South Africa’s Cowardly Lion

From kissing Qaddafi to stiffing the Dalai Lama, what's happened to Nelson Mandela's Rainbow Nation?

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

It is, by now, a familiar sort of headline: "South Africa Dithers Over Dalai Lama." Dithering, it seems, has become South Africa’s default gesture on foreign policy. A few months ago, the dithering was over Libya. After breaking with its emerging-market counterparts Brazil, China, India, and Russia to throw its weight behind the U.N. resolution mandating a no-fly zone to support the rebels fighting Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, South Africa almost immediately recoiled from that support, slamming the resulting NATO campaign, balking at releasing billions of dollars in assets to the rebels, and complaining about the unceremonious way Qaddafi was chased out of Tripoli. The West "undermin[ed] the African continent’s role in finding a solution," griped South African President Jacob Zuma.

Before Libya, it was the Burma question. South Africa has released occasional statements calling for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s release — but when it came to a Security Council vote in 2007, its U.N. representative voted against a resolution calling on Burma’s military junta to free its political prisoners. Then, last week, the South African government refused to say whether it would give the Dalai Lama a visa to attend the birthday party this Friday, Oct. 7, of South Africa’s own human rights hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. On Tuesday, fed up with waiting, the Dalai Lama canceled his trip.

What’s going on here? Why has South Africa — ground zero for the idea that a society based on freedom and human rights is the only acceptable society — so hesitated to advance this notion internationally? Is the Rainbow Nation abandoning its identity as a moral torchbearer to rush to the side of whoever happens to be holding the biggest butter dish? Qaddafi lavished South Africa with money; he owned the gold-tinted, luxury Michelangelo Hotel soaring over Johannesburg’s financial district and was rumored to have helped bankroll Zuma’s legal defense in a 2006 rape trial.

In the Dalai Lama flap (the second time in two years South Africa has failed to grant him a visa), observers suspect Chinese pressure. Last week, just as it emerged that officials had never responded to the Dalai Lama’s visa application at all, South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe popped up in Beijing to announce a $2.5 billion investment deal between South Africa and China. Tutu suggested his old freedom-struggle compatriots now running the country were slipping into the evil habits of their former white oppressors, comparing their foot-dragging to "the way authorities dealt with applications by black South Africans for travel documents under apartheid." When asked by reporters why he couldn’t just ask his old friends to grant the Tibetan spiritual leader a visa, Tutu tsk-tsked that things have changed such that a human rights drumbeater like himself is no longer the South African elite’s "blue-eyed boy."

In truth, though, much of the pressure producing this kind of mixed-signals foreign policy comes from within, not from outsiders dangling cash. South Africa’s current foreign policy is a kind of stress response to the clash between its two identities on the global stage: the moral beacon, the conscience of the world, and its human rights campaigner; and the emerging regional superpower, the "S" newly added to the end of the Goldman Sachs designation for the world’s new rising powers, the "BRICS" — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and now South Africa.

Initially, after its democratic transition, South Africa defaulted into its first identity. Insofar as the African National Congress (ANC), the Nelson Mandela-headed liberation movement that became the ruling party in 1994, had any foreign policy before it took power, it was aligned with Moscow, which supported it against the nominally anti-communist white government. But by the early 1990s, of course, that alliance was no longer as relevant. So how would the ANC proceed to make its foreign-policy choices once it was in power?

There was an obvious answer. Freedom for all people was so explicitly the new nation’s first principle, so fundamentally the idea that was to direct the government’s domestic behavior, that it seemed it could not but be the principle that would direct its actions outside its borders, too. A 1993 foreign-policy document drafted by the ANC put it simply: The "struggle to end apartheid was a global one," and South Africa should honor its history by embarking on a "worldwide Human Rights campaign." The ANC’s foreign-policy guiding star would be its "belief in," indeed its "preoccupation with, Human Rights." In 1996, in keeping with this principle, then-President Mandela personally welcomed the Dalai Lama on a visit he paid to the South African Parliament.

It is striking, then, how drastically the language surrounding foreign policy — and particularly the language surrounding policy decisions with a human rights component — has changed in 15 years. Earlier this year, South African political commentator Eusebius McKaiser conducted interviews with dozens of high-ranking diplomats and politicians on the country’s response to the Libyan crisis: "None of my interviewees articulated moral values or principles as the basis of our foreign-policy behavior," he reported.

"It is clear to me," he concluded, "that we do not have a moral foreign policy."

Even the South African political opposition skittered away from framing their critique of the government’s Dalai Lama dawdling in terms of human rights or moral leadership. It cast the government’s behavior not as a piece of moral cowardice but as a failure of realpolitik: "As a BRICS partner with the Chinese," an opposition spokesman declared last week, "we must view our relationship with them as equals, not subordinates."

Part of this may be a hangover from Iraq, an example of overreach that seems to have powerfully affected South African policymakers even from a distance. Adam Habib, a Johannesburg political scientist, says that as soon as South Africa voted to support the no-fly zone in Libya, the government felt anxious about advocating for "regime change" on moral grounds and worried about "how to prevent Iraq."

But it also reflects South Africa’s desire to grope its way toward a new style of foreign policy and, indeed, of national behavior. It’s telling that the South African political opposition invoked the country’s place in the BRICS — the increasingly formal group of emerging economies that in late 2010, with an official letter from Chinese President Hu Jintao, invited South Africa to be its fifth member. The anointment was felt to be incredibly important in South Africa. It was a hint the country was on its way to becoming known for something other than the release of Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that it was beginning to write a story other than the one interminably retold in sentimental movies like Invictus.

By sheer numbers alone, South Africa didn’t deserve to join BRIC. Its GDP and rate of economic growth rank it below other emerging economies like Indonesia and Argentina. The anointment reflected, rather, its promise and its regional importance as the biggest player on a turbulent continent perceived to be on the rise. South Africa now has to live up to the promise to manifest alpha-dog independence and channel the special mindset of its region. A little like Turkey, it’s looking for ways to show it sets the rules now, instead of following them.

Designing a model for this new, out-in-front-of-the-pack style is a bigger problem, though. What does it mean to lead from a "Global South" or African perspective? What are the principles that will give rise to the right decisions? Obviously, South Africa, with its overtures to China, exhibits a keen awareness of the world’s likely future power dynamics.

But South Africa’s motivations for drawing nearer to China aren’t merely pecuniary. (Although China’s investment in South Africa is growing, Europe and the United States are still major trading partners.) China, rather, represents a country that developed aggressively "on its own terms," as I’ve heard several South Africans put it, not on terms dictated by the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. The South African government is increasingly embarrassed by the levels of poverty that persist so long after the end of white-minority rule, and last year, on a trip to Beijing, Zuma praised China’s "political discipline" as a potential "recipe" for his country’s heretofore elusive "economic success."

South African observers looking for new, non-Western models even found things to admire in Qaddafi’s Libya. Mandela himself was a Qaddafi fan, even going so far as to name his daughter after him. A businessman I recently spoke with, who’d done work in Tripoli, put into words the envy I’ve heard from other South Africans over Qaddafi’s social welfare system, something the ANC has strived, but often failed, to create in post-apartheid South Africa: "Every household gets a television set which is renewed every third year and a laptop every fourth year," he marveled. (At least, the government had told him so.) "And a house when you get married."

Post-apartheid South Africa is still a teenager, young on the world stage. Its reluctance to stand firm on moral issues stems not only from a desire to curry favor with wealthy pariahs, but from a deeper sense of tension over what kind of country it wants to be, both inside (should every household have a television set?) and as an external actor. Some in South Africa’s civil society still exhort the government to embrace a destiny as the world’s conscience: The popular news website Daily Maverick invoked the example of Mandela in pleading for the government to extend "a hand of friendship" to all oppressed peoples and welcome the Dalai Lama. But the new generation of South African leaders is not content to occupy a niche on morality like Bhutan’s niche on happiness, in which South Africa’s primary export remains a kind of Gross National Blamelessness. This core of leaders yearns for the space to act as unabashedly "pragmatically as the Chinese," explains Habib, the political scientist, so South Africa can grow into the regional-big-macher role suggested by the country’s new status as Africa’s China or its Brazil.

Caught between these poles, South Africa has taken to blaming the confusion on bureaucratic foul-ups and misinformation. After an outcry from human rights activists about the Dalai Lama, the government suggested, incredibly, that the monk himself had screwed up on his visa application. Similarly, after backtracking on its support of the no-fly zone over Libya, South Africa claimed its diplomats hadn’t entirely understood what the U.N. resolution’s language meant.

Such excuses are increasingly embarrassing — and unsustainable. South Africa may be a vacillating teenager now, but sooner or later it will have to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. As several commentators have pointed out, this won’t be the last time someone invites the Dalai Lama to South Africa.

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