Bin Laden: SA's foreign policy test
South Africa’s response to the US assassination of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has highlighted tensions and dilemmas in its foreign policy, particularly in relation to the major Western powers.
Although the US government and its local representatives have remained tight-lipped about the South African response, the reaction of the ruling party and the government is likely to have caused displeasure.
The initial reaction of ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu was to withhold comment until Bin Laden’s body was produced. The department of international relations and cooperation subsequently released a terse statement “noting” Bin Laden’s death and reconfirming South Africa’s commitment to “the system of global governance of multilateralism”.
However, it did call on countries around the world to “cooperate in stemming the demon of terrorism”. Privately, government and ruling party officials accused the superpower of ignoring international law and multilateralism in dealing with international matters.
“How many times have we heard from [Bush] that they’ve captured Bin Laden? And later it turns out not to be true. We’re not even sure if there was a killing.”
In an oblique comment on the Bin Laden matter Mthembu referred to the UN resolution on a no-fly zone in Libya, saying that South African goodwill had been abused to further the aims of bigger countries.
“We said: ‘Let’s occupy that airspace so that the Libyan government does not kill its own people.’ But our good intentions have been abused.”
He said there is speculation that Obama’s announcement of Bin Laden’s death was intended to bolster his campaign for a second presidential term. “How do we know this is not political manoeuvring before an election?” he asked.
A senior government official agreed that there might be a domestic political agenda, saying: “The killing of Bin Laden has redefined Obama’s presidency. He was previously seen as weak on security issues and he will definitely get a boost from this.”
Other departmental sources, while having no doubts about the truth of Obama’s announcement, told the M&G they were “uncomfortable” with the way the al-Qaeda leader was killed. They declined to comment publicly.
“There are so many unanswered questions. There is the issue of international law—how do you invade another country’s airspace and start killing people? Why not capture the guy and let the law take its course?” one official commented.
The South African government is also worried about the signal that Bin Laden’s assassination will convey about the value of multilateralism. “What does this mean for multilateralism? Countries should not be encouraged to go this route of doing things alone,” said one official.
“We can’t support them fully because we are opposed to countries not cooperating with others. There seem to have been issues of mistrust between them and Pakistan. Also, their story changes all the time on the details of the killing. So we’ll wait and see until we have all the facts on the table.”
John Brennan, Obama’s top anti-terror adviser, has admitted that the US government did not clear the raid with the Pakistani government and a variety of high-profile Pakistanis, including former president Pervez Musharraf, have dubbed the raid a violation of sovereignty. The US is known to believe that particularly the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, is permeated with al-Qaeda sympathisers.
‘Going at it alone’
The international relations department’s deputy director general, Mxolisi Nkosi, said: “The jury’s still out on whether the US raid in Pakistan was sanctioned by the government of Pakistan.”
A senior ANC member, who has been briefed on the matter, told the M&G that the party is infuriated by the way the US tends to go it alone, outside the collective of the United Nations.
“This thing of them being the self-appointed policemen and women can’t be right. We have a serious problem with that and we’re irked by their unilateral action,” he said.
Institute of Security Studies director Jakkie Cilliers pointed out this week that sovereignty is one of the central planks of South Africa’s foreign policy platform.
“In the Southern African bloc of SADC [Southern African Development Community] especially, the big values [are] sovereignty and non-interference in domestic issues by foreign powers,” Cilliers said.
Despite the privately voiced criticism, government-to-government relations are “the best they have ever been”, officials said this week. Said one: “On the presidential level and all the way down, the relations with the US are the best ever.”
A warm personal friendship is said to have grown between International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and her US counterpart Hillary Clinton. Obama often takes time out at multilateral forums to meet President Jacob Zuma, government officials added.
Nkosi also said that the assault on world terrorism had to be depersonalised. “Yes, Bin Laden was the face of al-Qaeda, but the fact that he is no more does not mean that terrorism has come to an end.
“You can’t beat terrorism superficially; you need to address the root causes, the socioeconomic issues.” University of Johannesburg foreign policy specialist Chris Landsberg remarked this week that “the West expects South Africa to be more pliant, to play ball, while at the same time South Africa is trying to side with the Bric countries [Brazil, Russia, India and China].
“In the short to medium term South Africa is going to have to make tough choices and decide who it is with.” Former arts and culture minister Pallo Jordan said analysts and the media had a tendency to miss the real dilemmas of foreign policy.
“Sometimes what might appear as incoherence and inconsistency is the pressure of necessity, which you can’t evade and sometimes can’t anticipate,” Jordan said.
“You might aspire to a foreign policy that is human rights based and no one can argue with that. But the real world isn’t like that; it’s tough out there.”