The change of government in South Africa, following hard on the heels of President Barack Obama’s electoral victory and moves to reposition the United States in the wider world, holds out the possibility of a new direction in our foreign policy.
Under Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s relations with the outside world were dictated by a combination of economic opportunism and anti-imperialist posturing. In just two years on the United Nations Security Council, our representative, Dumisani Kumalo, consistently lined up with Russia and China to lend comfort to tyrannical regimes, including those of Zimbabwe and Burma. Kumalo, who essentially danced on Mbeki’s strings, also did his utmost to thwart and soften UN moves to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
As we report in this edition, it remains unclear whether, and to what extent, Iran’s presidential election at the weekend was rigged. But the sequel has turned a spotlight on the vicious and profoundly anti-democratic character of the Iranian regime. At least 12 people were killed in a savage crackdown on protests against the poll outcome, many of them students and some of them buried without their families being informed. Spearheading the security response was the million-strong Basij volunteer militia, revived by hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, armed with wooden sticks and iron bars. Five hundred opposition supporters have reportedly been detained across the country, some of them figures from the Islamic Revolution.
This is nothing new. In 2007 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Iran’s persistent human rights violations, including torture, public executions, stonings, the execution of minors, violence against women and the growing persecution of minorities. The Iranian ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, dismissed the resolution as the product of “the manipulation and abuse of UN human rights mechanisms” by “certain states … advancing their political purposes”.
South Africa has had nothing to say about the brutal response of Iran’s securocrats. At the same time, Ahmadinejad was an honoured guest at a summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation states in Moscow, including Russia and China, with India observing, where the host country took the stance that the Iranian election was an entirely domestic affair. This is what “the Mbeki Doctrine” seems to imply: Third World solidarity trumps human rights and the enemy of my enemy (the US) is my friend, no matter how insufferable their actions.
Few would argue that foreign relations should be entirely dictated by moral principle. But, given the high-minded solidarity of many countries during the anti-apartheid struggle, sometimes at the expense of grave self-injury, one would expect our government to identify more closely with other victims of state oppression. South Africa is right to forge close ties with states that share its interests and colonial history, but such solidarity cannot be unconditional.
Perhaps in reaction to Mbeki’s geopolitical obsessions, perhaps because he is more insular, Zuma has shown little interest in foreign affairs. But, in this area, as in others, he has an opportunity to sweep away the ideological detritus of the Mbeki era. It should start with a clear expression of concern about the Iranian election and its aftermath.
Enough time to make a start
If it is true that we get the politicians we deserve, South Africans are an undeserving bunch indeed, and opposition voters no less so than those who plump for the black, green and gold.
The past week has offered plenty of depressing evidence.
First, there was the Congress of the People (Cope), which reacted to the leaking of an internal document detailing dissention and paralysis in the party with a hunt for the source, rather than an honest acknowledgement of its understandable difficulties. Then there was the Inkatha Freedom Party, which cordoned off its national meeting to ensure that no outsider could observe its unravelling. Meanwhile, the more disciplined and better resourced Democratic Alliance, launched its five-year action plan in Parliament.
That last sounds good, but apart from the amusement value of a liberal party releasing a five-year plan, it offered little that was new and certainly nothing that convinces us that it is about to break out of its minority corral.
We are disappointed by all of them. The ANC may have narrowly missed its two-thirds target, and lost the Western Cape, but substantial opposition across all spheres of government is crucial to the functioning of democracy.
At one stage Cope promised to provide such opposition, but if it continues on its current trajectory it will be hammered in the 2011 local government elections and may collapse by 2014. Its most urgent problem is a divided tripartite leadership structure. It must this year hold a genuine elective conference to identify and consolidate behind legitimate leadership at every level.
Only once it has developed policies, established itself in branches and elected a leadership can Cope meaningfully play a role in our politics.
The IFP, meanwhile, is sorely in need of fresh blood, and a fresh reason to exist, now that Jacob Zuma has captured the Zulu nationalist vote. Like Moses, Mangosuthu Buthelezi has carried it far, but he will not reach the promised land. Buthelezi has threatened several times to step down and the party should use its upcoming national council conference to finally accept his offer.
As for the DA, it has an extraordinary opportunity in the Western Cape to convince voters that it is not a party of minorities and elites, but it has miles to go in learning a new language, and a new style. There are two years until the next round of elections, enough time to make a start.