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South Africa's Awkward Teenage Years

The Rainbow Nation has finally arrived on the world stage -- but did its conscience stay at home?

Not long after I moved to South Africa, in mid-2009, I was invited to the government's relaunch of its national "brand." Over hors d'oeuvres and cocktails in a pavilion overlooking the Cape Town waterfront, Paul Bannister, the tanned, pink-shirted CEO of a governmental marketing arm called Brand South Africa, told a group of  journalists that it was time to move past Nelson Mandela and the Rainbow Nation thing and toward a new, more muscular national identity.

How to characterize this new identity, though, posed a trickier problem. Bannister offered us a series of ad agency-generated concepts, each one vaguer and more Madison Avenue than the last: "South Africa: alive with possibility." "A country that inspires others in different ways." "The Apple of nations: Think different!"

I couldn't help thinking of the brand relaunch again this past fall, when the South African government refused to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to attend Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu's birthday party in Cape Town. Even Tutu was mystified. If there's any country that ought to welcome the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader with open arms, it should be South Africa, so recently emerged from its own world-famous struggle against a repressive regime. The refusal, Tutu complained, reminded him of "the way authorities dealt with applications by black South Africans for travel documents under apartheid."

In truth, South Africa's foreign policy has been perplexing -- and unsettling -- for years. In 2007, South Africa voted against a United Nations resolution calling on Myanmar's military junta to stop its human rights abuses. A year later, it helped thwart a U.N. attempt to impose sanctions on ruinous Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, even though -- as the American U.N. ambassador angrily pointed out -- similar sanctions more than 20 years earlier had helped deliver South Africa from apartheid. Often, South Africa's diplomats have appeared confused, mobilizing against rogue regimes only to back quickly away. Last March, for example, after first supporting the U.N. resolution mandating the no-fly zone to support Libyan rebels fighting Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, South Africa turned around to slam the resulting NATO bombing campaign, balked at releasing $1.5 billion in assets to the rebels, and griped about the unceremonious way Qaddafi was chased out of Tripoli. President Jacob Zuma himself flew to Tripoli in May and expressed sympathy for Qaddafi, noting the bombings had "claimed the lives of his son and grandchildren."

What's going on here? Has South Africa forgotten its own inspirational narrative in refusing to advance the cause of human rights internationally? For many, the story of South Africa's sorry footprint on the world is very much the tale of a rising economy taking precedence over gauzy ideals. Few stories about the Dalai Lama flap (the second time in two years South Africa refused to grant him a visa) failed to note that it coincided with the South African deputy president's trip to Beijing to announce a $2.5 billion investment deal with China. Qaddafi, too, lavished South Africa with money; he owned the gold-tinted, luxury Michelangelo Hotel soaring over Johannesburg's financial district. And neighboring Zimbabwe, regardless of its perilous state under Mugabe, is a hot target for South African investment. South Africa seems determined these days to earn its new identity as a regional superpower -- the "S" recently invited to join the booming BRIC economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China.

It didn't start out this way. In the years following its democratic transition, South Africa defaulted to a foreign policy dictated by the principles of its liberation struggle. A 1994 foreign-policy document written by the African National Congress (ANC), the Mandela-headed movement that became the ruling party that year, put it simply: The "struggle to end apartheid was a global one," and South Africa should honor its history by embarking on a "worldwide Human Rights campaign." In 1996, in keeping with this principle, then-President Mandela personally welcomed the Dalai Lama to the South African Parliament. South Africa seemed destined to have a foreign policy to fit its past, setting itself up as a moral beacon and global conscience.

More than 15 years later, it is striking how much that has changed. Not long ago, South African political commentator Eusebius McKaiser conducted interviews with dozens of high-ranking diplomats and politicians on the country's response to the Libyan crisis. "None of my interviewees articulated moral values or principles as the basis of our foreign-policy behavior," he reported. "It is clear to me," he concluded, "that we do not have a moral foreign policy."

So what's changed? It began when Mandela made way in 1999 for President Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki had always chafed against Mandela's grandeur and saintliness, often kvetching privately about what he called the "one good native" syndrome, the West's belief that Africa was mostly a dirty place, but there was one good African -- Mandela. Mbeki chafed, too, against the notion that saintliness ought to define the South African character on the world stage. Rather than seek the West's love, Mbeki strove to be not blamelessly moral but daring -- an ambition that often manifested itself as contrarianism. In 2009, after the battle over sanctions against Zimbabwe, South Africa's U.N. ambassador explained the country's behavior: "We didn't do things the way the British and the Americans wanted us to do them, and if you don't do it like the big ones … then you are a cheeky African. Well, I am happy being a cheeky African."

Mbeki's thinking has held fast under his former party deputy and rival, current President Zuma, who is weak and uninterested in foreign policy. If anything, this approach has intensified since late 2010, when China formally invited South Africa to join the BRICS. This was heralded as an important moment for South Africa. "There can be no greater validation than to be invited as a partner by the BRIC nations," trumpeted one proud letter to a newspaper. "Emerging markets are countries of potential."

By sheer numbers alone, South Africa doesn't deserve to belong among the BRIC countries. Its GDP and rate of economic growth rank below other emerging economies like Indonesia and Argentina. It has fewer people than Thailand and Iran, fewer exports than Malaysia and Turkey, and one of the world's highest unemployment rates. The anointment was, instead, about potential; Johannesburg is considered the gateway to Africa, and Africa, whose middle class has swelled almost 40 percent over the last decade, is on the rise.

So when South Africa casts about for models these days, trying to figure out how it can be a regional leader with an economy that powers that leadership, China often comes up. The South African government is increasingly embarrassed by the levels of poverty that have persisted so long after the end of white-minority rule; the income gap has actually widened since 1994. China, meanwhile, represents a country that developed aggressively "on its own terms," as I've heard several South Africans put it, not those dictated by the World Bank or the West.

In 2010, on a trip to Beijing, Zuma praised China's "political discipline" as a potential "recipe" for his country's so far elusive "economic success." As for pre-revolutionary Libya, a businessman who had worked in Tripoli put into words the envy heard from other South Africans over Qaddafi's social welfare system -- something the ANC has strived, but often failed, to create in post-apartheid South Africa. "Every household gets a television set, which is renewed every third year, and a laptop every fourth year," he marveled. (At least that's what Qaddafi's government told him.)

South Africa is still a teenager, young on the world stage. Its reluctance to stand firm on moral issues stems not only from a desire to curry favor with wealthy pariahs, but also from a deeper tension over what kind of country it wants to be, both domestically (should every household have a TV set?) and internationally (should South Africa condemn its autocratic neighbors?).

Not all South Africans have given up on urging their country to act as the world's conscience. The popular news website the Daily Maverick invoked the example of Mandela in pleading for the government to extend "a hand of friendship" to oppressed peoples and embrace the Dalai Lama. But the post-Mandela generation of South African leaders is not content to occupy a niche on morality like Bhutan's niche on happiness; they dream of a grander future than one in which South Africa's primary export remains a kind of Gross National Blamelessness. They yearn for the space to act as unabashedly "pragmatically as the Chinese," as Johannesburg political scientist Adam Habib told me.

Caught between these poles, South Africa has resorted to blaming its erratic behavior on bureaucratic foul-ups, suggesting, incredibly, that the 76-year-old lama himself had screwed up his visa application, and explaining away its flip-flopping over the Libya no-fly zone by claiming its diplomats hadn't entirely understood the U.N. resolution's language. But such excuses are increasingly embarrassing -- and unsustainable. South Africa may be a vacillating teenager now, but sooner or later it will have to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. 

Ntswe Mokoena/Afp/Getty Images

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