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Analysis: What Mbete’s conspiracy theory tells us about SA’s changing foreign policy

Sounding far too much like Robert Mugabe for comfort, Baleka Mbete has blamed unnamed western governments for the rise of the EFF and the chaos currently engulfing South Africa’s political landscape. The West is an easy scapegoat, but Mbete’s conspiracy theory actually reveals more about her own government that it does about anyone else’s. By SIMON ALLISON.

As if the State of the Nation debacle hadn’t already given us enough villains to go around, Baleka Mbete – far from blameless herself in all of this – has cast the conspiracy net even further.

Speaking to a sympathetic audience at the ANC’s North West provincial conference on Saturday, the ANC national chairperson and Speaker of the National Assembly lashed out at the “western governments” who she claims are driving the EFF’s agenda.

It was an extraordinary allegation in a generally extraordinary speech, in which she also described Julius Malema as a cockroach and implied that the government had been spying on EFF meetings.

“[The EFF] want to – in their words – collapse Parliament so they can force this country to an early election. They want to take this country so that they must take over the mines and share them with friends they were seen gallivanting with in Europe,” said Mbete, who seems to have fundamentally misunderstood the EFF’s land redistribution policy, which is surely far too radical for the comfort of any western government.

She added later: “Those people [EFF] are not working with people of this country alone, they are pawns in a bigger scheme of things where some western governments are involved.”

Mbete did not specify which western governments were involved, or how they were involved. Nor should we expect her to. Her accusation is a classic piece of political misdirection. By hinting at some grand foreign plot, she’s shifting the blame onto a conspiracy that can’t defend itself – because it doesn’t exist – and disguising her own government’s failings.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is the most regular, and effective, exponent of this technique. On Sunday, his officials were at it again, this time rewriting the history of the Gukurahundi massacres in the mid-1980s in which more than 20,000 civilians – mostly Ndebele supporters of Mugabe rival Joshua Nkomo – were killed by the notorious North Korean-trained Zimbabwean Fifth Brigade. Mugabe has previously admitted some culpability for this atrocity, describing it as a “moment of madness”, but now the official narrative has changed.

“Gukurahundi…had nothing to do with Mugabe, nothing. That is a fact. People can say what they want but that was a Western conspiracy,” said newly-appointed vice-president Phelekezela Mphoko.

Mugabe’s not the only one to find that ‘the West’, whatever that may be exactly, makes for a useful scapegoat. Cote D’Ivoire’s ousted president Laurent Gbagbo said there was a western conspiracy against him when he failed to win elections; Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi blamed the West for his ouster; Russia describes the falling oil price that’s debilitating its economy as a western ploy to keep Russia down; Paul Kagame says western powers incited the Rwandan genocide… The list is endless.

It seems that wherever there’s a leader with something to hide, there’s also a western conspiracy.

This is true even in the South African context. Mbete is not the first to point a finger at mysterious external interventions. Who can forget Thabo Mbeki, at the peak of his presidency, saying that the CIA was part of a conspiracy to promote the link between HIV and Aids, and that the CIA and the big western pharmaceutical companies were working together to undermine him? Anything to shift the debate from Mbeki’s own controversial views, which denied the link, and eventually cost thousands and thousands of South Africans their lives as they were refused access to life-saving antiretrovirals.

But back to Mbete’s own alleged conspiracy, which reveals more about herself and the government than it does about the EFF. Most significant is that a very senior ANC official, in a public forum, has no qualms about denigrating western governments en masse. Officially, at least, South Africa still has a friendly relationship with Britain, the European Union and the United States (presumably the spearheads of any conspiracy), so why risk offending them?

Officials in western embassies contacted by the Daily Maverick admit to being somewhat baffled by Mbete’s attack. All deny any plotting, as does the EFF itself. The reality is, however, that under Jacob Zuma’s presidency South African foreign policy has shifted away from western countries and into the welcoming arms of Russia and China.

South Africa’s enthusiastic membership of the BRICS group is proof of this, as is the secret (and not very favourable) nuclear deal reportedly signed recently with Russia. Another example is the repeated refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa. Mbete’s casual accusation shows that this shift, at least in the minds of top government officials, is now irreversible; and that South Africa feels so secure in the embrace of its new allies that it can afford to compromise the relationship with the old ones.

None of this is encouraging. While western governments may have a long and undistinguished record of meddling in other countries, the EFF and the issues it raises are uniquely South African – these issues must be dealt with, not dismissed. Meanwhile, regardless of our new diplomatic friends, western governments remain some of the most powerful on the planet and it is in South Africa’s interests to keep on their good side.

Next time, if she absolutely has to, perhaps Baleka Mbete could invent another, more convincing and slightly less-abused conspiracy theory? Wait a minute, who exactly was behind 9/11? DM

Photo: Speaker of the Parliament, Baleka Mbete, 12 February 2015. (Greg Nicolson)


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