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Mbeki on South Africa’s foreign policy shortcomings — and his brush with neo-Nazis



It was the year 2000, and then-president Thabo Mbeki was in Denmark on official business. “We are very close to the coast, right up north, so then the prime minister of Denmark [Poul Nyrup Rasmussen] says, ‘Let’s take a walk to the sea’, which we did,” Mbeki recalls. “As we are walking, I could see — through the corner of [my] eye — I could see somebody coming to join the group. I wasn’t paying much attention. A man came into the group, came right up to me, and says, ‘Black man, go home’.”

The man was Esben Rohde Kristensen, a leading member of the National Socialist Movement of Denmark, a local neo-nazi group.

Mbeki has never forgotten the incident — nor what it says about hatred and intolerance in Europe. And with the rise of far-right parties across Europe, these issues have only become more pressing. “That was many years ago. But that was a signal of what was coming. That tendency has grown, so now even countries like Sweden has got a big Swedish Democrats party — that’s what it calls itself — [which is] very right wing, anti-migration, racist. What does that mean for us? What is its implication in terms of our relations with all of these countries in Europe who are our biggest trading partners, together?”

The rise of European far-right nationalism is just one of several urgent foreign policy priorities identified by Mbeki during a speech in Pretoria on Monday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Institute for Global Dialogue, a South African foreign policy think tank.

Mbeki, who makes public addresses only rarely, was scathing about the lack of clear positions from the South African government on what he identifies as today’s most urgent foreign policy priorities. His comments appeared designed to provide President Cyril Ramaphosa and the department of international relations and co-operation with an urgent to-do list.

“Just look at the continent. Let’s take just the security element on the continent. I don’t know what, as a country, we are doing to address that matter. I really don’t know what our policy positions are about that matter,” he said.

Mbeki flags the Sahel as an area of particular concern. “It’s a belt of conflict, which includes Islamic jihadists. It includes very complicated issues and a number of these countries in the Sahel, they share the Fulani population, which you’ll find in Nigeria and other parts of the Sahel. I’m mentioning that because part of what’s happened — because of that conflict in the Sahel — some of these terrorist groups have focused on the Fulani population in terms of arming that population. And so you get that population group being drawn into the conflict as a factor for destabilisation. What does our country think about that? What are we doing about it? I’m saying I don’t know if we’ve got any policy about matters of that kind.”

Mbeki is also very worried about South Sudan, where South Africa has unsuccessfully tried to act as a peace broker (while also signing a suspicious, secretive billion-dollar oil deal and keeping opposition leader Riek Machar under house arrest in Johannesburg for more than a year); and Ethiopia, which is experiencing high levels of communal violence in the wake of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s efforts to open up society.

“I’m mentioning Ethiopia because it’s a very important African country. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The federated people are ethnic groups, so it’s a federation of the Amhara, and the Oromos, and the Tigrayans, and the Somalis, and so on … It might have been necessary in 1990 or thereabouts to organise Ethiopia in that way, but today that has resulted in ethnic conflict in Ethiopia — a pulling apart. It’s a very important country and historically we have very good relations with Ethiopia, but what are we doing about it? It’s in a region — the horn of Africa — which has lots of challenges anyway. It’s an important policy challenge, for us as a country.”

Mbeki’s concerns were not limited to Africa. On the international stage, he said that not enough attention is being paid to the effect on South Africa and the continent of global issues such as the trade war between the United States and China, or the setbacks suffered recently by leftist leaders in Latin America.

He is also worried about US President Donald Trump. “What is the meaning of that kind of politics, that direction, which is represented by President Trump? What impact does it have on us? Not just South Africa, but about the continent. And what do we do about it? Clearly it’s not anything that we can ignore, because whether we like it or not the policies of the United States will have implications for us here as well.”

Mbeki’s overarching message to the audience of both South African and foreign diplomats, as well as foreign policy specialists, is that South Africa needs far more direction in its approach to the rest of the world. “South Africa must again assume its role in terms of helping to fashion a better world around the globe. And that better world, and a better Africa — they require better policies.”

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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