/ 15 January 2024

Beyond Inconsistencies: Reinforcing South Africa’s foreign policy foundations

Pro Palestinian Demonstration In Ireland
South Africa's laudable stance on Israel’s actions in Gaza could be undermined by its erratic international relations. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Nelson Mandela left for us a country and a Constitution founded on the values of human rights. His lack of bitterness and ability to steer his country from the path of war and destruction to one of peace and national reconciliation earned him the status of global icon, which saw leaders and celebrities from all corners of the world descend on his humble dwelling in central Johannesburg to pay homage to this magnificent human.

Inadvertently, and by no fault of his own, Mandela might have set the bar very high both in terms of leadership and international relations. South Africa became exemplary in the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the culture of human rights.

But, since the death of Mandela, a disturbing foreign policy trend has emerged, which has resulted in the erosion of the high esteem in which our country was held. 

While principled, South Africa’s stance on the Middle East becomes less persuasive because of inconsistencies across its foreign policy on several issues, such as quiet diplomacy in the face of the cruelties of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s regime, the denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama, the failure to condemn Russia’s unprovoked aggression in Ukraine and others. 

These inconsistencies risk creating cognitive dissonance in our foreign policy, potentially weakening our stance on the genocide underway in Gaza by the racist Israeli government. 

Israel and those sponsoring its genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, the US and its European allies, will exploit these contradictions, emphasising the need for greater coherence in our diplomatic approach for global credibility and effectiveness.

During the era of former president Thabo Mbeki, South Africa steadfastly supported the despotic Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Under the pretext of pursuing quiet diplomacy, Mbeki stood by Mugabe despite evidence, including from our emissaries, that Mugabe was perpetrating acts of violence against his people, stealing and rigging one election after another. 

Apart from then president Ian Khama of Botswana, who was more objective and vocal on the real reasons for the political crisis in Zimbabwe, leaders from both the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) not only turned a blind eye to, but were also dismissive of, atrocities perpetrated by Mugabe against leaders of opposition parties and the people of Zimbabwe.

“Crisis, what crisis?” are the infamous words of Mbeki, dismissing the cries of desperation from the opposition parties and the media on the political persecution the people of Zimbabwe faced under Mugabe’s Zanu-PF regime. The government of South Africa failed to speak out and uphold human rights on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe. 

Faced with spiralling political violence, the killing of political opponents and economic degradation in the country, many Zimbabweans flee into neighbouring countries, mainly South Africa. The economic and social consequences of failing to hold Mugabe accountable still reverberate today both in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

During the Zuma era, from 1999 to 2018, South Africa repeatedly denied granting a visa to

the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who had been invited by none other than the

South Africa’s fighter for freedom, spiritual leader and arguably also our nation’s founding

father, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Bishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu. 

The government did not want to upset the Chinese government, an important trading partner and a fellow member of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The Chinese government did not approve of other governments granting a visa to, or meeting, the Tibetan spiritual leader, whom they regard as a separatist fugitive. 

The move deeply frustrated and angered Tutu, who told president Jacob Zuma: “You and your government do not represent me — you represent your own interest. We shall pray for the downfall of the ANC government in the same way we prayed for the downfall of the apartheid government.”

Of course, Zuma never listened to the advice and warnings from the wise man of God, and he will go down in history as the first president of a democratic South Africa to be “imprisoned” — albeit with special treatment.

As if not to be outperformed, the current government under Cyril Ramaphosa continues

fumbling with an incoherent approach to foreign policy. At the UN, the country has abstained on issues regarding human rights abuse by governments we are friends with,

while making a loud noise when similar human rights abuses are perpetrated by those governments we dislike. 

For example, South Africa has steadfastly stood by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, despite his bombing and killing of innocent civilians, including children, women and the elderly.

This, together with the docking of a Russian cargo vessel (the infamous Lady R), as well as the ill-conceived joint military drills we performed with both the Russians and Chinese, angered the Americans (themselves equal hypocrites with an inconsistent approach to foreign policy), prompting an undiplomatic public venting by the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety. 

The African Growth and Opportunity Act meeting was on the horizon and some US congress members agitated for it to be moved to a different African country and for South Africa to be removed from the list

of countries that should benefit from the trade agreement.

This possibility rattled the South African government. As a damage-control measure, Ramaphosa concocted an impromptu trip to Ukraine and Russia under the guise of an “African peace mission” to bring about a ceasefire between Kyiv and Moscow. 

This was ironic, given that we had a ferocious war raging on our doorstep in Sudan and both SADC and the AU were nowhere to be seen. How does an African peace mission go so far away to negotiate a cessation of hostilities, while ignoring a war closeby? Does charity not begin at home, right here on our continent?

The events of 7 October 2023 and the subsequent ongoing genocidal war on Gaza by Israel provides yet another important reason for a principled foreign policy by our government.

Even though the actions by Hamas on 7 October were brutal and unjustifiable, most sensible citizens of the world agree that the response by Israel went far beyond the simple test of proportionality and is far worse than that of Hamas. Israel has gone on a killing spree, which makes one wonder whether the attack by Hamas was a smokescreen

for Israel to authorise an existing plan to either kill or remove all Palestinians from Gaza.. 

This is not far-fetched because Israel has publicly attempted to pressure neighbouring Arab states to open their borders to take in Palestinian refugees running away from the bombing of their homes in Gaza. 

Furthermore, shortly before October 2023, the racist and fascist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented a map of Palestine and Israel at the UN that was at variance with the 1948 UN borders and left many with unanswered questions that, in the context of the ongoing genocide in Gaza, make perfect sense — at least from his and his government’s point of view.

With massive financial and military support, as well diplomatic cover at the UN

Security Council by the US and its European allies, Israel is continuously bombing

residential buildings, schools, refugee camps, hospitals, business centres, churches and UN buildings, killing entire generations within families, women and children, the elderly,

and hospital patients, including new-born babies in incubators.

Not only are they killing people by direct bombing using high-powered American weapons, but they have destroyed water and sanitation infrastructure and blocked the entry of food, medical supplies and other necessities to sustain life into Gaza. The idea is that those who survive the bombings will die either from starvation or the spread of infectious diseases resulting from squalor and lack of clean drinking water and proper sanitation, as no meaningful healthcare facilities remain in Gaza.

As the killing and destruction by Israel are taking place in Gaza, world leaders and

international bodies seem paralysed, mainly because the US has vetoed any UN Security Council resolution that calls for a ceasefire in Gaza. The US and its European

allies seem unperturbed by the genocide being carried out by Israel.

Despite its dismal performance on a whole range of domestic issues, South Africa has taken the initiative to refer Israel to the International Court of Justice on a charge of committing acts of genocide in Gaza. 

On this, they have most citizens behind them for several reasons. First, there are historical ties between South Africans and Palestinians, born out of their common struggles against injustice. 

Second, the treatment of Palestinians by Israel is very similar and, in most instances, worse, than the treatment of black South Africans under the apartheid government. 

Third, South Africa is a signatory to many treaties in world bodies including one against acts of genocide. Therefore, to the extent that the actions of Israel in Gaza are genocidal, South Africa is well within its right to institute legal actions against it at the International Court of Justice.

South Africa’s principled stance on the Middle East, aiming to address gross injustices in

Gaza by the Israeli government, encounters a challenging paradox. While rightly advocating against these atrocities, the inconsistency in addressing similar violations, such as Russia’s actions in Ukraine or human rights abuses in Africa, risks diluting its moral stance. 

This inconsistency could be leveraged by Israel and its supporters, highlighting a paradox where South Africa seeks justice while facing vulnerabilities in its inconsistencies. Balancing the pursuit of justice, while maintaining a consistent ethical approach, becomes imperative for a more effective global stand against injustice.

Richard Nethononda is a cardiologist and a principal specialist at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital and an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand. He writes in his private capacity.