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Our foreign policy must err on the side of democracy, human rights

Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi speaks about South Africa's foreign policy. Camera & Editing: Darlene Creamer.

11th November 2011

By: Aubrey Matshiqi


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Is a democratic Libya going to rise from the ashes of Muammuar Gaddafi, or is the manner in which he was killed a harbinger of things to come?

It is common cause that Gaddafi was a brutal dictator. It is also common cause that the involvement of ordinary Libyan citizens in the Arab Spring was met with a violent response from the regime of Brother Leader. It is the violent nature of the response to demands for freedom and democracy which led to the adoption of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973. The UNSC resolved to “take all necessary measures . . . to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan terri- tory”. And all hell broke loose!


Three days after the adoption of Resolution 1973, President Jacob Zuma spoke at a Human Rights Day rally, and The Eco- nomist reported on his speech as follows: “‘We say no to the killing of civilians!’ Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s President, thundered on March 21. ‘No to the foreign occupation of Libya or any other sovereign State!’”

The crowd, according to the news magazine, “mainly sup- porters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), roared back its approval – theirs, after all, was the country of human rights, a beacon to the world, as their first black President, Nelson Mandela, had proclaimed”.


Just four days earlier, however, South Africa had voted for the UNSC resolution calling for “all necessary measures” to be taken to protect Libyan civilians under threat, including the imposition of a no-fly zone. Did Zuma, asked the author, believe this could be done without recourse to force? “He is not that naive.”

Because we all know that the President is not naïve, what went wrong?

In an attempt to explain South Africa’s foreign policy response to the Libyan crisis, we must do so in the context of the complexi- ties and constraints of international relations. In addition to the fact that foreign policy must be seen as an extension of domes- tic policy, South Africa must balance her national interests and the need to pursue some of them through her foreign policy agenda. In addition, South Africa is an African country, a member of the India-Brazil-South Africa, or Ibsa, group of countries, and a member of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa, or Brics, group of countries.

The challenge posed by these relations is worsened by the fact that South Africa is in the middle of her second stint as a nonpermanent member of the UNSC. The first UNSC stint was, to say the least, very controversial because the ANC government was accused of adopting a voting pattern in the UNSC which was seen as a betrayal of South Africa’s commitment to human rights and the democratic imperative. Some critics believe that the Zuma administration is kowtowing to Beijing. In other words, we have become an extension of Chinese foreign policy and economic interests. This, of course, is an oversimplification, despite the fact that not all the criticism is without merit.

As I have argued before, in international relations, the moral high ground is a vacant plot. Further, we must deal with the pretence that voting with Western countries in the UNSC is the same as taking a morally commendable stance, when the opposite is sometimes true. In fact, the voting record of South Africa should open us to the accusation that we are a lackey of the West. To be honest, it is when the West is desperate for the kind of support that reinforces its interests that our government is criticised the most. As Zuma said a few weeks ago, the African agenda must be central to our foreign policy approach. But we must not pretend that Africa is a monolith.

The challenge is to adopt an independent stance, and provide moral leadership in the different multilateral contexts within which South Africa operates. This, however, is always going to be easier said than done. Overall, we must work towards a foreign policy approach that errs on the side of human rights and democracy without doing too much damage to our national and economic interests. Our foreign policy must never become an extension of the foreign policies of any other country, irrespective of its position in the global economy.

When our foreign policy positions coincide with those of powerful countries, they must be just that – a coincidence that is a function of our independence. The alternative is to be like the permanent members of the UNSC that preach demo- cracy at home and erode it abroad in pursuit of their nar- row interests. South Africa must form part of a group of countries that, in future, will exploit shifts in the global system in pursuit of a less unethical global order.


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