South Africa

North Korea and Israel: SA’s strange foreign policy double standard

By J Brooks Spector 8 November 2013

J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates recent statements from the South African Government on its policy approaches towards North Korea and Israel that have left him rather confused about what principles may be at work in the country’s foreign policy machinery.

When Nelson Mandela was about to become South Africa’s president, he said his administration would forge a moral foreign policy, mindful of its peaceful transition to its new democratic order. In his 1993 ‘Foreign Affairs’ article that first set out this vision, Mandela had written, “issues of human rights are central to international relations and an understanding that they extend beyond the political, embracing the economic, social and environmental; that just and lasting solutions to the problems of humankind can only come through the promotion of democracy worldwide; that considerations of justice and respect for international law should guide the relations between nations; that peace is the goal for which all nations should strive, and where this breaks down, internationally agreed and nonviolent mechanisms….”

Years after the setting out of Mandela’s foreign policy framework, the ANC’s December 2012 national conference would echo that vision, saying, “The ANC remains committed to its founding values of a struggle for a humane, just, equitable, democratic, and free world. The development and prosperity of Africa remains the central objective of the ANC’s international perspective and policy for purposes of advancing the African Renaissance. The ANC’s international relations work is underpinned by a commitment to development, democracy, human  rights, peace and security in the world.”

In the years that followed Mandela’s article, however, South Africa’s foreign policy direction has sometimes taken on a kind of ad hoc, sometimes puzzling, even ambiguous quality about it. We discussed this quality in two previous Daily Maverick articles: “SA’s Foreign Policies: A muddle in the middle” and “A cloudy foreign affairs mandate – the ANC’s thinking on SA’s international future”. Well, of course foreign policy isn’t for sissies, as German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck famously described, when he told the faint-hearted not to watch sausage or foreign policy being made. And there are no guarantees it will always have precisely the same consistency and texture.

But this past week several statements and actions represent a particularly confusing mixture. In the first of these, Deputy Minister of International Relations, Ebrahim Ebrahim, was dispatched on a three-day visit to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or the DPRK for short. According to DIRCO’s announcement, the goal of Ebrahim’s trip was to strengthen bilateral relations reaching “back due to the historic support which the DPRK provided during the struggle against colonialism and Apartheid.”

DIRCO did acknowledge economic relations must still remain limited because of the UN-imposed sanctions that came into force by virtue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The department noted South Africa “holds very strong views on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, which it conveys to the DPRK on all occasions by indicating that the strength of a country is in its economy, not in its military as one can win war but lose peace.”

But the DIRCO statement made no specific mention of the fact North Korea had ended its compliance with the international Nuclear Proliferation Treaty a decade ago (a treaty South Africa consistently supports) when the DPRK began to rev up its nuclear and missile development programs. The DPRK’s official announcement at the time had said, “To cope with the grave situation where our state security and national sovereignty are being threatened due to the United States and forces following the United States and the US tyrannical nuclear crushing  policy toward the DPRK, the DPRK Government took an important measure to  immediately withdraw from the NPT.”

Instead, the DIRCO statement simply added, “South Africa respects the rights of all Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) member states to legitimately develop nuclear energy for peaceful civilian purposes” and that it would encourage North Korea to reengage with South Korea over peace on the peninsula and the Six Party Talks, “aimed at ending North Korea’s Nuclear program through negotiations.”

Meanwhile, according to news reports, DIRCO Minister, Maite Nkoane-Mashabane, had told her audience at a recent COSATU meeting, “[Government] Ministers of South Africa do not visit Israel currently… our Palestinian friends have asked us in formal meetings to not engage with the [Israeli] regime. We have agreed to slow down and curtail senior leadership contact with that regime until things begin to look better.” And speaking of the circumstances of the Palestinian territories, Nkoane-Mashabane apparently went on to say, “That arrangement there in Palestine keeps us awake… the last time I looked at the map of Palestine, I could not go to sleep….” (To be clear, on 6 November, the South African Cabinet felt compelled to issue a statement insisting that the “Government has not imposed a ban on travel to Israel by government officials.”) There has apparently been little loss of sleep over North Korean difficulties.

One does not need to be an uncritical supporter of contemporary Israeli policies (which this writer definitively is not) to be puzzled by such developments. For one thing, there is no question North Korea’s renunciation of the NPT and that the UN’s economic sanctions come as a result of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But of course a larger point is that the North Korean government has been an astonishingly brutal regime for its entire existence, with a hereditary leadership in its communist party, and that its government has been responsible for the most appalling behavior towards the basic human rights of virtually all of its 25 million citizens. It hardly seems like the kind of appropriate partner with which to declare, in advance, a strong intention to build an increasingly warm bilateral international relationship.

Contrast this with the minister’s statements about the South African-Israeli relationship. There is no question that South Africa and Israel have major disagreements over Israeli policies towards the Palestinians – policies that many governments around the world object to strongly, and opposition to such policies are evident even within Israel. But the personalisation of such objections – and in conjunction with an apparent restriction of ministerial contact between the two nations – seems inconsistent with a simultaneous policy of embracing North Korea’s authoritarian regime – and out of sync with the sentiments of Mandela’s morally charged foreign policy.

Beyond its treatment of the Palestinians, it certainly can be argued South Africa’s disapproval of Israel is, in part, a function of Israel’s failure to accede to the NPT – and its almost certain, albeit undeclared, nuclear arsenal. But the same is also true of both Pakistan and India, two states that have openly tested nuclear weapons and that have similarly refused to sign on to that treaty. In those two cases, South Africa has built strong diplomatic and economic ties with these nations. And, in the case of India, it works increasingly closely to in increasingly prominent international forums such as BRICS and IBSA.

If the purposes of senior level contacts are to use diplomatic leverage  to push for policy changes – as with the DPRK – then the same logic would seem to be equally relevant vis-à-vis Israel and its policies towards Palestinians. But perhaps there are another elements here. The DPRK’s only real international ally is its neighbor China, and it is clear that the South African government expends much energy in growing its own relationship with China – through BRICS and many other avenues – for increased bilateral trade, investment and other forms of international support. But some observers of this relationship have also observed the extreme reluctance of South Africa to grant an entry visa to a critic of the Chinese government such as the Dalai Lama. Given that dynamic, is it too much of a stretch to imagine that South Africa might attempt to further ingratiate itself with Beijing by its reaching out to the DPRK?

But there is another possibility as well. And that takes us into domestic politics. In 2014, the ANC government will be working hard to win back the Western Cape from the DA. Someone, somewhere, perhaps, may be contemplating the kind of overly-simplistic political strategy that whispers: chastising Israel might well harvest a couple of handfuls more crucial votes in a really close provincial election.

Together with the public reaction to Israel’s former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman’s bizarre remarks about the need for South African Jews to emigrate from South Africa, and DIRCO Deputy Minister Marius Fransman’s remarks about a supposed Jewish lock on Cape Town civic property leases, the reported comments by DIRCO minister would also appear to be nudging South African-Israeli relations further into the domestic political sphere. For some, Israel can be a convenient whipping boy, almost exactly as Castro’s Cuba has served in American politics for over half a century.

Such political behavior linking foreign concerns with domestic interests is certainly not unique to South Africa. For generations during the Cold War, American politicians of both parties routinely appeared before the annual conventions of organisations comprised of Americans descended from Eastern European immigrants so as to pledge their support for the eventual liberation of the “Captive Nations of Eastern Europe” from the Soviet Union’s evil empire – in exchange for their votes come election day. Republican and Democratic politicians still regularly accept invitations to AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and Christian fundamentalist gatherings to bolster their support with American Jews – and Christian fundamentalists. But it would also be a mistake to see such behavior as precisely identical to foreign policy decisions and strategies solely designed to bolster a nation’s must fundamental and basic interests.

In South Africa’s case, as one veteran foreign policy scholar observed, “Mostly I find SA foreign policy befuddled and confusing. There are pools of principle, and a determination to show exceptionalism (both legacies from the Mandela years); there seems a desire to do something for (and in) Africa – the residue of the Mbeki-Renaissance years. For the rest, it is a dash on opportunism, reliance on the tried and tested national interest uber alles thesis: and shaking a stick at the West. I think they’re keen in BRICS, but don’t really know how to fit into the club.” Or in other words, who’s minding the store? And what kind of sausage do they hope to sell? Sometimes it really is very hard to tell. DM

Read more:

  • South Africa`s Future Foreign Policy by Nelson Mandela, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No.5, this article is available at www.anc.org.za
  • South Africa’s foreign policy: between idealism and the realpolitik of being an emerging power at OpenDemocracy.net
  • U.S. Relations With North Korea (with links to a wide range of US Government reports on human rights, religious freedom, trafficking persons and similar issues)
  • KCNA ‘Detailed Report’ Explains NPT Withdrawal, transcription from the Korean Central News Agency
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