Africa, Politics

Wanted: A new foreign policy for South Africa

Wanted: A new foreign policy for South Africa

A good, sound, sane foreign policy must be crafted for the realities of today’s world, not for the cloak-and-dagger, friends-and-foes days of the apartheid era. Sanity is an absolute requirement. Documents from Mbeki-era bureaucrats need not be submitted. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

There are moments when we seem to have been transferred directly into Lewis Carroll’s “Looking Glass” world, when our leaders take a long, hard look at the options laid on the table, and then choose the worst one. When the issue of foreign policy comes up, we are often tempted to believe that the edicts and directives that emanate from the Union Buildings are decided by Russian roulette, with options ranging from bad to worse.

The reason is less Tarantinoesque than that, of course. The thing is: The leaders we’ve had in the ANC for the last 17 years are all old struggle-era cadres. They were blooded in exile, in prison and in persecution. They made friends in unholy places because they had to. Then the struggle came to an end and their situation changed drastically. The ANC is in power now, tasked with running a government and looking out for an entire country, and not just a single group of comrades. The trouble is they never bothered to redefine foreign policy to reflect this new reality.

How else are we to explain President Jacob Zuma’s continued support of Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Equatorial Guinea’s Obiang, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Iran’s extremist government, his kid-gloves treatment of Muammar Gaddafi, tolerance of Myanmar government, past dealings with Saddam Hussein … the list itself could run the length of an entire article.

On Monday 7 March the BBC reported Libyan TV’s claims that Zuma had contacted Gaddafi to offer what can only be read as sympathy. “Libyan TV has highlighted what it said were remarks made by South African President Jacob Zuma in a phone conversation with Colonel Gaddafi, BBC Monitoring reports,” the BBC said. “It quoted Mr Zuma as calling on the African Union to ‘take decisive action and uncover the conspiracy that Libya is facing’. It also quoted him as ‘stressing the need not to depend on tendentious reports circulated by foreign media outlets’ and the need to listen to the Libyan media in this regard.”

The presidency’s spokesman Zizi Kodwa’s reaction was to say that if we wanted to know the position of the country on Libya, “you will not hear about it from BBC”.

In a statement released later on 9 March, the presidency said, “The media has made reference to reports on Libyan television about some remarks which are apparently attributed to President Jacob Zuma relating to Libya,” it read. “President Zuma has spoken out clearly on the Libyan question. South Africa has openly condemned the loss of life and attacks on civilians and reported violations of human rights in Libya.

“The country (South Africa) supports the positions taken by the African Union and the United Nations on Libya and there has never been any ambiguity about the position of either President Zuma or the country,” the Presidency said, and continued to say, “The Presidency will not be drawn into rumours and distortions of the conversation with the leader of Libya, Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, who had called to explain his side of the story.”

The United Nations and European Union has slapped sanctions on Gaddafi’s government, but the AU’s peace and security council, which has just hosted a two-day meeting on the political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, declined to sanction Gaddafi. Nice and clear then? South Africa supports the position of the UN and the AU (if we accept that the peace and security council speaks for the AU) on Libya.

Of course, South Africa has been drinking from the Gaddafi Kool-Aid for a long time. In 1999, Nelson Mandela gave a speech in Cape Town, in honour of “Brother Leader”. Brushing aside the international criticism of the man who may well have ordered the Lockerbie bombing, not to mention imposing a reign of fear on his country, Madiba said, “In a world where the strong may seek to impose upon the more vulnerable; and where particular nations or groups of nations may still seek to decide the fate of the planet – in such a world respect for multilateralism, moderation of public discourse and a patient search for compromise become even more imperative to save the world from debilitating conflict and enduring inequality. When we dismissed criticism of our friendship with yourself, My Brother Leader, and of the relationship between South Africa and Libya, it was precisely in defence of those values.”

In 1997, Mandela was one of the first international leaders to visit Libya, considered a pariah state at the time, and under tough UN sanctions. The visit brought Mandela in direct conflict with Bill Clinton’s administration, who accused Madiba of repaying Gaddafi for Libya’s support during the struggle.

The founding of the African Union, championed as it was by former president Thabo Mbeki, is greased in “Brother Leaders’” influence, and money.

On the other side of the planet, South Africa caused a massive uproar at the UN when it used its non-permanent seat on the Security Council to oppose a move by said the council to impose a resolution on the human rights debacle in Myanmar. They were our struggle pals, you see? Even if they are running that poor country into the ground, with human rights violations the norm?

Zuma’s stance of “neutrality” in Côte d’Ivoire has been exposed as nonsense after Gbagbo’s envoys to the AU’s peace and security council refused to accept the body’s recommendations on the stricken country. The AU panel accepted Ouattara’s proposal that he lead a unity government formed from members of his and Gbagbo’s party. As we predicted, Gbagbo has now imposed a no-fly zone over Côte d’Ivoire, practically banning Ouattara from returning from Ethiopia. Rebels in the north of the West African country are once again talking of ousting Gbagbo by force. As it becomes increasingly clear that there is one major obstacle to peace in Côte d’Ivoire, Zuma has run out of excuses for not taking the UN position of ratifying Ouattara as the rightful president. Ecowas has every reason to now blast Zuma out of the water for meddling in the Côte d’Ivoire crisis and exacerbating the situation.

This week there was an another instance of the government getting cosy with a very shady character from Iran. Sapa reported that Iran’s deputy foreign minister Hadi Soleimanpour was in South Africa on 10 March, and was due to host a joint press conference with South Africa’s deputy foreign relations minister Ebrahim Ebrahim. The press conference was hastily called off apparently because Soleimanpour is uncomfortable with his poor English. The reason may be more sinister. Iran’s deputy foreign minister is wanted by Interpol in connection with the 1994 bomb attack outside a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires which killed 85 people. Soleimanpour was Iran’s ambassador to Argentina at the time. The attack is believed to have been carried out by Hezbollah.

The case in Argentina has been mired in controversy. Soleimanpour was arrested in Britain in 2003 in connection with the warrant, but Argentina could not provide the necessary evidence to extradite the diplomat. Red notices, which had been issued by Interpol on Soleimanpour and others were withdrawn, but they are still wanted in Argentina.

South Africa signed an Extradition and Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with Argentina on 28 February 2007, but it has yet to be ratified.

Yes, we understand, during the Cold War the apartheid government was so virulently opposed to communism that the ANC pretty much had to fall into the Eastern Bloc’s lap. The adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” applied here as well, meaning the ANC made friends with states that were not exactly the pillars of virtuous rule.

The rules are different now. Firstly, the Iron Curtain came down. Also, you can’t run a country as if it’s a guerrilla camp in the mountains somewhere. But apparently Zuma is determined to walk in the footsteps of Mbeki in his foreign policy. It is deeply sad and deeply unfunny.

What happened to our understanding of what is right and wrong? And here we’re not even talking moral categories. Our question is whether it is right to consistently go against the grain of world opinion and consistently support governments that routinely deride the notion of human rights and peaceful existence. 

The world has changed and Zuma better understand it soon. South Africa needs to chart a new foreign policy that marries our ambitions on the continent and the world stage with the realities of the world and the wishes of the South African people. This is all happening against a backdrop of China’s increasing involvement on the continent, not just in trade, but in politics as well. South Africa could be acting as a beacon of morality, but it isn’t. Under Mandela and Mbeki, it was clearly a case of “you don’t let go of old friends, no matter how rotten they are”. Under Zuma, we are adding an element of schoolyard bullying to our interactions with other African countries.

Zuma is currently on a collision course with Ecowas, most of the AU, the UN, the EU and the US. He can’t hope to survive a battering from all four with a big smile on his face. South Africa can’t afford to go down that route.

President Zuma, it is time to get a new foreign policy. We’ll even help you write it. DM

Photos: Reuters


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