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SA’s foreign policy – stupid, but not cowardly


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

An undefined foreign policy has left South Africa ill-prepared to deal with the unrelenting juggernaut of international politics. It is, after all, a jungle out there.

Like the hero in the Douglas Livingstone poem “Gentling a Wildcat”, South Africa has been ill-prepared for the walk in the wild that is the United Nations Security Council. “I ventured with no trepidations and a torch, towed by the faculty I cannot understand, that has got me into too many situations,” Livingstone wrote.  Stupid, this country’s foreign policy may well be, but cowardly it certainly is not.

Even by humble South African standards this has not been a bright week for this country’s diplomacy.  From the annexes of the United Nations to the pages of Foreign Policy magazine, South Africa has been measured and found wanting. We have been accused – for the umpteenth time – of spinelessness. First, there was that nasty business about the Dalai Lama’s visa. Then there was the abstention on the Security Council vote on Syria. Too weak to actually take a stand, South Africa has been ridiculed for displaying a crippling cowardice.

Weighed down by the sheer bulk of its own bureaucracy, South Africa’s foreign policy has left even the most schooled diplomats confounded.  What does South Africa actually stand for on the international stage? Are we modelling ourselves into a China, content to let the place go up in flames so long as our own booty is safe? Are we to emulate the example of our new colonial masters and make a show of nobility by putting out bonfires only to escape arrest for arson? Or are we just plain indifferent to the suffering of fellow humans who are not counted in the same census? The sheer range of decisions South Africa has not taken on the international stage makes it exceedingly difficult to understand what exactly drives South Africa’s foreign policy.

And if the most ardently proud South Africans are left dumbfounded about the thrust of their nation’s foreign policy, it is little wonder that rest of the world is left scratching its collective head at how our foreign policy is being churned out. On Thursday, across an indicting image of President Zuma warmly greeting deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Foreign Policy taunted South Africa, “Cowardly Lion. Kissing Qaddafi, stiffing the Dalai Lama. How did South Africa come to this?” It is an especially jarring reminder that our frailties do not go unnoticed by the rest of the world.  We can, of course, cry, “Bully!” and find a corner to shield ourselves from the prying eyes of the world, but then we would have to admit to being meek.

After all, it takes some guts to stand before the Security Council and tell it you are about to abstain from voting on a resolution because “we have seen that recently Security Council resolutions have been abused and their implementation went far beyond the mandate of what was intended”.  It is an approach that has certainly not endeared South Africa to the permanent members of the council – well, all except Russia and China. As the call grows stronger for an African state to be granted a permanent seat on the SC, the US has been particularly disappointed at South Africa’s record so far.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, has been particularly vocal about her disappointment in South Africa. She has been quoted by the Christian Science Monitor saying the US has been especially watchful of the international actions of council members who aspire to permanent seats.“It’s been a very interesting opportunity to see how they respond to the issues of the day, how they relate to us and others, how they do or don’t act consistent with their own democratic institutions and stated values,” she said, undoubtedly taking a swipe at South Africa. “Let me just say we’ve learned a lot and, frankly, not all of it encouraging.” Libya, Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire have been highlighted as cases where South Africa, as well as India and Brazil, have been found wanting. 

What we are witnessing at the Security Council is a battle of values. The burgeoning political clout of the Brics nations is certainly not a triumph of tyranny over human rights, or despotism over democracy.  South Africa, along with Brazil, Russia, India and China bring a principle of non-intervention to the table. Conflict with the Western powers on the council is then inevitable. The Western powers appear to promote democracy – at all costs. South Africa in turn appears to champion a nation’s autonomy above the meddling hands of international interference.

It is quite a feat to be able to stick to your own thoughts, ideas and values, even in the face of ridicule – as South Africa has. It takes courage to diverge from the path everybody else is taking. On Libya, Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire and more recently, Syria, South Africa swam against the current. And there has been hell to pay. Unlike Turkey that has been able to mould itself into a detractor of mainstream, Western foreign policy, South Africa does not have the economic clout. And also while Turkey in Prime Minister Erdogan and foreign minister Davetogulu have been able to speak about their foreign policy, with one voice, coherently letting the world know exactly what they stand for, South Africa has not.

It may well be argued that instead of paving its own path, South Africa has instead swapped mainstream Western ideologies for mainstream Brics ideologies. The Dalai Lama drama certainly smacked of subversive Chinese influence.  But the point of shedding Western expectations, only to assume another bloc’s principles would be disingenuous. Yes, we need the Chinese to keep the economy oiled, but it remains for us to determine the tropes of that relationship. It is the great bulk of government bureaucracy that is the real impediment to South Africa rightfully influencing world affairs, not a lack of courage. DM


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