Africa’s Lone Ranger

2012-02-21 00:00

IN a memorial lecture last week in honour of South African struggle stalwart­ Dullah Omar, former president Thabo Mbeki indirectly suggested that a key challenge for South Africa’s foreign policy was our inability to galvanise Africa in defence of its interests from growing neocolonial designs by the West.

The context of Mbeki’s comments is important. Mbeki’s recall is thought to have robbed the country of a strong voice on foreign­ affairs. Even Julius Malema is in hot water, partly for suggesting what many other observers have said, that Mbeki’s strong stance for African unity against Western imperialism is missed.

Also important by way of context is that Mbeki has re-emerged in internal ANC politics, both with the rousing welcome he received when he made an appearance at the ANC’s centenary celebrations on January 8, and because some factions have suggested that they might nominate him for presidency­ ­at the organisation’s national conference in Mangaung later this year.

He has neither distanced nor associated himself with this move. Instead, he has remained focused on finding solutions to the Sudanese conflict and on that basis the United Nations appointed him to chair a special panel to investigate the illegal transfer of African­ monies to the outside world.

After a period of self-imposed silence on matters of public policy, last year Mbeki spoke out against what he saw as neocolonial Western interventions in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya. He used public lectures to pronounce on how he thought South Africa should have responded to these developments.

In a lecture at the University of Western Cape last week he re- iterated­ his conclusion that the Cote d’Ivoire and Libya crises are indicative of a bigger trend in the relationship between Africa and the West, which in his view, suggests an attempt to colonise Africa in new ways. In his view, internal conflict, human rights abuses, and dictatorship are being used as a pretext for external interventions.

Mbeki suggested that the innovative principle of responsibility to protect, made universal by the efforts of the former UN Secretary­-General Kofi Annan a decade ago, is fast being redefined by major Western powers to legitimise­ regime change on African soil. In this sense, as was the case in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya, permanent members of the UN Security Council use the principle to draw the council into conflicts in which they have direct economic interests and political ambitions.

Consistent with the views associated with his presidency, Mbeki suggested that there is a racial undertone to all these designs that Western interventions in Africa emerge in the context where Africans­ in Africa and in the dia-spora continue to be despised, quoting research which found that black people continue to be marginalised in the West.

Mbeki argued that foreign interventions were made possible by weak institutions and disunity in Africa. He insinuated that the failure to respond seriously to defend Africa’s sovereignty and interests has to do with a lack of strong collective leadership. Invoking Chinua Achebe’s prose, he suggested that when the centre in continental Africa did not hold, things fell apart.

Mbeki is effectively chastising leading African governments for failing to build strategic relationships for use in advancing Africa’s interests, alliances of the nature that his government built with the likes of Algeria, Nigeria and Tanzania­.

Without this purpose-driven unity and collective leadership Africa will not improve its democratic record, human rights situation and fight dictatorship as envisaged in the African Union’s charter on democracy.

The undertones of his intervention point to what many consider to be foreign policy weaknesses of the Jacob Zuma administration. Analysts have already pointed out that until recently Zuma had not given foreign policy the focus it deserves. Foreign policy is almost a footnote in his annual State of the Nation addresses.

There is a sense that economic diplomacy has trounced broader African renewal in South Africa’s engagement with Africa, with foreign­ policy having been reduced to sourcing investments to help create jobs for South Africans. It seems that South Africa is now focused on relations with states, especially those with economic potential and has abandoned African civil society.

The government’s terrible misreading of Security Council Resolution 1973, where we voted in favour­ of a no-fly zone and air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi­, will haunt Zuma for a long time. Many in Africa felt betrayed by SA and Nigeria. Zuma’s public criticism of Nato’s campaign not only confirmed that an error of judgment had occurred, but suggested an incoherent foreign­ policy. SA has since been careful and has learnt quickly. It is now pushing for the position of the chair of the AU Commission. It pushed for UN-AU co-ordination in the Security Council.

But these measures are yet to lead to a coherent Africa policy based on the balance between defending Africa’s sovereignty and pushing for internal democracy and development. Part of the problem is a failure of the government to take South Africans into confidence on foreign policy.

Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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