Mandy Rossouw

Security Council: Are we up for it?

2012-01-05 07:32

The month of January may be South Africa’s biggest test in the arena of international diplomacy.

This is where we will have to show whether we are made of the stern stuff that gets you a seat at the international top table.

South Africa is, for the second time, going to chair the Security Council of the United Nations. Chairing this council can be a mere administrative task with much prestige but little effect, or it can be one in which you make waves by deciding what may be discussed and what not.

Although the agenda is normally discussed by the full Council, the chairperson, as the final arbiter, can make its voice known.

This security council chairmanship will be much more important than any South Africa has held before. It will probably be the last time South Africa will be in such a position before real decisions get taken about the reform of the Security Council and South Africa’s position as a shoe-in for the African permanent seat is more fragile than ever before.

Although the Security Council decisions of the Mbeki era regarding Zimbabwe and Myanmar is not quite forgotten, it certainly did not create the chasm between Africa and the West the way South Africa’s about-turn about Libya did.

The Western countries today publicly say they “understand” the pressure South Africa was under from its African comrades and therefore its change of heart can be forgiven.
Behind the scenes they say it made South Africa look like a partner that cannot be trusted.

The West’s patience is also wearing thin on the constant battering Western diplomats get from South Africa.

At his big foreign policy speech last year at the University of Pretoria, President Jacob Zuma laid into countries like France and the United States for the way they used Nato in Libya to their own ends.

Zuma was locally praised for standing up to the powerful countries, but the US and French ambassadors who sat in the audience were not impressed.

Many European diplomats display increasing frustration with being hammered as “imperialists”, and they grind their teeth behind the smiles and handshakes we see during official visits. And this frustration may filter into the recommendations they make to their countries’ mission at the UNSC.

Britain is already spreading its bets – with Prime Minister David Cameron’s hurried visit to Africa last year including both South Africa and Nigeria.

A saving grace for South Africa would have been its newfound BFF, China. It was to appease China, after all, that we didn’t let the Dalai Lama come visit last year.

But China remains non-committal, saying it supports an African country to have a permanent seat, but refusing to say which one. In a way this is what Africa likes about China – its policy of non-interference. As a South African ambassador stationed in another African country once told me: “When you ask for money the Western countries want a business plan, proper research and an environmental impact assessment. By the time you get the money you forget why you wanted it in the first place. The Chinese just ask ‘how much’ and hands over the briefcase. No questions asked.”

For South Africa to make a success of this one precious opportunity it needs to play a middle of the road game. Make no big moves, and try to keep all council members on its side. And with a bit of luck, it will bring the AU and UN closer to each other following the post-Libya canyon that developed between the two bodies.

If the AU and UN can sufficiently make up, the credit will go to South Africa and may be exactly the boost it needs to take up a permanent seat at the top table.

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