It is, by now, a familiar sort of headline: "South Africa Dithers Over Dalai Lama." Dithering, it seems, has become South Africa's default gesture on foreign policy. A few months ago, the dithering was over Libya. After breaking with its emerging-market counterparts Brazil, China, India, and Russia to throw its weight behind the U.N. resolution mandating a no-fly zone to support the rebels fighting Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, South Africa almost immediately recoiled from that support, slamming the resulting NATO campaign, balking at releasing billions of dollars in assets to the rebels, and complaining about the unceremonious way Qaddafi was chased out of Tripoli. The West "undermin[ed] the African continent's role in finding a solution," griped South African President Jacob Zuma.
Before Libya, it was the Burma question. South Africa has released occasional statements calling for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's release -- but when it came to a Security Council vote in 2007, its U.N. representative voted against a resolution calling on Burma's military junta to free its political prisoners. Then, last week, the South African government refused to say whether it would give the Dalai Lama a visa to attend the birthday party this Friday, Oct. 7, of South Africa's own human rights hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. On Tuesday, fed up with waiting, the Dalai Lama canceled his trip.
What's going on here? Why has South Africa -- ground zero for the idea that a society based on freedom and human rights is the only acceptable society -- so hesitated to advance this notion internationally? Is the Rainbow Nation abandoning its identity as a moral torchbearer to rush to the side of whoever happens to be holding the biggest butter dish? Qaddafi lavished South Africa with money; he owned the gold-tinted, luxury Michelangelo Hotel soaring over Johannesburg's financial district and was rumored to have helped bankroll Zuma's legal defense in a 2006 rape trial.
In the Dalai Lama flap (the second time in
two years South Africa has failed to grant him a visa), observers suspect
Chinese pressure. Last week, just as it emerged that officials had never
responded to the Dalai Lama's visa application at all, South African Deputy
President Kgalema Motlanthe popped
up in Beijing to announce a $2.5 billion investment
deal between South Africa and China. Tutu
suggested his old freedom-struggle compatriots now running the country were
slipping into the evil habits of their former white oppressors, comparing their
foot-dragging to "the way authorities dealt with applications by black
South Africans for travel documents under apartheid." When asked by
reporters why he couldn't just ask his old friends to grant the Tibetan
spiritual leader a visa, Tutu tsk-tsked that things have changed such that a human
rights drumbeater like himself is no longer the South African elite's "blue-eyed
In truth, though, much of the pressure producing this kind of mixed-signals
foreign policy comes from within, not from outsiders dangling cash. South
Africa's current foreign policy is a kind of stress response to the clash
between its two identities on the global stage: the moral beacon, the
conscience of the world, and its human rights campaigner; and the emerging
regional superpower, the "S" newly added to the end of the Goldman
Sachs designation for the world's new rising powers, the "BRICS" --
Brazil, Russia, India, China, and now South Africa.
Initially, after its democratic transition, South Africa defaulted into its first identity. Insofar as the African National Congress (ANC), the Nelson Mandela-headed liberation movement that became the ruling party in 1994, had any foreign policy before it took power, it was aligned with Moscow, which supported it against the nominally anti-communist white government. But by the early 1990s, of course, that alliance was no longer as relevant. So how would the ANC proceed to make its foreign-policy choices once it was in power?