of white settlers during the age of colonization prompted the relationships between these communities to be constructed in a hierarchical downward manner. The history of the region is not necessarily characterized by long periods of peace; still, even relatively flimsy stability ceased to exist when the National Party managed to win the elections in South Africa, in 1948 (Nancy & William, 2016). Victory in the elections of this nationalist party that prioritized the rights of white citizens meant that enormous changes would occur in the societal system of the country. One of the most significant metamorphoses was the official politics of racial segregation.

The exclusion from public life and official discourse of the population of color took place gradually – apartheid in South Africa was gaining momentum for several years. The National Party started by banning mixed marriages: people found guilty of the violation of this law would face criminal punishment (Nancy & William, 2016). After partial marginalization, complete displacement and ostracism of all ethnicities that did not possess white skin followed. Consequently, the government of that time took more drastic measures, such as creating reservations for black people and prohibiting their access to exclusively white territories (Nancy & William, 2016). Still, several black Africans were allowed to enter these exclusive zones, usually to do the dirty work. These violations of fundamental human rights were bound to attract attention from international organizations and governments all around the globe despite intentions to hide them. Nevertheless, the reactions of the international community in regards to the situation could be called tardy. From the moment the National Party came to power and started implementing these innovations until the moment the first reactions followed approximately ten years passed.

The events in the town of Sharpeville at the beginning of the sixties were the first trigger that forced the governments around the globe to pay attention to what was happening in South Africa. The barbarity of Apartheid manifested itself fully when 69 unarmed black protestors were killed, and almost two hundred wounded in Sharpeville in 1960 (Wheatley, 2018). After the events, the United Nations decided to implement sanctions against South Africa without resorting to humanitarian interventions. The actions taken by the UN Security Council were limited to the critic of the politics led by the South American government and call for abandoning the state of Apartheid. The leaders of European countries and the USSR adhered to the same position (Wheatley, 2018). Nevertheless, several states (Great Britain, France, and the United States) aimed to neglect the situation, not wanting to corrupt their relations with South African political leaders (Wheatley, 2018). Thus, it was demonstrated that the arsenal that the international community possesses and can apply to prevent a catastrophe or genocide of the local population extends further beyond the humanitarian intervention and includes, for instance, sanctions.

Military intrusion into the territory of another sovereign state is an action that is usually condemned by the official discourse of the majority of countries. When the goal of such an intrusion is, presumably, to save the lives of civilians, the attitude towards it changes drastically. Currently, the most conflicting opinions concerning ethics and legitimacy of humanitarian intervention can be found, as it is a relatively new concept, coined by the end of the last century (Schultz, 2017). A tendency to disclose the hypocrisy of foreign intrusion has become somewhat a widespread one, as a reactive response to the expansion of globalization and the result of seemingly easy access to information regarding global sociopolitical situations.

Humanitarian crises are especially explosive and can destabilize an entire region. The economic and political consequences of these conflicts constitute several victims and refugees, violence that crosses borders, and the emergence of extremist groups. These potential repercussions are so disastrous that the international community cannot ignore them. Nevertheless, the direct military intrusion is condemned by a large segment of the general public and researchers based on the general dubiousness of these actions that numerous governments all around the globe see as a solution to explosions of violence.

Despite the potential of humanitarian interventions to detain further spreading of a conflict, in perfect case scenario, even save numerous lives, they do not solve the problems underlying the conflict. The regimen of Apartheid in South Africa and the struggle that followed it was a consequence of an array of complex interactions between economic and cultural interests of both ethnic groups inside South Africa and international relations outside of the country (Nancy & William, 2016). Local, regional, and global dynamics, to a certain degree, played a role in the deployment of the conflicts caused by the regimen. Humanitarian interventions can act only on the local and regional levels, excluding the essential factor that is outside sources of the conflict. Still, one of the most important, in the context of international politics, the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a foreign country has evolved towards greater openness. Human rights have ceased to be exclusively an internal affair of a state, and South Africa exemplifies this process. Even so, opponents of forceful peacekeeping see this shift as a threat to the interests of the local population.

Furthermore, reasoning against humanitarian interventions tends to revolve around the idea that these military actions, often in spite of their purpose, put civilians in additional danger. For instance, an operation conducted by the UN forces with support from the United States troops resulted in a carnage in Somalia in 1991-1992 and went down in history as a humanitarian disaster (McGreal, 2019). Consequently, forceful peacekeeping is denounced by more and more nations. The Indian ambassador to the UN, Mujerji stated that “if peacekeeping is to be seen as peace enforcement, then, unfortunately, we can’t see the UN charter allowing such a radical departure of the use of peacekeeping” (McGreal, 2019). Additionally, humanitarian interventions create division between state security and social security, not taking into consideration the link that exists between them. Cawthra (2016) supports the idea of nonintrusion by stating that “secure citizens tend to make for secure states since they have little desire to undermine the security provided by the state” (p. 8). Hence, this line of reasoning against humanitarian intervention rests on the position that it tends to sabotage the safety of citizens even further.

Another problematic aspect of humanitarian military missions is that they provide a justification for other countries to intrude into the affairs of a state. The promotion of human rights, in this case, may serve as a smokescreen for more pragmatic political reasons regardless of whether it is unilateral or multilateral intervention (Schultz, 2017). Thus, South Africa could have become another battlefield for developed countries to exercise their power in the case of an intervention. Schultz (2017) argues that “humanitarian arguments are tools more often used to maintain the hegemony of powerful states over weaker ones. Humanitarian intervention is a tool to maintain global supremacy and order by a few states” (p. 423). The protection of human rights is an argument that could become an emotive one, disabling a more logical approach to the issue.

It seems significant to take into consideration the idea that, especially in Africa, the risk of involvement of external forces’ interests in resolving an internal conflict is rather high. A lot of debates around humanitarian interventions on the continent also concern the concept of “resource curse.” Even though it is not directly applicable to South Africa and is not named the main reason behind intentions to intrude the country at the time of Apartheid, the validity of the argument persists. To build a case for or against humanitarian intervention in South Africa, it is critical to consider the geopolitics of the country. International corporations, the competition between external powers, African regional powers, and alliances within them all constitute the web of factors that impact the indirect objectives of humanitarian intervention (Cawthra, 2016). In this way, the ethics and moral value of humanitarian interventions is a complicated question, where two extreme polar points of view seem to dominate the dialogue.

The logical construction, according to which in every conflict, there is a good side, consisting of victims, and a bad team, which oppresses them, could be called an overly simplified approach. Lately, it is often noted by the opponents of forceful peacekeeping that freedom and democracy by themselves cannot be sufficient causes for humanitarian interventions (Coady et al., 2018). As it happens with South Africa, a military intrusion could not possibly successfully end Apartheid as its roots went deep into the societal structure of the country. What is even more critical is that the ideology and worldview that made its incorporation into the socio-political system of South Africa possible in the first place cannot be influenced by humanitarian intrusion alone. The end of Apartheid in the country was not a result of humanitarian interventions but of a series of negotiations that resulted in the victory of the African National Congress (Nancy & William, 2016). Decades of activism, political and social agitations, and intense, informative work within the country were primary steps to end the politics of segregation.

The problem of peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention as a part of it has not been unambiguously resolved so far since arguments against it gain more and more popularity. Currently, the discussion of these issues is mainly related to the analysis of the concept of “R2P”, which is relatively a new one and was not present for a long time during the struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa. Internal resistance, including creating social activism movements, passive resistance, and even clandestine warfare tactics profited from international support but were the main reason for the end of the regimen. Still, the idea of a “just war” that is led to rid the population of another country of suffering inflicted by its government is deeply rooted in occidental politics despite its criticism.


  1. Cawthra, G. (2016). Peacekeeping interventions in Africa “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”. Friedrich-Ebert-Stifung.
  2. Coady, C. A. J., Dobos, N., & Sanyal, S. (Eds.). (2018). Challenges for humanitarian intervention: Ethical demand and political reality. Oxford University Press.
  3. McGreal, C. (2015). What’s the point of peacekeepers when they don’t keep the peace? The Guardian. Web.
  4. Nancy, C. L., & William, W. H. (2016). South Africa: The rise and fall of Apartheid. Routledge.
  5. Schultz, D. (2017). The conceit of humanitarian intervention. New Political Science, 39(3), 422–424.
  6. Wheatley, S. M. (2018). Global human rights institutions: What legitimacy? What authority? Springer.

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DemoEssays. 2023. "The Problem of Humanitarian Interventions in the South Africa." January 5, 2023.

1. DemoEssays. "The Problem of Humanitarian Interventions in the South Africa." January 5, 2023.


DemoEssays. "The Problem of Humanitarian Interventions in the South Africa." January 5, 2023.