When Mandela went missing

Robert Block explains why South Africa's foreign policy is a pale shadow of what it might be
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A letter written last week by one of Ken Saro-Wiwa's lawyers to Nelson Mandela said it all. "Were quiet diplomacy pursued in South Africa ... I doubt you would be alive today." South Africa's international humiliation was complete.

While the execution of Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues at the opening of the Commonwealth summit caught even the most well-informed Nigeria expert off guard, there is little doubt that Mr Mandela lost his international political innocence that day. The question being asked now throughout South Africa and elsewhere in the world is what went wrong? How could South Africa have miscalculated so badly? Why didn't Mr Mandela heed the appeals of Nigerian opposition leaders and intellectuals for more robust action to isolate General Sani Abacha and his gang of military thugs?

The answers point to short-comings in South Africa's foreign policy and the country's lack of understanding of its place in the world. During the past two years there has been a glaring disjuncture between what South African foreign policy stood for, what the world expected of it and what the government was actually doing. The result, according to Professor Peter Vale of the Centre for South African Studies at the Western Cape University, is that South Africa has no coherent foreign policy.

Over the past two years, the United States and the European Union, tired of dealing with all the maladies of Africa, have tried to push South Africa into the role of continental superpower. The plan was that the West would help to develop the country economically and in exchange leave Pretoria to handle African "responsibilities" such as regional peacekeeping and political power-brokering. While many bureaucrats in the country's Foreign Ministry and Department of Trade and Industry were keen to extend South African influence in a way they never could during the apartheid years, Mr Mandela was reluctant to accept such a poisoned chalice without making clear the principles for which his nation stood. Last year, he wrote that his foreign policy would be guided the twin beacons of human rights and democracy.

However, South Africa's record in defending human rights and advancing the cause of democracy was not impressive even before the Nigerian debacle. The country's intervention in Rwanda, Lesotho, Swaziland and even Angola has not drawn any applause. Pretoria has not raised its voice against human rights abuse in Kenya. In the case of Nigeria it opted for its now- discredited "softly-softly" approach. The inconsistencies have not been limited to Africa. During two visits to Indonesia, Mr Mandela only made passing reference to East Timor. And while professing to be guided in its arms policy by human rights, South Africa failed to support a recent international bid to ban the manufacture and export of land mines.

According to Professor Vale, the failings of South Africa's foreign policy have to be seen in the context of its recent past and a rapidly changing world. Throughout the Seventies and the Eighties, South Africa was isolated from not only the rest of the world but from the continent itself. Its foreign policy then was threat-driven, aimed at subverting nearby countries in response to the imagined "total onslaught" of communism.

After the end of the Cold War and the demise of apartheid, South African foreign policy was essentially rudderless, without any vision to guide it. At the same time the country found itself by force of events in the international limelight. Using its new-found respectability, it latched on to what Professor Vale calls economic pragmatism, or the "neo-mercantilist" model of international affairs, which views the world as being driven only by economic issues: trade, industry, etc. The Foreign Ministry spent most of its energies using Mr Mandela's reputation to boost its quest for foreign investment. Thus the main business of South African foreign policy was finding business.

But whether South Africa liked it or not, it was at the moral forefront of the world. Since his election as South Africa's first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela has seen a parade of monarchs, statesmen and garden variety politicians beat a path to his door. His moral standing and his courageous life have set him apart. Yet South Africa has been either unable or unwilling to cash in on the "Mandela factor".

"Everyone has been looking to South Africa to play a bigger role in international affairs and to lead. But signs are that despite the moral gravitas of the President, the country is not ready to do so," said Glen Oosthuysen of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

Until last week, the Deputy Foreign Minister, Aziz Pahad, said South Africa would not lead a campaign to impose sanctions against Nigeria because it did not have the economic or political clout. That role, he said, could only be taken on by Britain or the US.

Much of the blame has been put on South Africa's Foreign Minister, Alfred Nzo. While Mr Nzo gained extensive experience in the international arena during his time in exile with the African National Congress, he was also known as a poor administrator with a lack of imagination. His surprising appointment to one of the government's most important posts was in part attributed to the desire of Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's Deputy President, to keep a hand on the till.

Whenever problems cropped up in Africa, such as in Nigeria, it was Mr Mbeki, not Mr Nzo, who was dispatched to deal with it. But both men have been obsessed with what Professor Vale has called a "fetish for compromise". They have both appeared incapable of deciding whether South Africa should lead or follow the Africa into the 21st century.

In the end, Mr Mandela must also take his share of the blame. Stung by the recent criticism that South Africa had not done enough to try to halt the executions, he has taken charge of the campaign to isolate Nigeria's rulers. To do so he is not relying on his country's economic muscle but on his own moral authority. In doing so he has made it clear that if South Africa wants to be a champion of human rights, its foreign policy must be brought into line with the moral standing of its leader. To fail to do so will only lead to more humiliation and the fall of the last of our heroes.