Treason in a teacup

John Kane-Berman says for far to long the ANC has succeeded in bullying its opponents

It is not often you get a storm in a teacup as enjoyable as the one the ruling party is whipping up over recent trips to Taiwan and Israel by officials of the Democratic Alliance (DA).  

First it was the mayor of Tshwane, Solly Msimanga, who supposedly committed "treason" with a "rogue" visit to Taipei at the end of last year that "wilfully imperilled South Africa's foreign relations". To make matters worse, according to Edna Molewa, this made poor Mr Msimanga as bad as Donald Trump, who was "criticised by foreign policy experts in the US" for supposedly having made "a highly publicised call to Taiwan's leaders late last year".

According to Ms Molewa, Mr Msimanga's visit not only imperilled our foreign relations, but was also an "unfortunate blunder", not to mention a "colossal diplomatic gaffe". And she should know. Not only is she minister of water and environmental affairs, she also chairs the government's international co-operation, trade, and security "cluster", plus the international relations subcommittee of the African National Congress (ANC).

Zizi Kodwa, ANC spokesman, said the party was calling on the Department of International Relations and Co-operation to confiscate the passports of officials found to be wilfully undermining South Africa's foreign policy. A half-page advertisement in The Star on behalf of "all South Africa Chinese" - supposedly 300 000 of them - solemnly called on Mr Msimanga not to "engage in any further activities that would harm China-South African relations".

To add insult to the injury purportedly done to our supposedly esteemed but actually disreputable foreign policy by the mayor of Tshwane, the party leader, Mmusi Maimane, then hotfooted it over to Israel. Worse, he had a meeting with that country's prime minister. They were even photographed smiling together. This, according to the secretary general of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, was undermining the "sovereignty" of South Africa. Irvin Jim of the National Union of Metalworkers then weighed in with a helpful reminder that "everybody knows Israel is racist". Others accused Mr Maimane of snubbing Palestinians.

All of this fury and frenzy is a welcome relief from the tedious media speculation about who is likely to succeed President Jacob Zuma. But the best part of it so far has been the DA's reaction.

Mr Msimanga was reported as having "scoffed" at the allegations against him, and his spokesman to have "shrugged" them off. His party also said it was "laughable" that Mr Masinga was breaching foreign policy when the government itself had two and a half years ago sent a delegation to Taipei, where it kept a "liaison office". The DA added that it looked as if the government would have to lay charges of treason against itself.

Another party official said that "the ANC's attempt to control whom South Africans meet abroad demonstrates just how pathetic their foreign policy has become". He went on to cite the ANC's own foreign policy "blunders", among them the barring of a visit by the Dalai Lama, failing to stand up to Robert Mugabe, and allowing Omar al-Bashir to escape despite the charges of genocide laid against him.

These healthy responses were in striking contrast to newspaper editorials telling Mr Msimanga to "stay in his lane" (The Citizen) and "respect foreign policy guidelines" (The Star). As for Mr Maimane's trip to Israel, one regular columnist on Daily Maverick said it was a "blunder", a "self-inflicted wound", and a "faux pas". Wow! That's telling 'em.    

For too long the ANC has succeeded in bullying its opponents. Dating back to Thabo Mbeki's juvenile attack in 2004 on Tony Trahar, chief executive of Anglo American, this has often silenced them. The current hullabaloo over the DA's supposed violation of foreign policy is sinister as well as laughable. That is why "scoffing" at it is the perfect response.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. His memoirs, Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, will be published by Jonathan Ball in March.