Aghast, betrayed and angry describe the reactions of many South Africans to their government's refusal of a visa to the Dalai Lama. They describe, too, widely held views on the role that South Africa has played on the UN Security Council, the UN Human Rights Council, and in respect of the crisis in Zimbabwe. Why, many are asking, has South Africa squandered its enormous moral capital and its commitment to human rights to side with some very questionable regimes?
South Africans remember their transition fondly. It was a moral, not just a political, liberation, with high expectations that it would serve as an international example for reconciliation and peacemaking. Nelson Mandela, in an article in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1993 acknowledged the importance of human rights ideals in the international anti-Apartheid movement, and pledged, unambiguously, that "human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs". Moreover, South Africa would be "at the forefront of global efforts to promote and foster democratic systems of government".
Today, democratisation and human rights have receded in prominence in South Africa's foreign policy. These phrases do not even appear on the Department of Foreign Affairs' webpage outlining its mission and vision. The focus is on advancing the "African agenda"; promoting multilateralism; cooperation within the developing world and between the developing world and the developed world; reforming the international system; and promoting socio-economic development.
Mandela reflected on these laudable priorities, most notably South Africa's regional and continental destiny. The irony is that, laudable as they may be, these goals are not always naturally aligned, and may actually contradict one another. Often, South Africa's other priorities - including trade and supporting allies - have trumped promoting democracy and human rights. Democracy, personal freedom and human rights are not universally respected or even acknowledged as desirable, a situation pertaining to some states in Africa. Multilateral diplomacy and economic and political integration in this environment would be a virtual non-starter if South Africa were to push an agenda heavy with democracy and human rights. Mandela himself learned this after publicly berating Nigeria in 1995 over the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, and found South Africa isolated on the continent. Concerned to assert its identity as a truly African country, South Africa is (despite its economic dominance on the continent) a reluctant hegemon, wary of being seen to exert its power.
South Africa's detractors sometimes unfairly ignore its positive contributions. South Africa has invested heavily in peacekeeping and conflict resolution in Africa. It pushed for an end to socio-economic marginalisation with a stress on Africa cleaning up its governance systems through, for example, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). It was active in formulating unprecedented guidelines which established bare minimum conditions for AU members, most notably a rejection of coups (although leaders who had in the past ascended to power through coups have not been pressed to resign and flawed elections can still be "legitimate").
Another consideration is the linkages between ruling parties. As these relations are carried out without outside scrutiny, and lean on personal connections and unspoken commonalities of world view, it is difficult to quantify the influence they exercise. The African National Congress (ANC) certainly has substantial party-to-party interaction with the other liberation movements in southern Africa, partly explaining the South African government's patience (sympathy?) with Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe. Historical loyalties with Cuba have contributed to a dismissal of concerns about the dearth of democratic freedoms in that country. Press reports - albeit unconfirmed - that the ANC has received electoral funding from ruling parties in China, India, and Angola (among others) for the 2009 poll raise valid questions about the potential influence this may exert on foreign (or other) policy.
While these factors explain South Africa's stance, they do not resolve the moral problems. Choices existed. Botswana and Zambia, for example, reacted very differently from South Africa to the situation in Zimbabwe in 2008. Ghana voted to condemn Myanmar at the UN Security Council, in contrast to South Africa. The Zimbabweans, Tibetans who looked to South Africa for support and solidarity did not find it. Neither did homosexuals in those many countries where their orientation is a crime, when South Africa refrained from supporting a declaration at the UN calling for homosexuality to be decriminalised. South Africa chose to lean the way it did.
Do these actions reflect the grubby necessities of compromises in the real world, or a changing belief in the importance and, indeed, understanding of human rights? Government says nothing has changed and democracy and human rights remain a priority, but consider the following comment from former Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad, after Thabo Mbeki's 1998 official visit to China: "I think we all agree that there are specificities in each country, which are not universal forms of human rights. We are adapting to the specific conditions of each country."
An emergent multipolarity of power in the world will spawn a multipolarity of values. The economic success of Asia has generated interest in the idea of "Asian values." China's progress in economic growth and poverty alleviation has given it an especial attraction - and it is at best ambivalent about democracy and human rights, substituting instead a "Chinese understanding", with development as human rights. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam is viewed by some Muslim-majority states as a culturally-specific complement to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although it is arguably far more a challenge to it. The idea of distinct African values is popular in many circles.
South Africa will one day need to take a stand in this. It may ultimately be necessary to choose whether to support "universal forms of human rights" or "specificities in each country." Human rights are, after all, by their nature universal or they have little meaning. But whichever way the country leans, it is unlikely that we "will all agree."
Terence Corrigan is a researcher and seminar facilitator at the South African Institute of International Affairs.