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Time for SA diplomats to get real

In light of South Africa’s disappointing decision to refuse the Dalai Lama a visa, many analysts have pushed for a more human rights focus for South Africa’s foreign policy.

However, viewing foreign policy primarily through a human rights lens can be flawed, value-laden and perhaps naive. Human rights and their promotion are undoubtedly important, but international politics does not work solely on this basis and it never has.

South Africa, for example, is consistently scolded by hectoring headmasters for behaving like a naughty boy by selling arms abroad, yet it is important to remember that the five veto-wielding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council responsible for international peace and security — the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain — sell 85% of the arms in the world.

Foreign policy is thus the art of the possible and not some monastic pastime for secular saints. Even the saintly Nelson Mandela insisted on remaining friends with Libya’s Moammar Gadaffi and Cuba’s Fidel Castro — two enfants terribles castigated by the West — on the grounds that both leaders had strongly supported the fight against apartheid, while Western democracies such as the United States, Britain and France were supping with the apartheid devil without the requisite long spoon. Human rights are certainly an important aspect of foreign policy, but they are often shrouded in hypocritical rhetoric and every country mainly pursues what it believes to be its own interests while trying to observe human rights where they can.

South Africa, despite its delusions of grandeur, is clearly not a global power. Instead, it is a geo-political dwarf, even within the Group of 20. The country is, however, a regional superpower in Africa, clearly demonstrated through its accounting for 80% of the Southern African economy and its creditable peacemaking roles in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). South Africa can, however, have only influence and be respected abroad if its leadership role is accepted on its own continent.

If the country no longer wants to go into the rest of Africa, the rest of Africa will come to South Africa. A Jacob Zuma presidency can therefore, no more than a Thabo Mbeki administration, avoid focusing on Africa as the centrepiece of its foreign policy. As demonstrated by the horrific xenophobic attacks last May, foreign policy cannot be so easily delinked from domestic policy.

South Africa inhabits a ”rough neighbourhood” in which fragile states still suffer from poor governance and autocratic misrule. Even if it wanted to, Tshwane could not make human rights the main thrust of its foreign policy. The country would simply find itself diplomatically isolated, as Mandela did in 1996 after a clash with Nigeria’s dictator General Sani Abacha. After Abacha hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow environmental activists, ”Madiba” sought to rally regional support to sanction Nigeria and ended up being diplomatically shunned.

This was a watershed moment for South Africa’s foreign policy and painfully exposed a ”new kid on the block” to the Sphinx-like intricacies of pan-African diplomacy. The Nigeria case determined future South African policy on Zimbabwe and other issues, as the country was determined never again to find itself diplomatically snubbed and depicted as a ”Western Trojan horse” on the continent.

In the Nigeria case Mbeki thought that Mandela had been set up for failure and ridicule by Western countries which continued to profit from Abacha’s oil-rich regime. Mbeki also felt that South Africa had few alternative policies to deal with the Zimbabwe crisis, since any spillover effects resulting from its neighbour’s implosion would drive even more refugees and instability to South Africa. He therefore sought to ”contain” the situation, by bringing Zimbabwe’s government and opposition together in an interim government, which eventually succeeded in February.

The riddle of Zimbabwe was that no one seemed to have a viable alternative to ”quiet diplomacy”, and the key to resolving the problem clearly lay in Harare and not Tshwane. But by apparently legitimising flawed elections in 2002; by vociferously, but unsuccessfully, defending Zimbabwe from suspension from the Commonwealth in 2003; and by adopting a distrustful approach towards Zimbabwe’s opposition, Mbeki was, sometimes justly, criticised for not playing a difficult hand with more diplomatic tact.

During its stint on the UN Security Council in 2007-08, South Africa should have focused largely on African issues and not become embroiled in unnecessary spats with Western powers over Iran and Myanmar. At the UN South Africa sometimes acted like a light middleweight boxer trying to fight with heavyweights and suffering the inevitable technical knock-outs that result from such hopeless mismatches. The country sometimes cut the figure of a 15-year-old juvenile trying to change the world, with Western emperors having to tell the kid that he was wearing no clothes. South Africa should simply have abstained and hidden behind Russian and Chinese vetoes. The hypocrisy of countries such as the US, which invaded Iraq in 2003 without UN approval, must naturally be exposed. But post-apartheid South Africa should clearly not have been making the same arguments over Myanmar as the apartheid government was making over punishing Pretoria’s behaviour.

Finally, it is important to emphasise that Africa remains the most important foreign policy issue facing the new Zuma administration. Building on 15 years of experience, South Africa must pursue a bicycle strategy of diplomacy in Africa, choosing five ”hubs” (regional powers) in each sub-region — Nigeria, Mozambique, the DRC, Ethiopia and Algeria — as well as 10 additional ”spokes” (influential actors) — Angola (with which a close relationship is already being forged), Zimbabwe, Burundi, Rwanda, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, Tanzania, Egypt and Libya.

These countries should then be used to increase the country’s strategic engagement in diplomacy, conflict management and trade relations. At the head of this bicycle would be the presidency, controlling the speed at which the vehicle travels. The other four wheels would consist of the Department of International Relations and cooperation; the Department of Trade and Industry; government parastatals; and South Africa’s business community. Each of these four sets of actors would have bells on their handlebars to warn the presidency of any impending bumps on the road. It is through a careful weighing of concrete interests and human rights that South Africa’s future foreign policy must continue to be pursued.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution Cape Town

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