Going South

By James Kirchick

South Africa has become a paragon of resentment, anti-Americanism, and the coddling of dictators.

Last September, not long after the Israeli-Hezbollah war, South Africa’s minister of intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, praised the Islamist group committed to Israel’s destruction. The Iran News Agency, albeit prone to exaggeration, reported that Kasrils “lauded [the] great victories of the Lebanese Hezbollah against the Zionist forces” and “stressed that the successful Lebanese resistance proved the vulnerability of the Israeli army.” The comment received no attention in the South African media; nor, for that matter, did the international press seem particularly interested. And yet, the scandalous comment occurred immediately after the South African government had warmly received the visiting Iranian foreign minister and expressed support for Iran’s campaign for uranium enrichment—in spite of the passing of a United Nations Security Council deadline that same week regarding the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program. This stance toward Iran is cause for concern on its own. Unfortunately, it is also illustrative of a much broader and more chilling trend in South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign policy: One that cozies up to tyrants, and is increasingly orientated against the West—even at the cost of its self-proclaimed principles of human rights and political freedom.
Post-apartheid South Africa’s easy relationship with dictatorships, it should be noted, is not a new development. Until very recently, however, it has largely been overlooked by the media. This oversight is likely due to the fact that, much like its out-of-control crime rate, any bad news about South Africa is viewed as a blemish on the popular and self-comforting narrative surrounding the country’s emergence from apartheid. Indeed, that a country scarred by so many years of violent racial segregation could transform itself into a fully functioning democracy with a robust economy while simultaneously avoiding the wide-scale racial bloodbath feared by many is nothing short of miraculous. But judging by its international relations, South Africa—by far the most politically stable, economically productive and militarily powerful country in sub-Saharan Africa—appears to be moving into the camp of the anti-Western powers, a loose but increasingly worrisome consortium not unlike the Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement. Drawing heavily upon its history as a liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC) cloaks itself in a shroud of moral absolutism that not so subtly implicates its critics as racists, Western stooges, or apologists for apartheid.
In a 1993 article written for Foreign Affairs on the eve of his country’s transfer of power, Nelson Mandela declared that “South Africa’s future foreign relations will be based on our belief that human rights should be the core of international relations.” Mandela had good reason to attempt an improvement of his country’s international image: South Africa’s apartheid government was the cause of much instability in the region, involved as it was in international terrorism against anti-apartheid leaders and cross-border raids in a number of black “front-line states.” With the transition of power, then, many hoped that South Africa would prove to be a beacon of good governance and responsible leadership for the rest of Africa. Unfortunately, not long after he was released from prison, Mandela himself began cavorting with the likes of Fidel Castro (“Long live Comrade Fidel Castro!” he said at a 1991 rally in Havana), Muammar al-Gadaffi (whom he visited in 1997 in defiance of American objections, greeting the Libyan dictator as “my brother leader”), and Yasser Arafat (“a comrade in arms”). Mandela felt affection toward these men because they supported the ANC in exile. But he seemed unperturbed by the fact that Cuba, Libya, and the PLO all employed terrorist tactics and treated their critics much as the apartheid state had. That Mandela has comported himself so comfortably with dictators is more than hypocritical—it is a betrayal of the principles for which he languished twenty-seven years in prison. Yet while Mandela’s grandstanding with tyrants is regrettable, it has been far less serious than his ANC successors’ strategic and systematic support for a broadly anti-Western agenda.
Perhaps the best example of the ANC’s betrayal of the cause of human rights is in its dealings with its immediate neighbor to the north, Zimbabwe. Since he initiated a policy of violent confiscation of white-owned farms in 2000, President Robert Mugabe has presided over what might arguably be the most abysmal degeneration of a modern nation state. Once the “jewel of Africa,” a relatively affluent country that boasted high life expectancies, abundant food exports, and the continent’s highest literacy rates, Zimbabwe may now lay claim to one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the world, mass starvation, and a politically oppressed citizenry. Four years ago, as the country entered free fall, President George Bush referred to South African President Thabo Mbeki as his “point man” on Zimbabwe. And in March of this year, the African Union once again reaffirmed its support for Mbeki as a peacebroker. But the ANC government has failed to deliver on the responsibility with which the world has entrusted it. Primarily because Mugabe was a liberation hero who fought against white colonialism, the ANC has been reluctant to take any action that might alleviate the brutality of his rule, never mind dislodge the tyrant from power. Indeed, South Africa is worse than inactive on Zimbabwe: It props up Mugabe via a formal military alliance, and does its diplomatic best to keep Zimbabwe off the international agenda.
In March, Tony Leon, then the leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (the country’s leading opposition party), invoked the repression of the apartheid years to make clear just how aberrant his country’s policy on Zimbabwe has become. He went so far as to call South Africa’s relationship with Zimbabwe “an insult to the Sharpeville victims,” the sixty-nine black civilians who were killed by the state’s security forces at an anti-apartheid rally in 1960, an act that sparked the ANC’s armed campaign against white rule. Considering the conditions in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe (where democracy activists are imprisoned, tortured, and killed, opposition rallies are banned, and the free media are largely silenced), the comparison to apartheid-era South Africa is hardly hyperbolic.
South Africa’s newfound presence on the UN Security Council (it took up a two-year, non-permanent seat in January) has placed its troublesome foreign policy in stark relief. One of the strongest proponents of Security Council reform via an expanded number of veto powers, South Africa assumed its seat with the hope of stirring things up and providing a voice for both the underdeveloped and developing world. With its proximity to and influence over Zimbabwe, South Africa might have seized the opportunity its position on the Security Council offered to earn international respect by drawing attention to its neighbor’s ill-doings. Indeed, Mugabe could not have offered a more convenient reason for South Africa’s condemnation: In March, he cracked down on his opponents by violently suppressing a public prayer meeting, and government agents cracked the skull of the country’s opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Yet South Africa’s ambassador to the UN repeatedly stated his government’s belief that Zimbabwe is a local problem best left for Mugabe and his opposition to deal with among themselves. So, too, did South Africa oppose attempts to bring the issue before the United Nations, choosing to go the route of “silent diplomacy” instead. Yet this policy, partly inspired by South African President Mbeki’s genuine fear of Mugabe, a man with far stronger anti-colonial liberation credentials than he, has been an unqualified failure from the beginning.
South Africa has balked at the chance to champion human rights at the UN in other instances, as well, lest it be seen as siding with Western forces. For instance, the first significant vote placed before the Security Council this year dealt with a non-binding resolution regarding the military junta in Burma. The resolution called for the release of all political prisoners, a process of national reconciliation (one, it should be noted, not unlike South Africa’s), and an end to human-rights abuses. South Africa, along with Russia and its crucial trading partner, China (whose neo-imperialism in Africa has been extensively documented), voted against the resolution’s acceptance—which, ironically, called for far less stringent measures than what the ANC itself demanded the world invoke against the apartheid regime. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu admitted that the Burma vote was “a betrayal of our own noble past.” Yet South Africa was content to recommend that Burma be referred to the Human Rights Council, a kangaroo court at which the world’s villains pass judgment on Western democracies, and where such a resolution would garner little attention.

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