Mbeki's abysmal foreign policy failures

Greg Mills writes that it is time to put South Africa's interests first again

A visionary South African foreign policy would take advantage of the enormous political capital of its global statesman primus inter pares, Nelson Mandela, along with the strengths of South Africa's political and racial diversity, the lessons of its own negotiation and transformation process, good and bad, and sophistication and muscle of South Africa's economy, 40% of sub-Saharan Africa's total. Its domestic political and economic success would offer a platform and resource for all of Africa, allowing brave and bold foreign-policy thinking that is fresh and independent, offering a uniquely African democratic development model.

Yet today what could have been - and might still be - has to be contextualised within the damage done by the current regime to South Africa's foreign-policy credibility and impact.

President Thabo Mbeki is supposed to be the great strategist, the Machiavelli of negotiations, the man who puffs his pipe giving little away, all the time sizing up his opposition while astutely thinking of the long game and envisaging dimensions and directions others only discern with hindsight.

This image is not been supported, however, by his Polokwane re-election miscalculation and in the one area he is supposedly both especially knowledgeable and passionate about: foreign policy.

The image and direction of South Africa's foreign policy is today bewilderingly far removed from Nelson Mandela's 1993 hope that human rights would be the light that guided its foreign policy, a beacon of hope for the world and for African development. Indeed, nothing would seem to symbolise President Mbeki's failures more than the disappearance of the "African renaissance" from discourse.

In fact, it is unclear what today motivates South Africa's leaders to take the positions they currently do in international affairs. They certainly do not appear to be stirred by a clear understanding of South Africa's national interest. Few calculations appear to be actively made to balance interests between ideological priorities and the country's needs of trade, investment and international influence.

Take Pretoria's role in the United Nations (UN) and voting tactics in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), where short-term tactical politicisation routinely overshadows strategic considerations.

This is a continental malaise. Africa has the biggest voting bloc in the UN, WTO and other such bodies. But what does South Africa and the continent ‘trade' its votes for? Help to Cuba and the Palestinians, blocking UN managerial reform, obstructing the interests of Western powers, and manoeuvring around tougher action on Burma and Iran. None of this does one bit for Africa or Africans, outside of the New York diplomats who revel in such posturing or those leaders overwrought by their own anti-colonial complexes. Africa is often the subject of these meetings, but its leaders generally miss the point.

As the collapse of the global trade talks shows, the WTO is perhaps the worst example. Led by Pretoria, 40 African votes were locked together with China, India and Brazil, with the aim of resisting European and American demands for the South American and South Asian giants to open their markets. Fine for them, but those same countries have as high or higher tariffs on African goods as the European Union (EU) does, and much higher than the United States (US). If African votes in support of their positions had been exchanged for commitment from those countries to provide duty- and quota-free status to Africa (a small price for them to pay given the limited share Africa would gain in their markets), this position would make sense. Instead Africa has sold its votes for some form of South-South solidarity without any return serving its own interests. India, China and Brazil must have laughed all the way to Geneva for every Doha session.

Imagine if the Africans - led by South Africa - were to use their votes as strategically as the Eastern Europeans did brilliantly in their campaign for membership of both the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the EU? For example, by helping on more balanced Middle East resolutions in the General Assembly, Africans could gain more concrete US support for peacekeeping operations in Darfur and Somalia, and by helping trim the UN budget waste they could receive more assistance for their own specific development needs.

Take another topical example: Zimbabwe. Mr Mbeki has rhetorically attempted to restore normality to Zimbabwe's politics by encouraging Mr Mugabe down the path of electoral politics. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, even though it has amounted to too little too late in the day of hyper-inflation, ratcheting state violence by Harare, and a disintegrating social order.

Following the failure of the electoral route and Pretoria's role in heading off a tightened UN sanctions regime against Harare, Mbeki has tried to fulfil his Southern African Development Community (SADC) mandate and negotiate an end to the worsening crisis through creating a unity government. In the face of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change's (MDC's) victory in the 29 March 2008 election, Mr Mbeki has thus appeared to be more interested in the welfare and dignity of Zimbabwe's leader and his ZANU-PF party cohort than in the country's people. No wonder, then, that Zimbabweans, among others, are angered by the South African president's role:

"‘If Mbeki thinks he can arm-twist Zimbabweans into accepting his own formula for peace, he has got another think coming. We are Zimbabweans, Mr. Mbeki. This is not a Limpopo Province. When we say we want democracy in Zimbabwe, we do not stop with half measures."

Or, as the South African Sunday Times observed:

"Forcing Tsvangirai to accept Mugabe as the executive president of a government of national unity might be a first step towards peace for millions of people, but it would signal to the world that the uniquely African democracy we profess to seek is no democracy at all."

Even if Mbeki's peace solution, signed on 15 September 2008, holds, his role can only be judged an overall failure, unless, of course, the aim was only to keep the MDC and Mr Tsvangirai from rightfully taking power. Pretoria's pathological unwillingness to act over the past decade against Mugabe - if only to say what was happening there was wrong - has allowed the crisis to develop to today's point of meltdown. This has produced a disastrous economic legacy which experience elsewhere in Africa teaches will take at least as long as the period of decline to undo.

Mbeki's failings on Zimbabwe have partly also been about poor tactics: given that Pretoria has spurned the contemplation of tougher measures (and indeed actively sought to head them off in the UN), it left itself only with a bag of carrots and imploring rhetoric. Hence the minimal leverage over Mr Mugabe in convincing the octogenarian not to hang on to executive power at Zimbabweans' expense. And from steadfastly maintaining the need for Zimbabweans to sort the crisis out themselves and thus to do nothing, Mr Mbeki said in August 2008 he was willing to stay in Zimbabwe for six months to ensure a deal was struck (see here). Mbeki's long-held opinion that quiet diplomacy was the only way to retain influence over Harare has proven as false as it was ideologically self-serving. After all, what influence, and to what end?

The reasons for this partly lie in Mbeki's misunderstanding of Mugabe, a man who has continuously played Pretoria's Machiavelli like a fiddle. ZANU-PF has been shown, historically and today, to have few moral scruples when it comes to getting into or staying in power. When real political change comes - as it inevitably will since the (freefall) Zimbabwe economy demands it - it will have had little to do with Mbeki's role.

Such foreign-policy directions likely also relate to an ideological unease with the professed libertarian precepts of South Africa's economy, which has resonance elsewhere across the continent. While the debate on African political systems is largely settled (with exceptions) in favour of liberal democracy, the discourse on economics is less certain, hence the absence of widespread criticism by African leaders of Mr Mugabe's economic policies per se, even if there is concern for their meltdown effects. Where not openly visible, the desire to indigenise African commerce lies just beneath the surface, and not only in Zimbabwe.

South Africa's foreign-policy choices are also partly linked to an at times barely disguised sentiment of anti-imperialism, applying to the West (and not to Russia's or China's imperialistic ambitions) and its apparent arch-progenitor, the United States. This view is allowable, of course, providing it does not lead to bad choices, such as Pretoria's failure to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the United States, or to forego the aforementioned UN targeted-sanctions option against Harare. The barely disguised glee - schadenfreude - that permeates Pretoria's corridors and the mindset of its mandarins, and lies behind analysis of the US economy or its role in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, overlooks the centrality of the US to the global economy - around one-quarter of the world's gross domestic product at last count. The self-righteous antipathy towards US foreign policy seems to forget that Washington is most often the first port of call for those in peril - and that the current Bush administration has been the most generous ever to African aid and other development endeavours. Mr Mugabe has crudely if skillfully played to this sentiment, one which resonates across Africa (if decreasingly in Zimbabwe itself), by accusing Mr Tsvangirai's MDC of being the candidate of resurgent Western imperial interests.

And the puzzle of Mbeki's foreign policy is partly down to the related liberation narrative of the African National Congress (ANC).

From his Zimbabwe actions, it would appear that Mr Mbeki's ANC wants South Africa to be seen both as a liberator and as the liberated: a country attempting to reinforce the party's credentials from its anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggle. The paradox is, of course, that protecting the party's self-image and perpetuating liberation narratives too often trumps doing the right thing: witness Pretoria's support for dictatorships over democracy. It has exposed the government's weakness and sensitivities on questions of race in its reactions to the involvement of other powers in even commenting on Zimbabwe. It also perpetuates the Sinatra mythology of South Africa's own negotiations: that South Africans, led by the ANC, did it "their way" with little outside interference or involvement, conveniently overlooking the role of sanctions or the existence of a rational domestic negotiating partner. Viewed through this prism, the MDC and ZANU-PF were similarly to sort out their own differences by themselves - the view perpetuated until Mr Mbeki came under pressure from more resolute SADC members this year. Combined with Zimbabwe's economic collapse to a Weimar-style situation of hyper-inflation measured in hundreds of million of percent annually, this, not Mr Mbeki, acted as leverage on Mr Mugabe. He might have been able to regularly rig his country's elections, but the octogenarian could not rig his economy.

There has been, until now, little international cost to all of this. For the moment, the world is preoccupied with making peace in Iraq and Afghanistan, dealing with issues of nuclearisation and with faltering economies, and other erupting crises such as the Russian-Georgian conflict. So Pretoria gets, for the most part, a free pass, even though its hand-holding with Harare, Teheran, Rangoon and others at the very least dims the sparkle of its once-considerable foreign reputation. In the immediate term, all of this makes ridiculous Pretoria's apparently earnest attempts over the past decade to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

There will be other prices to pay for cosying up to autocrats. These will be paid in the image South Africa has as a reliable international partner, and in the poisoning and enfeeblement of SADC and, to some extent, the African Union. It will also have costs in terms of the strength of the South African nation, given that today a large body of citizens, from the Congress of South African Trade Unions to important sections of the business community, cannot identify - and do not benefit materially from - Pretoria's foreign line.

For ultimately the strength and influence of any foreign policy derives fundamentally from a country's success as a society at home, from determining what sort of society it wants to be, and acting that way. Economic power is one aspect; for South Africa, the deeper one relates to its ability not only to want to appear an inclusive, non-racial democracy, but to act that way. Such values, if they are to have any meaning and South Africa any persuasive "soft" power, have to be upheld consistently and without fear or favour, at home and abroad.

Pretoria's support for rogues is therefore unlikely to assist its own efforts to provide security and development for all South Africans, the first aim of any responsible government. Nor is it likely to assist its aspirations to strengthen global governance through the UN; indeed, it may have the opposite effect by alienating the big spenders. And it is unlikely to assist Pretoria in gaining a place at the main table, such as a permanent UN Security Council seat.

The only benefit Pretoria's foreign-policy behaviour can give currently is comfort in the minds of its ideologues by preserving for a little longer the mythology of sections of the party, its personalities, its politics and its place in history. As long as it remains locked into this position, it will be difficult to change the attitude that it is not worth talking seriously to South Africa. It is in South Africa's national, moral and material interest to hasten this era's closure, not to sustain it, and to develop and deploy the tools, skills, systems and institutions capable of pursuing a foreign policy worthy of the country's name, status and assets.

Theodore Roosevelt observed to the Harvard Union in 1907 that "[i]n popular government results worth having can be achieved only by men who combine worthy ideals with practical good sense". Results are at the outset all about leadership. Given the wrong, narcissistic sort, and the related stocking of key foreign-policy institutions, as with the departments of both Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry, with below-par hacks apparently capable of little apart from toeing the presidency's line, Pretoria will make little progress in its ambitions to improve the lot of South Africans through its foreign-policy actions. It cannot do so, also, if there is an environment where criticism is perceived as dissent, and where the hallmark of government, and utility of civil society and the media, resides for the presidency in their unswerving and uncritical loyalty.

But for a new ANC administration in Pretoria, the reverse also holds true. If it can do this, Mr Mbeki's departure from office could light up South Africa's foreign policy stage.

Dr Greg Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation This article was originally published in the Helen Suzman Foundation's journal, Focus, Issue 51 3rd Quarter, September 2008 (see

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