These days, to be a South African in the diplomatic world is to be very, very lonely. As diplomats and journalists scratch their heads trying desperately to understand what exactly informs this country’s foreign policy, South Africa continues to turn its nose up to the thrust of history. Every time a pressing international relations issue has cropped up this year, South Africa has forsaken convention and chosen instead the road less taken.
In Cote d’Ivoire, the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) all explicitly supported Allasane Ouattara’s electoral victory. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to transfer power to Ouattara had actually been widely condemned across Africa, but South Africa remained reticent. When the AU and Ecowas both expelled Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa called for “restraint, national reconciliation and unity”. It was months and many, many lives lost before Outtara, with some French assistance finally managed to oust Gbagbo. Outtara was finally inaugurated as the leader of Cote d’Ivoire, Gbagbo was in handcuffs and South Africa had never been persuaded to move off the fence.
Good fences make good neighbours, as another Robert Frost poem concludes, but sometimes good leaders need to move off the fence and take a stand. When the severe human tragedy in Somalia began unfolding, South Africa was very slow to react. It was weeks before South Africa could coherently regale the world with its African solution to this particular problem. No matter that our eventual pledge of R8 million, which may be beefed up at the AU pledging conference in Addis Ababa on Thursday, pales next to the efforts of our newest best friend, Turkey or the great Satan, the US, it is alarming that we were caught off guard, fumbling for a response while the rest of the world rushes once more to Africa’s aid.
South Africa, the continent’s economic muscle, bastion of democracy and human rights is immediately sought to lead the way in finding a solution to the continent’s various crises. When South Africa was sluggish to respond to the famine in Somalia, Lyndsey Duff, a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue, said the confusion over how to respond to humanitarian emergencies was an indictment of South Africa’s lack of foreign policy. “It is a huge problem that we do not have a codified foreign policy,” Duff said. In the absence of a clearly defined foreign policy, relief efforts will inevitably be stymied by behind the scenes posturing.
Now there’s Libya.
When she vehemently denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of Gaddafi on Monday, minister of international relations and cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane pledged South Africa’s commitment to the reconstruction of Libya following what she termed the “imminent fall of government”. Exactly what form that pledge is set to take we have not yet been able to ascertain. Most journalists have been far more concerned with goading the South African government into admitting that they are actually deeply involved in negotiating an exit permit for the ousted dictator. The minister has been at pains to point out that the South African position on Libya is “to let the will of the Libyan people take (its) course”. Fair enough, but then it just so happens that Libya is up in flames and desperately short of cash to keep the country running while the rebels flush out the remaining vestiges of Gaddafi resistance.
The US, ever enterprising, noted the dire need for aid to Libya and noticed as well that a healthy chunk of Gaddafi’s wealth has been frozen around the world. So the US, Britain and the European Union got together and decided to call for the quick release of the frozen assets to help the rebels’ national transitional council rebuild the Libyan economy, restore essential services, reform the police and the army and pay government salaries. The superpowers piously swear to keep their own grubby hands away from the loot and direct it carefully towards rescuing Libya from a certain collapse. In London, British foreign secretary William Hague told reporters, “we are engaged at the United Nations and elsewhere to pave the way for the unfreezing of assets, the assets that have been frozen for five months, but which ultimately belong to the Libyan people.” The politicians certainly sound well-intentioned and much of the sanction committee agrees. And yet, South Africa is the only country currently standing in the way of the US-led proposal to unfreeze a portion of the Gaddafi assets.
Proposals in the sanctions committee, which works by consensus, require the support of all 15 council members to be approved. South Africa’s reluctance to support the proposal is drawing sharp criticism from diplomats struggling to understand the mechanics of the South African position. One American diplomat is quoted by American journalists saying, “South Africa is being difficult”.
Altogether the US proposal seeks to free $1.5 billion of Gaddafi’s assets. About $500 million would reportedly cover some of the costs of a UN humanitarian appeal, and would be used to fund humanitarian agencies operating in Libya. Another $500 million would pay for fuel, which is in short supply, for electrical plants, desalinisation plants and hospitals. The remaining $500 million would be placed in the so-called temporary financing mechanism, which was established by members of the Libya Contact Group, to pay for salaries of functionaries in a future Libyan government. South Africa, of course, according to Nkoana-Mashabane takes the view that when Gaddafi’s government falls, Libya will have no government. It is understandable then, that South Africa is fiercely opposed to free up money to pay the salaries of a rebel government.
When South Africa went into the sanctions committee meeting late on Wednesday it was ready to agree to freeing up about $500 million to fund humanitarian relief efforts in Libya, but continued to object to the release of an additional $1 billion for fuel and salaries. The US, however, insists on the complete $1.5 billion and the meeting ended in an impasse. And so, once again, South Africa cut a lonely obstructionist figure around the bargaining table, with no other country on the 15-nation committee sharing its stance. While a source says India had initially expressed some reservation on the proposal, their reservations were resolved by further explanations from the committee. South Africa, despite being implored to acquiesce to the proposal, remains stubbornly defiant.
The head of South Africa’s mission to the UN ambassador Baso Sangqu, cited two major concerns with the proposal. First, South Africa would first solicit an AU decision on whether to free funds to anti-Gadaffi groups. Then, South Africa was also concerned that providing money to the Libyan opposition would constitute a recognition of the rebels as the lawful government of Libya. The meeting ended late on Wednesday with South Africa resolving to wait for its cue from the meeting of the high level African Union delegation to Libya next week.
The US, however, cannot wait that long. Without the assurance that South Africa will indeed grudgingly accept the proposal next week, the US is now set to bypass South Africa altogether. It is set to raise the issue before the Security Council as early as Thursday, where it would require a paltry nine votes to pass a resolution allowing the funds to be channelled back to Libya.
As one of few “leading” countries who refuse to recognise the rebels as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people, South Africa has led itself into a diplomatic wilderness. The road less taken is after all a rather lonely one. DM
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