Post-Apartheid South Africa and the World: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters?
Post-Apartheid South Africa and the World: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters?
Rising Discontent Pushes South Africa Toward a Tight Poll
Rising Discontent Pushes South Africa Toward a Tight Poll
Commentary / Africa 8 minutes

Post-Apartheid South Africa and the World: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters?

The advent of Jacob Zuma as president of South Africa has launched a debate over that country’s global role.  Foreign policy will never dominate South Africa’s national agenda in the face of slowing economic growth, broad social inequalities, and questions about the state of democracy and governance in the country.  Still, many view Zuma’s presidency as a chance to reverse a recent pattern of standing up not for the abused and powerless of the world, but for the interests of leaders like indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, authoritarian Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and the military junta in Myanmar.  Commenting on South Africa’s efforts to shield Myanmar from UN Security Council pressure in 2007, for example, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu said the action was “a betrayal of our own noble past,” adding that “the tyrannical military regime is gloating, and we sided with them.”

The World-View of Post-Apartheid South Africa

It was not supposed to be that way.  When Nelson Mandela emerged from Victor Verster prison in February 1990, there was a feeling that South Africa’s transformation from apartheid to non-racial democracy could provide a great service to the region and beyond.

Economically, South Africa could be an engine of growth, providing markets, investment, and infrastructure to pull Africa out of poverty.  Militarily, a modern, self-sufficient defence force could provide peacekeepers, distribute humanitarian aid, and facilitate the deployment of African forces to address African problems.  Diplomatically, world-class negotiators could mediate the toughest disputes.  A bastion of stability, South Africa could provide refuge for repressed people from elsewhere, just as the region had housed anti-apartheid exiles during the apartheid era.

For South African business, workers, and unions as well, leadership in a peaceful and prosperous continent meant new markets, access to raw materials once banned by trade sanctions, transport networks led by South Africa’s Spoornet and using its ports, and a regional energy grid under the leadership of the public utility Eskom.

Most of all, South Africa could show how a transition grounded in human rights, democracy and enlightened self-interest can transform a society.  In the following years, South Africa’s efforts to create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, restructure its repressive security forces, buy-in potential spoilers like Chief Buthelezi, and bridge ethnic divisions sent a powerful message: if South Africa could achieve peaceful change, any nation could.

Nelson Mandela fed into these expectations.  In a hopeful article in Foreign Affairs in 1993, he wrote: “The time has come for South Africa to take up its rightful and responsible place in the community of nations…South Africa’s future foreign relations will be based on our belief that human rights should be the core concern of international relations, and we are ready to play a role in fostering peace and prosperity in the world we share…”  If the mantra, “African solutions for African problems” was to have meaning, South Africa could lead the way.

Taking Leadership in Africa

No one expected South Africa’s coming-out party to be immediate.  Jobs, houses, electricity, and water for disempowered blacks would take priority, and a global role would emerge only as South Africa’s own transformation was undertaken.   Still, Mandela began to implement his activist vision.  At his inauguration in May 1994, South African hosted talks with the UN, Organization of African Unity, and key governments to consider an African force to help end the Rwandan genocide.

When this proved a bridge too far, Mandela later launched a diplomatic and military initiative to stabilize Burundi, which could face the prospect of similar mass killings.  Mandela’s engagement and the deployment of South African troops helped forestall tragedy.  Mandela harshly criticized the military dictatorship of Suni Abacha in Nigeria following the execution of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, a stance that set him apart from most of his fellow African leaders and engendered their vocal criticism of him.

South Africa sent humanitarian deminers to Angola to clear roads and permit the return of millions of refugees after a 1994 peace agreement, and stifled an internal uprising against the democratically elected government in Lesotho in 1998.  Vice President Thabo Mbeki helped facilitate the departure of Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, and South Africa has supported the transition there by providing troops for a UN peacekeeping force, hosting peace talks, and training former rebel combatants to join the national armed forces.

South Africa helped launch the New Economic Policy for African Development in 2001.  This initiative is based in the concept that African countries must adopt good governance, eliminate corruption and respect human rights if they are to effectively partner with foreign donors to foster development and alleviate poverty.

Emerging Contradictions

But even then, other factors drove South Africa’s foreign engagement.  South Africa reached out to authoritarian regimes in Indonesia, Libya and Cuba that had supported the ANC in the apartheid era, and sold arms to Rwanda.  Africa experts Princeton Lyman and Pauline Baker have written that “South Africa wrestled with the conflict between that commitment to human rights and its commitments to multilateralism, loyalty to countries that supported the ANC during the anti-apartheid struggle, and basic national interests.  South Africa vacillates between being a natural leader by dint of economic and military strength and fear of being branded as a hegemon by its African neighbors.”

Such contradictions were reflected in Thabo Mbeki’s actions.  His efforts in Congo were criticized as too soft on Mobutu in the mid-90s and too soft on Kabila pere and fils a decade later, perhaps driven by a desire to pursue mining and other business interests there.  In Angola, Mbeki forged relations in the mid-1990s with the murderous Jonas Savimbi, drawn by what Savimbi portrayed as an African nationalist movement fighting mestizos in the national government in Luanda.

Elsewhere, South Africa’s diplomatic engagement to end civil war in Cote d’Ivoire in 2005 was motivated in part by a desire to supplant French influence there, prompting an unseemly exchange between Mbeki and Jacques Chirac about who was more attuned to west African sensibilities.  In a prelude to his engagement in Zimbabwe, Mbeki seemed to be persuaded by President Laurent Gbagbo’s anti-colonial rhetoric into a biased mediation role.

While on the UN Security Council in 2007-08, South Africa weakened international pressure on Iran to cease developing nuclear arms, a paradox given that South Africa abandoned its own nuclear weapons capability in the dying days of apartheid.

But it is with respect to Zimbabwe and Myanmar that the contradictions are most evident.  As Mugabe ratcheted up violence and repression, prompted a flood of Zimbabweans across the South African border, used government coffers as his private bank account, caused record inflation, and treated Mbeki with disrespect, Mbeki responded with sycophancy toward Mugabe in his mediation role.  The agreement shoved down the throat of Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC party is biased against them and unjust to the people of Zimbabwe, notwithstanding Tsvangirai’s willingness to try to make a unity government work

On Myanmar, South Africa argued that massive internal repression was not an internal matter and did not warrant UN Security Council engagement.  South African diplomats used arguments strikingly similar to those of South Africa’s apartheid leaders in arguing against the imposition of sanctions.  Only the shooting of monks in the streets of Yangon in late 2007 seemed to rouse South Africa out of knee-jerk support for the junta.  Even then, its diplomats urged a minimalist UN role there.

Why the Change?

There is no simple explanation for these actions.  A variety of often contradictory factors are at play.

First, South Africa’s service as a bridge between developed and developing world fell prey to the widening gulf between these camps.  Divisions between north and south reached levels not seen since the height of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1960s, driven in large part by perceived U.S. arrogance and unilateralism, and growing resentment against a global economic slowdown that exposed the negative aspects of globalization.  In the UN context, developing countries rail against “creeping expansion of the powers” of a Security Council dominated by the permanent five members, and have seen non-permanent members like South Africa as their defenders.  Motivated partly by its desire for a permanent seat on the Security Council, South Africa was pleased to position itself as the voice of the “global South.”

Second, South Africa’s domestic challenges proved much more difficult than imagined, and required greater attention.  Encouraging human rights elsewhere in Africa seemed like a curious luxury while increasing numbers of South Africans fell below the poverty line or suffered from AIDS.  Peace in Burundi or Cote d’Ivoire would not build more houses for township residents in Soweto or turn on electricity and water supplies for citizens in rural Transvaal.

Third, Mbkei was different from Mandela.  Despite his dogmatic approach and ideological vision, Mbeki is a pragmatist willing to do what it takes to reach agreements.  At the same time, his time in exile, the ANC’s strongly nationalist principles, and resentment over the West’s slowness to embrace the anti-apartheid movement made him more an African nationalist than a citizen of the world.

Finally, Mandela’s lofty rhetoric and call to mission came during his electoral campaign for the presidency of South Africa.  As Mario Cuomo has observed, “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”

Opening the Door to a New Role

The new president in South Africa has the opportunity to articulate a vision of how peace, prosperity and respect for human rights in Africa is in the interest of South African.  Equally, the rest of the world, especially the West, must provide the political and diplomatic space for South Africa to play the role Mandela foresaw.  The West must abandon the view that South Africa should do their bidding by bringing African countries over to their side; understandably, South Africans balk at playing that role.

This does not mean the world should look the other way if South Africa betrays its own principles in Myanmar, Sudan or Zimbabwe.  It does mean ensuring that South Africa and, by extension, other countries have an empowered seat at the table when international policies are discussed and developed, including through a reasonable expansion of the UN Security Council and empowerment of the G-20 to address global economic concerns.

It means backing South Africa’s peacemaking and peacekeeping initiatives with diplomatic, financial, and logistical support.  It means accepting that everything will not be done exactly as the Washington, London, Paris, Beijing or Moscow would like.

South Africa has much to teach the world in bridging ethnic divides, reforming abusive and politicized security forces, and reconciling accountability with the need for forgiveness.  Individual South Africans are providing this education.

Desmond Tutu serves as a global voice of conscience with his work on the prevention of genocide, transitional justice, and the doctrine of “responsibility to protect.”  Navanethem Pillay recently took over as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noting the fight against apartheid prepped her for this position.  Richard Goldstone has applied his experience in investigating violence in South Africa and on South Africa’s innovative constitutional court to his work as chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and chair of commissions of inquiry on Kosovo and Gaza.

And Nelson Mandela himself continues to provide a moral compass for the world.  True to his vision, he used his self-proclaimed departure from public life in June 2008 to remind Robert Mugabe and the rest of world of the need to defend justice, reconciliation, and human rights in Zimbabwe.

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