Informed people live longer
26 July 2014 14:59 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Will the real superpower please stand up?

  • Sisonke Msimang
Post-Apartheid South Africa has elected to do the diplomatic soft-shoe shuffle in matters of human rights, good governance and democracy on the continent. On the continent, the lowest-common-denominator approach to diplomacy and foreign policy is perceived as weak. It is time South Africa spoke softly and carried a big stick.

Guy Scott’s comments last week were overshadowed by the Gupta saga. Too much has been said on the Guptavaganza, already, so I won’t touch that plate of curry.

For those who may not have read his Guardian interview last week, the Zambia’s vice president said: “I dislike South Africa for the same reason that Latin Americans dislike the United States, I think. It’s just too big and too unsubtle.” Scott went on to suggest that Zuma is like FW de Klerk and indicated that Zuma tells other African countries, “’You just leave Zimbabwe to me.’ Excuse me, who the hell liberated you anyway, was it not us? I mean, I quite like him, he seems a rather genial character but I pity him his advisers.”
The casual, off-the-record-after-three-glasses-of-wine-and-five-beers tone notwithstanding, Scott verbalised what many South Africans fear: that we have developed a reputation for being abrasive and overbearing. This is a stigma that dogs all regional superpowers. The Chileans can’t stand the Argentinians and the Brazilians because of their braggadocio, Indians are mocked in the sub-continent by their poorer and smaller neighbours, the Brits are scorned for their loud ways by continental Europe, and American tourists are pilloried for – well, being American – the world over.

You will get no argument from me on this point. I have landed in Lusaka, Nairobi, Kinshasa, or Lagos with my compatriots too many times to deny the veracity of Scott's claims.  South Africans of all stripes begin to complain the minute the plane lands (we do this at home, too, but that is another column).

The trouble is that the arrogant, bull-in-a-china-shop behaviour actually doesn’t apply to the South African government – at least, it hasn’t until recently. If anything, South Africa has been too subtle in its African foreign policy. Much to the chagrin of those of us who had hoped we would be more muscular in our approach, South Africa has elected to play a softly-softly role in matters of human rights, good governance and democracy on the continent.

For most of our short post-Apartheid history, the South African government has been reticent to flex its muscles on the African stage, precisely because of a fear of being perceived as the Big Brother that Scott accuses it of being. In fact, the very example that Scott cites – that of Zimbabwe – is a classic case of South Africa not being bossy enough. Despite ZANU-PFs flagrant abuse of the human and civil rights of ordinary Zimbabweans, the South African government has done the soft-shoe shuffle, insisting on quiet diplomacy, even as hundreds of Zimbabweans have been beaten and abused at the hands of Mugabe’s henchmen.

Time and again, South Africa has downplayed its power, thinking that appeasing its African neighbours, by going along with conservative votes on LGBTI and human rights questions at the United Nations for example, would win it a measure of respect in the Africa bloc. This strategy has backfired. It has raised the ire of domestic constituencies who have questioned how our country can vote on resolutions at the UN that are contrary to our Constitution and it has caused the state to contradict itself on too many occasions to count.

Our dithering and misfiring has taken place in the context of a serious human rights leadership vacuum in Africa. Botswana has been a notable example of a country whose foreign policy has been robust and principled, but it is simply too small to be able to exert much political influence. Both for this reason and because of its size and economic might, many actors have expected South Africa to lead. Its failure to do so has been seen in the African policy community as a weakness rather than as a strategic decision.

First under Nelson Mandela and then under Thabo Mbeki, South Africa punted itself as a country that would help to resolve conflicts. This was based on the fact that we had brokered a negotiated settlement to end Apartheid. We saw ourselves as a country that was invested in finding and sustaining peace, not only on the continent, but also across the globe.

To some extent this global ambition has been tempered by the growing – and worrisome – tendency towards regionalism that has emerged in the last decade or so at the global level. Increasingly at the United Nations, countries vote in regional blocs, deferring their national interest to regional interests, for the sake of unity. Given the importance of geo-politics this has made some sense.
When Europe or China or America seek markets for their goods and/or their ideas, they often deploy the same tactics in each country in a particular region, and so it has made good sense for small countries in a particular region to compare notes and gather strength by developing collective strategies. At the same time, regional economic and political communities like the African Union and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are gaining strength and their bureaucracies have sought to develop consensus positions to take to global meetings. This often results in a lowest-common-denominator approach to diplomacy and foreign policy. If Uganda and Cameroon and Zambia are opposed to gay rights, then for the sake of unity, the Africa bloc votes against gay rights at the United Nations.

It is clear that South Africa’s strategy of leading without bringing attention to itself and without making African enemies is beginning to change. South Africa’s successful bid for a second term as a member of the UN Security Council in 2011, and the nomination of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 2012 as head of the African Union as well as the flawed decision to send troops to the CAR outside of the peace-keeping mandate in which the SANDF has traditionally been deployed, are clear indicators of this desire to play a more visible – I daresay Big Brotherish – role in African affairs.

I think it is an appropriate move. It is indeed about time that South Africa played a larger role in continental and global politics. Pretending that we do not have power and acting as though we are on equal footing with countries like Swaziland or Burundi is disingenuous and nobody is fooled.

But if we are in a phase of ramping up our foreign policy, then it will be important that we do it properly.

This means developing and committing to foreign policy objectives that are written down, debated and interrogated by South Africans. It means having real reasons to send troops into life-threatening situations – not trumped up, opaque missions achieved by taking procedural shortcuts that avoid public scrutiny.

It also means acting like a superpower, which is to say, not responding to bait from the likes of sweet, rambling old men like Zambia’s Guy Scott. If the Bolivian vice president said Obama was an arrogant twit and suggested that he hates Americans, would the assistant secretary of state call the Bolivian ambassador demanding an explanation? I doubt it. It probably wouldn’t even warrant a joke at the White House correspondents’ dinner, many months after the fact.

Real superpowers know better than to waste their time with small fry. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
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Sisonke Msimang writes about race, gender and politics in Africa and beyond. She lives in Mozambique and works for Sonke Gender Justice.

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