South Africa, Politics

Nkoana-Mashabane: ANC diplomacy today built on past experience

By Khadija Patel 8 March 2012

On Tuesday evening minister of international relations and co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane spoke at the University of Cape Town. Her message, well cloaked in the nuance of history, was that the ANC was not made up of bumbling, inexperienced diplomats. By KHADIJA PATEL.

South African diplomacy is not highly regarded these days. Dogged by a reputation for poor communication, contradictory positions and a indecisiveness, South Africa’s best efforts to bulk up its presence on the international stage have been undermined by its feeble diplomacy. As a young democracy much of the blame for our diplomatic gaffes are thought to be a result of a sometimes dire lack of experience. A lack of experience is not a bad thing but Nkoana-Mashabane set out to detail the experience of the ANC-led government in diplomacy.

Nkoana-Mashabane sought to place the international relations experience of the ANC within the greater context of liberation movements in Africa. Her speech was entitled, “The Legacy of Liberation Movements in Africa: Freedom through Diplomacy.” It is a legacy, she believes, has not been adequately documented. “We need our historians to tell our side of the story of the evolution of Africa’s international relations and diplomacy.”

She said SADC had commissioned a study to document the history of liberation struggles in southern Africa. The centenary of the ANC was inevitable in the context of her address, but Nkoana-Mashabane was careful to include other African liberation movements.

According to her the collective African triumph against colonialism and imperialism is the triumph of rigorous diplomacy, it is proof of the prowess of African diplomacy. “The sudden decline of colonial powers in Africa from the 1960s was not a spontaneous and inexplicable development. But it was very much an outcome of the agency of African liberation movements and the revolutionary diplomacy of independent African states,” she said.

But, even as she credited diplomacy, she stressed African exercises in diplomacy predate European forays into Africa. “Diplomacy as practiced today may have been codified in Europe from the 17th century, but it has a long history dating back to the ancient period. It is not an accident that the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 could open its preamble with the observation that ‘peoples of all nations from ancient times have recognized the status of diplomatic Agents’.”

Nkoana-Mashabane studiously listed the diplomatic triumphs of the ANC in the fight against apartheid as proof of the potential of African diplomacy.

“The ANC’s diplomacy was successful in that, firstly, it made the struggle against apartheid an aspect of international law when apartheid was condemned as a crime against humanity and a threat to international peace as defined in the UN Charter. Secondly, the UN convention on the suppression of apartheid of November 1973 was one example of the body of international jurisprudence that evolved against apartheid. Thirdly, the UN deployed boycotts and sanctions for isolating and weakening apartheid South Africa as a member of the international community, including targeting its access to arms as well as international trade and investment. Fourthly, the establishment of the UN Special Committee against Apartheid and its Centre against Apartheid, created a follow-up mechanism in the UN system on anti-apartheid issues. Finally, the granting of observer status to the ANC was the cherry on top!”

Nkoana-Mashabane felt it was precisely this experience that fed South Africa’s sometimes maddening insistence on negotiated solutions to the most severe of the world’s problems.

According to her, the department of international relations and cooperation had relied on this diplomatic experience to reposition South Africa within Africa and the rest of the world. “Today, South Africa stands out among the front ranks of those countries who strive for peace, democracy, prosperity, infrastructure development and poverty eradication,” she said. The transition from liberation movement to government was a particularly fraught one – not least in the fickle world of international relations. 

Nkoana-Mashabane expressed a welcome discernment between the diplomacy of liberation organisations and the diplomacy of nation states. She did, however, show no signs of backing down from the campaign to annex the African Union Commission from Jean Ping. Instead of seeing the drive towards the AU Commission as a petty act of playground bullying, Nkoana-Mashabane felt South Africa was duty-bound to shine its light on the rest of the continent.  “Our struggle and the historical support it gained from the OAU, the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, reflects the spirit of Pan-Africanism which logically demands the united, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa assume its responsibility in the promotion of peace, security, stability and development in Africa,” she said.

It is, however, Nkoana-Mashabane’s referral to history to affirm the position of the ANC government that was particularly interesting. A researcher at the University of Fort Hare, Thozama April made the point that the exclusion of diplomacy from the narrative of the struggle in South Africa could be attributed to a particularly jaundiced account of the liberation struggle that may have infected the historical accounts of other African liberation movements as well.

“Focus on the history of the struggle has not gone beyond the public display of what we think of as the struggle,” she said speaking at the “One Hundred Years of the ANC: Debating Liberation Histories and Democracy Today” conference organised by South African History Online in September 2011 to offer a more independent reflection on the history of Africa’s oldest liberation movement.

The conference was exactly the kind of historical inspection into the liberation struggle that Nkoana-Mashabane believed was missing from South Africa today. “We need our historians to tell our side of the story of the evolution of Africa’s international relations and diplomacy. That is a challenge I would like to place squarely on[sic] the doors of our African historians and our universities. The relationship between diplomats and academics should be strengthened as a way of sharpening and consolidating Africa’s international relations and diplomacy,” she said.

Jon Soske, another speaker at the conference, believed it was the ANC itself that stood to benefit most from a more thorough inquiry into its own history. “The ANC needs to be reminded of its own history,” he said. “A failure to remember is a failure to confront the present.” He pointed out as well that impassioned pleas to history do little to fix the tangible problems of the present. 

For Soske, Julius Malema has proven to be a problem child particularly because he contested the ANC’s vaunted ideals and history. “Malema confronts the values of the likes of Mandela like non-racialism while addressing the reality of the lack of transformation,” he said. For him the divisions within the ANC all stem from a failure to grapple with its own history in the face of changing times. “There are deep differences within the ANC on how to address the history of its history,” he says.

Soske pointed out that the struggle was not the sole dominion of the ANC. “Even the DA invokes the memory of the liberation struggle,” he said. On Monday DA spokesman Musi Maimane lambasted the ANC for drifting away from the values espoused by leaders like Nelson Mandela.

Nkoana-Mashabane’s attempt to defend the capability of South African diplomacy in the present day with an impassioned plea to the past, forces scrutiny on what she left out in her account of South African history. Perhaps it is as William Gumede concluded, the ANC government was beginning to realise the politics of “an adequate history”. DM

Read more:

  • 2011: A tough year in South African diplomacy in Daily Maverick.
  • As Syrian crisis continues, a much brighter day for South African diplomacy in Daily Maverick.

Photo: South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. REUTERS/Henry Romero.


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