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.