Did South Africa do enough to prevent the execution by Chinese authorities of Janice Linden, who had been convicted of smuggling 3kg of methamphetamine (tik) in 2008? That was the anxious question in newspaper pages and on social-media platforms this week.
It strikes us as the wrong question under the circumstances. There is evidence to suggest that appeals were made at a high level by President Jacob Zuma’s administration but that they fell on deaf ears. No amount of effort, it seems, would have resulted in the sentence being commuted.
The fundamental asymmetry of the relationship could not be more clearly displayed. When the South African government anticipated concern over a private visit by the Dalai Lama to this country, it scrambled to deny him a visa in compliance with China’s abhorrence of “splitists”. When South Africa, which abhors the death penalty, actively pleaded for clemency on behalf of a citizen, the Dragon shrugged it off and killed her.
The right question is: How should South Africa better manage the inevitable imbalance in the relationship to extract better terms from China?
Clearly we need a foreign policy that recognises the power China wields and that orients South Africa to the dynamism of the East. We need to be able to work with the Chinese in the interests of this country and continent. That need not mean craven compliance with Chinese wishes, real or imagined. It requires South Africa to recognise its weakness while playing its canniest possible hand. Sometimes that will mean withholding co-operation and making it clear that support in multilateral forums where South Africa has a voice disproportionate to its size cannot be taken for granted.
This week the gallows at Pretoria Central Prison, idle since 1989, was converted into a memorial. It is a potent reminder of why we hold our human- rights culture so dear. Just as China won’t compromise on its employment of the death penalty, we must refuse to compromise on the democratic values secured by those whose necks were broken by apartheid’s hangman.
Read the first editorial “Mantashe’s Zim double standard“