Naledi Pandor’s high-wire balancing act in the world of international diplomacy
South Africa’s international relations minister, Naledi Pandor, says Pretoria tries to avoid associating with ‘criminals’ while also steering clear of Western human rights initiatives which conceal nationalist agendas.
South Africa seeks to advance democracy and human rights in Africa – but not so much as to antagonise the rest of the continent. It’s a delicate – some might say impossible – tightrope which Pretoria is trying to walk.
The balance seems to have been upset in Uganda, for instance, because President Yoweri Museveni thwarted the African Union’s ambition to send a full-scale observer mission to last month’s elections.
South Africa was unable to comment on the freeness or fairness of the Uganda poll because the African Union observer mission was inadequate.
Pretoria was “not happy” with the smaller and shorter observer mission which the African Union sent to Uganda, International relations
The 76-year-old Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, officially won the presidential elections, with 58.64% of the vote, beating reggae singer Bobi Wine, 38, into second place with 34,83%.
The election campaign was marred by much violence, most of it reportedly perpetrated by security forces suppressing protests, sometimes using live ammunition.
Wine has lodged an official challenge to the elections but few believe the Ugandan courts would ever overturn Museveni’s victory. So he will likely continue to govern until he is 81 – and then perhaps run again until he is 86. He has twice changed the constitution to cling to power: once to do away with a two-term limit and again to remove the 75-year age limit for presidents.
Pandor said just after the election that she was awaiting a report from the African Union’s election observer mission before commenting on the poll.
But last week she told Daily Maverick that although the AU had produced a report on the elections, South Africa was “not happy” with it. “Nor was the AU, by the way.”
“First, we were not happy that the AU didn’t send a full electoral observer mission. They sent experts, they called them, and it was a small group.”
This group had not spent much time in Uganda before the elections. Full observer missions usually spend at least 14 days in a country, before the elections, to ensure all parties are getting equal treatment.
“So we don’t feel we have a comprehensive perspective on the Ugandan elections.”
The African Union had applied for an observer mission, but the electoral commission of Uganda took too long to respond.
“And by the time they got an invitation, they could only send the smaller group. So we remain concerned… but I can’t comment on the election as to what happened.
“I also think it’s quite difficult in the diplomatic space, without an observer report, to actually start saying, ‘Well, it wasn’t free and fair’ or making conclusive statements, because I don’t have the information.” Pandor added: “No one has said we think this was a great election.”
“So what disturbs me are reports of the opposition being prevented from campaigning freely. This is what we’ve heard in the media. And obviously that’s worrying, because you want elections on the continent to be free and fair, and for everybody to have an opportunity to communicate their campaign aspirations and so on.”
Pandor also explained why South Africa was not as critical as many foreign policy commentators believe it should be about violations of democracy, during and between the many tarnished elections in Africa.
“I don’t think relations among ourselves on the continent are of a nature that allows that form of commentary,” Pandor responded.
“I do think you face a difficult situation when it comes to assessing other countries, except, as I say, where there has been a machinery, such as a proper electoral observer mission.
“I do think we need to strengthen democracy, both for parties that are in government as well as for opposition, because sometimes opposition claims to have won, when they may not have won, either. And we tend to want to believe the opposition.”
The African Union was an association of peers where there was no one partner bigger than another and each member state had a single vote, she said.
“And it doesn’t mean because South Africa speaks, suddenly everybody will do as we say. But I think we enjoy a level of freedom and respect that does allow us to be open – more open.”
Pandor also dismissed criticism that South Africa was so concerned about being seen as a Big Brother bully in Africa that it didn’t use its considerable clout to demand more respect for democracy and human rights.
“We do use it, but you must use it properly. Because it’s no use having clout and everybody dislikes you and is hostile. Then you’ll have clout but no impact. You’ve got to be able to influence others.”
Pandor said influencing others sometimes took “a quiet talk in a room” which nobody else saw. “You don’t do diplomacy in public.”
She said she had held private meetings with foreign ministers and that President Ramaphosa had also had them with presidents.
Russia is a difficult one. It’s like Syria… Iran. You know, I get questions about them. And I know that there’s a lot of push against Iran. Some of it is fair, some of it unfair.
Later, they hear accusations that South Africa was doing nothing. “Sometimes I sit in a room and I want to cry because I know we worked hard. And I know we succeeded. But I can’t say anything.”
South Africa was not such a pushover as some critics seemed to believe, she insisted. “I stand up for our country,” she said. Sometimes, when countries ask South Africa to support their positions, she would have to turn them down. “Sometimes to our cost.”
Outside Africa, there is a perception that South Africa kowtows to its bigger fellow members in the BRICS forum – Brazil, Russia, India and China, but more especially China and Russia.
For example, South Africa has said nothing about the Russian government’s alleged poisoning of opposition politician Alexey Navalny, or his sentencing this month to nearly three years in prison on what many observers believe were trumped-up charges.
“Russia is a difficult one,” she said. “It’s like Syria… Iran. You know, I get questions about them. And I know that there’s a lot of push against Iran. Some of it is fair, some of it unfair.”
She said she had recently spoken on the phone to the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “And I told him, you’re not always going to find me being against Iran; they are our friends.
“And you are our friends too. But we won’t always agree with you. Because I know there are powerful forces acting against Iran, as there are powerful anti-Russia forces.
“But when I’m in the UN and [Russian foreign] minister [Sergei] Lavrov comes and says; ‘Naledi, we have this resolution’, and I look at it and say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t go with our Constitution. I’m sorry. We’re not going to be able to support it.’
“We’ll argue and argue… It might be something on Yemen or Syria, which we feel doesn’t take humanitarian abuses into account. And we just will not [concur]. But you won’t know that.”
Pandor explained that although South Africa supported human rights globally, it opposed human rights resolutions at the UN when it believed these were designed to target particular countries.
“For example, at the moment an association of ministers was asking countries to sign a document condemning arbitrary detention. [This initiative is being led by Canada, with strong support from other Western nations particularly].
“So they keep asking us… and I know it’s directed at particular countries. So I said, no. We don’t sign when one country has developed a resolution, which we know is against another member of the UN.
“If it’s a UN committee that drafted a resolution, then we will look at it. But once it’s, say, the UK acting against Iran, then you are reducing our membership of the UN to being a vehicle for the UK-Iran fight.
“And we don’t… we won’t back that. In our law, we don’t support arbitrary detention. But I won’t support that stance against Iran and abuse the UN system. So people then say: ‘Ah, South Africa backs arbitrary detention.’”
Well, we would comment on any unconstitutional change of power because they’ve arrested an elected government official. And it’s the army, because they’ve lost elections, wanting to assume power through unconstitutional means.
But shouldn’t South Africa back the principle of opposing arbitrary detention, no matter who sponsors it, since no matter how good a principle is, someone is bound to use it against someone else?
“Yes, the principle is to be supported. But if it’s done in a narrow fashion, then you destroy the principle.”
So how can one do it in a broader fashion? “I think if you are inclusive… if you take it to the appropriate multilateral forum and you have a formal process.”
South Africa would not support a document circulating informally. “We don’t want to do that – then you become part of a grouping, rather than advancing a principled perspective.”
Nonetheless, does South Africa believe that claims the Russian government poisoned Navalny are true?
“I don’t know. They very well may be. And it’s, again, which issues should we become a commentator on? Is it everything? And where does it serve our country’s interests? I don’t want to destroy the reputation of South Africa by making us appear to associate with every criminal.
“But nor do I want to be so outspoken on every matter, that actually we become nothing. And so we’ve got to choose, you know… where a matter is being pursued by very powerful countries and it’s enjoying public interest, I’m not sure that South Africa will necessarily make a difference to the issue.”
Some foreign policy observers see an inconsistency in South Africa’s foreign policy on human rights, noting that it can be sharply critical of certain countries. For example, early this month Pretoria was outspoken in condemning the military coup in Myanmar and called on the junta to immediately release state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and other political leaders.
“Well, we would comment on any unconstitutional change of power,” Pandor said, “because they’ve arrested an elected government official. And it’s the army, because they’ve lost elections, wanting to assume power through unconstitutional means.
“And we think that’s wrong and is to be condemned.”
But Pandor said as Pretoria prepared its statement on Myanmar, she was worried because Myanmar’s minority Muslim community had been “treated so badly without much commentary from within the country”.
Even Aung San Suu Kyi, once universally lauded as a moral icon, has been widely criticised for failing to protect the Rohingya people. Did South Africa agree with that criticism?
“Again, international affairs are not easy. You know, it’s not black and white.”
Daily Maverick asked Pandor if Pretoria ever raised issues with China, such as the suppression of democracy and the protests in Hong Kong and in its far western province of Xinjiang.
“Sometimes, ja… China has tried to table some resolutions which we couldn’t support.
“And so you will see we would rather abstain. And then people say, ‘Why did you abstain? You should be against.’
“But they don’t mind when others abstain on Sahrawi or Palestine,” she added, referring to what Pretoria sees as a lack of international support for two of Pretoria’s main causes.
Pandor agreed there were “some worrying developments” in another BRICS country, India. Was she referring to accusations that the Narendra Modi BJP party was becoming anti-Muslim?
“Anti-Muslim, but also more nationalist. I’m not sure what’s happening. It’s disappointing. But let’s see what happens in the next election.” DM
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved