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South Africa’s Worldview

Author: Stephanie Hanson
November 15, 2007

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CAPE TOWN—In the latest puzzling foreign policy move from South Africa, the country has attempted to block (SAPA) passage of a UN General Assembly resolution on government-sponsored rape. U.S. officials criticize (NYT) South Africa for claiming its position to be Africa’s stance even as three African countries most affected by the issue—Burundi, Liberia, and Congo—signed on as co-sponsors.

This incident is emblematic of disappointment U.S. and European policymakers express with post-Mandela South Africa, a state they hoped would play a more muscular role as an advocate of stability and human rights in Africa.  

Earlier this year, South African diplomats worked to prevent strong action by the UN Security Council against repressive regimes in Myanmar and Zimbabwe. It also opposed sanctions against Iran, which is thought to be pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Summing up European frustrations, the Economist writes: “From being a rare African beacon for human rights, it has become more like most other countries around the world—putting their own interests before principle.”

South African President Thabo Mbeki has drawn the most fervent condemnation for his policy of “quiet diplomacy” toward Zimbabwe, which hovers on the brink of economic collapse. Many experts contend Mbeki has not taken a more proactive stance because he does not respect the opposition in Zimbabwe, led by trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai. (Hear Tsvangirai’s side in this CFR.org interview.) South Africa has its own such unions, and a few analysts speculate that Mbeki does not want those groups to see a precedent in Tsvangirai’s activism.

Yet Mbeki and his supporters see this as pragmatism, not cynicism, and very much in keeping with visions of African solidarity dating from the days when Mbeki’s African National Congress was still an outlawed guerrilla movement fighting white apartheid rule. Under Mbeki, South Africa has pursued an “African Agenda” that seeks to integrate the continent into the global economy. He helped create the African Union as well as NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. But this ambitious policy does not sit well with everyone in Africa. Experts, including Chris Landsberg at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, note resentment among other African countries and concern that South Africa wants to dominate the continent (Mail & Guardian).

This pan-African vision may not be shared by the rest of South Africa. “Despite Mbeki’s efforts to integrate South Africa into the rest of Africa, it is unclear how deeply entrenched these efforts are within South Africa’s political and business elite and citizens,” writes (Mail & Guardian) the University of Cape Town’s Adekeye Adebajo. A new book (PDF), which she and Landsberg both edited, examines the country’s role on the continent, concluding that a strong foreign policy must be rooted in domestic reforms.

While South Africa’s economy is robust, critics note the country faces pressing domestic problems. There is strident criticism of South Africa’s refusal to accept the global scientific consensus in its HIV/AIDS policy. “One can argue that there has been a lack of respect for public debate” on issues such as HIV/AIDS, economic policy, and Zimbabwe, says Jonathan Faull, a researcher at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, a South African think tank. In fact, Mbeki may want to play the global statesman as a way of deflecting attention from domestic problems, says Richard Schrire of the University of Cape Town in a podcast interview with CFR.org. Because Mbeki has been so focused on foreign policy, many experts say a new leader will need to spend most of his time on domestic priorities. Under a new president, Schrire anticipates the “depersonalization” of foreign policy and greater focus on issues such as social inequality and HIV/AIDS.

Staff Writer Stephanie Hanson filed this report from Cape Town.

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