The View from South Africa

 South Africa appears to be on a diplomatic collision course with the United States.

 South Africa appears to be on a diplomatic collision course with the United States.  

First, former president Nelson Mandela, speaking at the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in December 2002 said U.S. policy towards Iraq was arrogant and marked an alarming disregard for the United Nations. He later charged the United States with racism and said it had "a president who can't think properly" who wanted to plunge the world into a "holocaust".  Second, Pretoria has recently sent a number of ministerial missions to Baghdad, both to seek trade and investment opportunities and, more controversially still, to try to head off a war against Baghdad. Third, President Thabo Mbeki in late January lambasted those who threatened Iraq with war but did nothing about Israel's nuclear weapons saying, "the matter has nothing to do with principle … it turns solely on the question of power [and] we disagree".  Fourth, a day after Mbeki insisted his government was not anti-American, the ANC Secretary-General Kgalema Motlanthe told about 4,000 anti-war demonstrators outside the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria that South Africa, with its rich mineral resources, could be the next target of American action "if we don't stop this unilateral action against Iraq today". Earlier, following Colin Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council in February 2003, Smuts Ngonyama, the head of the presidency in the ANC, dismissed the evidence against Iraq as a "fabrication."    

While the fight against AIDS and the worsening situation in Zimbabwe continue to top the United States policy list for Africa, these disagreements over Iraq have occurred against the backdrop of increasing signs of tension between Pretoria and Washington over Robert Mugabe's misrule in Zimbabwe and Mbeki's apparent reluctance to act against its northern neighbor, and the South African president's eccentric views on the (non) link between HIV and AIDS.  

Yet South Africa and the United States share many interests, and there is a lot at stake. There is a burgeoning bilateral trade and investment relationship. The U.S. is the largest investor in South Africa since 1994, with a stake of more than $2.5 billion by the end of the decade. During the 1990s, bilateral trade grew by more than $2 billion, with over $6 billion in two-way business by 2000. Growth has been especially rapid in manufacturing goods and services. A United States-South Africa free trade area is now on the cards. With its economy accounting for 45% of the combined total of sub-Saharan Africa's 48 states and its exemplary record of political reconciliation and stability, unsurprisingly South Africa was cited in the September 2002 National Security Strategy along with Ethiopia, Nigeria and Kenya as one of four pivotal states in Africa with which Washington would work in the war against terror. Finally, Mbeki has pinned a great deal on his brainchild plan for African renaissance, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). This offers a positive, new paradigm of engagement with the international community. In return for a commitment to good governance and democratization, Africa seeks a combination of trade concessions, new aid, and, above all else, investment. The United States must be involved as a key partner if NEPAD is to succeed in its ambitious goals. 

South Africa's international foreign policy furrow also contradicts with the pragmatism its government has displayed at home, not only with regard to racial reconciliation but also concerning its pursuit of conservative macro-economic policies. The strong emphasis on reducing inflation and fiscal expenditure is not only surprising from a party that is social democratic (if not socialist) in ideological origins, but the more so one elected by South Africa's poorest classes long denied equal economic access and brought up on a political diet explaining their plight in terms also of the excesses of Western global capitalism.  

Yet, given the background of the ANC and the current ruling elite, these twists and turns in the South Africa-U.S. relationship were quite predictable.  In 1993, a year before assuming presidential office, Mandela stated that "Human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs". During his presidency (1994-1999), South Africa's foreign relations were dominated by both his iconic personality and by its related profile of re-acceptance into the community of nations. As Mandela gathered international plaudits, Pretoria expanded three-fold its bilateral ties to number more than 90 overseas missions, took its seat among a variety of international organizations including the UN General Assembly, the 14-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Commonwealth and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Under Mbeki, it has gone on to chair the Commonwealth and NAM. The hosting, in quick succession, of the World AIDS conference in 2000, the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in 2001, and, in 2002, both the inaugural meeting of the African Union in July and the World Conference for Sustainable Development (WSSD) in September, has reinforced its global prominence. But the strongly independent line evident over Iraq and Zimbabwe has increasingly come into view as South Africa's international position has normalized. Underlying this is an anti-Western sentiment, not informed by direct interests but rather a history of colonization and the socialist background of many of the ANC's leadership, and by the historical ambivalence and indeed outright opposition to the ANC by some Western leaders, notably Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, historically contrasted with the support received from NAM and socialist bloc countries. It is also shaped, in the case of the Middle East, by religion and, more importantly, overall by race, the latter the most visceral and difficult-to-curb legacy of South Africa's apartheid past.