It's easier to do the right thing

We’ve been hearing it since the early years of his campaign for presidency: Jacob Zuma is a people-pleaser, he tells everyone what they want to hear and leaves it to his underlings to sort out the contradictory commitments he has made.

Warnings to the ANC about his eclectic decision-making style were dismissed, because that which unified them—antipathy towards Thabo Mbeki—was seen to be much more important than that which divided them—interests.

Now this way of life and leadership has come to characterise much of government and, as is increasingly evident, foreign policy. But being everything to everyone is catching up with Zuma and South Africa’s vocal presence on the global stage means the pitfalls are there for the whole world to see.

South Africa’s initial decision to refuse recognition to Alassane Ouattara as Ivorian president was said to be a principled one, based on what Pretoria, ignoring the United Nations-certified result, said were irregularities in the voting process. We thought it more likely to reflect the persuasive powers of Laurent Gbagbo’s backers, including Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos.

A single visit to Nicolas Sarkozy at the Élysée Palace reversed the position and on Zuma’s way back from Paris, he found time to endorse Ouattara as president.
A good outcome, but very messily achieved.

Then, in the UN Security Council vote on Libya, our diplomats were anxious that we not be seen to be propping up a generous dictator, but in voting for the no-fly zone over Libya they authorised military intervention—something the African Union is strongly opposed to.

No anticipation
Zuma is blustering loudly, but can convince no one that he didn’t anticipate military intervention. As United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates explained weeks ago, a no-fly zone starts with bombing.

The Bric countries, which all abstained from voting, will question South Africa’s motives now, a mere few weeks before the Beijing summit at which South Africa is supposed to be formally welcomed as a Bric member.

At home the ANC Youth League, albeit for its own political reasons, is saying the government acts in the interests of the West, while the African Union is said to be foaming at the mouth, because the no-fly zone put the kibosh on its planned “fact-finding” mission.

There is some hope of clarity. A white paper on foreign policy has been in the preparation stages for years and provides an opportunity to set out South Africa’s priorities. There will be those who want to put economic considerations front and centre.

Others will want human rights to be the guiding light. And, for a third group, international standing will be paramount to ensure South Africa is a key player when the balance of forces shift east and south.

Zuma can do a good deal better at the messy necessities of realpolitik, but constitutional values have to be the cornerstone. It is just easier to do the right thing than to play at great power games. We should give it a try.

To read the second half of the editorial (“A matter of ethics”) click here.

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