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Bad day for Zuma

South Africa’s Foreign Ministry has spent the day trying to dispel rumors that it is working to facilitate the exit of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Though there doesn’t seem to be much behind the earlier reports that planes had been sent from South Africa to bring the Libyan leader into exile, perhaps in Zimbabwe or Angola, the ...

Ntswe Mokoena/AFP/Getty Images
Ntswe Mokoena/AFP/Getty Images

South Africa’s Foreign Ministry has spent the day trying to dispel rumors that it is working to facilitate the exit of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Though there doesn’t seem to be much behind the earlier reports that planes had been sent from South Africa to bring the Libyan leader into exile, perhaps in Zimbabwe or Angola, the country’s government hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory.

"As far as we are concerned, if this government falls, there is no government," said Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, effectively scuttling any chance to get off on the right foot with Libya’s new rulers. Compare that to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s cautious statement that it respects "the Libyan people’s choice."

Overall, it’s hard to imagine how Jacob Zuma’s government could have played the Libyan conflict worse. The South Africans broke with the BRICs to vote for the intervention, but then Zuma almost immediately called for a cease-fire when airstrikes began. Given that it was pretty clear to everyone at the time that the U.N. resolution empowered NATO to take on Qaddafi’s ground units, Zuma’s government appeared to have been either unsure of its stance, or badgered by Western allies.

Then Zuma, along with a delegation of African leaders, made two ineffectual trips to attempt to mediate the conflict, and raised eyebrows when he called Qaddafi "brother leader."

Today’s news isn’t all bad for Zuma. With Qaddafi and his pan-Africanist ambitions off the stage, Libya’s government is likely to turn more toward other Arab governments, leaving South Africa as sub-Saharan Africa’s undisputed superpower. On the other hand, the way that Zuma’s government has handled the Libya crisis, combined with the not-so-productive role it has played in the Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence about South Africa’s ability to lead.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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