What is SA’s national interest and who defines it?

2013-04-10 00:00

ONE of the enduring realities of war is that truth becomes the first casualty. Nowhere has this been more dramatically illustrated than in the political storm which has erupted since the death of 13 brave South African soldiers in Central African Republic.

In the midst of the noises from opposition parties seeking to claim cheap political points, what has become the biggest casualty is what underlines South Africa’s foreign policy, especially as it relates to the African continent.

Revealingly, not only has this tragic incident provided a feeding frenzy for opposition parties and a gaggle of so-called analysts who relish any chance to demonstrate that, indeed, the country is going down the slippery slope, but it has shown that beyond the fuzzy and transient outpourings of patriotism during sporting events, we still need to work hard to create a sense of common nationhood.

How else can one explain the fact that at a time when the nation should have united in mourning the bravery of the servicemen who sacrificed their lives, instead cynicism and naked attempts to make political capital have become the overriding consideration?

How does one explain that in any other normal country, the fact that about 200 South African soldiers fought off more than 2 000 soldiers from another country, after more than nine hours of intense battle, would have been a source of national pride?

Even military analysts such as Helmoed Romer Heitman heaped praise on the South African soldiers, saying that this was one of the “hardest-fought actions the SA army has experienced and the soldiers fought well, even outstandingly”.

Why is it that South Africa’s collective national impulse, according to our media, is permanently wired towards finding something wrong with everything that our government does, even before the facts are known? Condemn now and find the facts later, seems to be our collective mantra. If the facts are there, shift the goal posts. Critically, any challenge that the country is facing is conveniently used as proof that the wheels are coming off.

While foreign policy is a contested terrain in any country, there are many reasons why those who have given themselves the right to be the final arbiters of what is good or bad about South Africa have reacted in the manner they have.

For starters, given our past, there are many among us who have always regarded South Africa as an appendage of Europe. In their bigoted view, South Africa has little in common with the rest of the continent, a veritable wasteland of non-achievement characterised by endless wars, famine and underdevelopment.

So when the African National Congress developed a foreign policy that acknowledged that our future is inextricably connected with that of Africa and that this country cannot be an island of prosperity in a sea of underdevelopment, many were up in arms.

In the early years of South Africa’s transition, opposition to our foreign policy manifested itself in complaints over the fact that South Africa was spending a lot of money on its military operations on the continent — a convenient fig leaf which hid the real reasons for the opposition.

To illustrate this point, in South Africa’s popular imagination today, the fact that there is much stability in Africa and many South African-based companies are making it big on the continent is not because of a focused and decisive foreign policy, but an accident of history.

As we write, Africa is fast emerging as the next frontier of growth in the world, but in South Africa little is made of our country’s contribution to this rebirth.

When President Jacob Zuma, in his address, alluded to the fact that the fallen South African soldiers were defending our country’s national interest, he was lampooned.

Perhaps, one thing that we need to salvage from the ruins of this saga is to ask whether we have any national interest. Put differently, do we have any collective consensus as a nation about what constitutes our common nationhood, in spite of our narrow differences coloured by our political views? Beyond the eruption of national euphoria during major sporting events in the country, what is it that holds us together as a nation?

Perhaps this is one positive thing that we can glean from this event. But are we ready to rise to the challenge?

• Michael Mabuyakhulu is the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development and Tourism, and a member of the provincial executive committee of the African National Congress in KwaZulu-Natal. He writes in his personal capacity.

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