South Africa Watch

Slippery slope of SA’s international integrity


As its government allows yet another rogue African leader to escape justice, South Africa’s international integrity, -relations, -policy, and -practices ar in tatters.

First the government failed to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in June 2015, despite being a signatory to the Rome Statute, domesticated as an act of Parliament. In terms of the act it had to honour an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant for al-Bashir’s arrest on charges of gross human rights abuses.

Then, this past weekend, it gave diplomatic immunity to Zimbabwe’s first lady, Grace Mugabe, sought by police after seriously assaulting a 20-year old model friend of her sons in Johannesburg. In the process, basic rights of a citizen and the rule of law was trampled on.

But what choice did the government have?


In the al-Bashir case there were no compelling reasons not to arrest him, except being a friend of President Jacob Zuma, his would-be successor and then AU chair, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and of other high-ranking ANC members. His arrest would have had no serious international implications for SA, other than empty criticism from a few other rogue African leaders and states.

In fact, his arrest could have dramatically altered the political dynamics in Sudan and the surrounding region, earning SA much respect, and facilitating peace and stability in that region.

Instead the SA government started a process of trying to extricate itself from the Rome Statute on the flimsy basis of it being anti-African. It was prevented from doing so and denounced for its actions in several local court rulings, and the ICC also ruled against it.

Following on a series of earlier questionable international relations blunders, perpetrated by Pretoria, its actions further undermined the integrity and legitimacy of SA as a leading power in Africa and in global relations, causing it irreparable harm.


In Mugabe’s case things are a bit more complicated.

Zimbabwe is a member of the Southern African Development Community and a key partner of SA in the region, and good relations could have been jeopardised. But to what effect?

Given Zimbabwe’s frail political and economic state, it is unlikely it could have resorted to any harmful retaliatory action. But, the Mugabes too have friends in high places in SA.

So, the justification by International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane that she had to consider the “interests of the country” and that good relations with Zimbabwe within the SADC overrode "the need to uphold the rule of law, to ensure fair administration of justice and uphold the rights of the complainant," when granting Mugabe immunity, are nonsensical.

Shift in international relations

A rational and politically moral shift in geo-political focus and diplomatic and trade priorities started after the ANC came to power in 1994. It has, however, degenerated into a slide down a slippery slope of protecting alleged criminals because of their status and personal friendships.

It started with SA ditching its old apartheid-era allies, Taiwan and Israel, despite some strong economic and trade ties remaining in place. Then, under Dlamini-Zuma as former International Relations minister, the shift continued away from SA’s long-time Western trading partners in favour of the new BRICS line-up of Russia, China, Brazil and India.

Brazil’s leaders are implicated in vast corruption and state-capture allegations, similar to what is happening in SA. Russia, considered a highly corrupt rogue state by many, has been prone to meddling in the affairs of other countries to strengthen its own global position – some claim to protect the personal interests of its oligarchy led by Vladimir Putin.

Russia has also been a key player in SA’s controversial nuclear build aspirations, riddled with allegations of corruption, state capture, and in which the Gupta family would allegedly stand to benefit.

And China, through its economic and trade clout, is calling the shots in Africa, to the point where SA even denied the Dalai Lama an entry visa at the insistence of Beijing. 

Former President Thabo Mbeki led a commendable refocusing of SA’s position in Africa as the leading continental power – through initiatives such as the African Renaissance and New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

He also initiated the ending of conflicts in various African countries. Much of that went down the tubes after Zuma became president, although Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is still leading various peace initiatives.

Zuma administration

But the Zuma administration has angered neighbours, such as democratically and economically stable Botswana, and has been at loggerheads with West African power house, Nigeria over various issues.

At the same time, it maintained good relations with rogue states and leaders such as the Central African Republic, Angola’s Eduardo Dos Santos, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Sudan’s al-Bashir, and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila.

 It may be no small coincidence that the Zuma family and associates have vast personal business interests in a number of these countries. But Zuma also alienated much of French-speaking, and other African countries, including Botswana, when SA campaigned to have his former wife, Dlamini-Zuma elected as chair of the AU.

Several decisions by the Zuma administration also caused alarm in UN circles.

The sum of all this suggests that SA’s foreign relations policies are in a mess, based on personal relationships and possible gain, support for rogue states and leaders, and with decisions being made in knee-jerk style.

As a continental leader in international relations, the country is rapidly losing respect, trust, and legitimacy. Hailing SA as the country of Nelson Mandela will no longer save it from further disgrace.

Perhaps a parliamentary inquiry into the granting of diplomatic immunity to Mugabe, as demanded by the Democratic Alliance, will put some key foreign relations actors on the stand and shed more light on the questionable state of affairs.

Meanwhile, the harm is almost irreparable when viewed in conjunction with the negative world-view of President Zuma and his relationship with the alleged state-capturers, the Guptas; the extremely high levels of corruption in SA; a string of negative events such as Marikana and the xenophobic violence; the lack of good governance; events such as the president firing Pravin Gordhan; failure to steer SA out of its economic woes; the ratings downgrades to junk status; crime levels; and high levels of civil protest and much instability at local government level.

If South Africa seeks more beneficial international cooperation to address key challenges such as economic growth, unemployment, and poverty, it will first have to clean up its international relations act.

However, just as with the Guptas and state capture, there lurks a can of worms in the background which certain people in powerful positions may do all in their power to prevent from being opened up.

 (This is an extract from last week’s aic Monday Briefing by Stef Terblanche, political analyst and director of AIC Stef Terblanche Political Risk Services. To read the full briefing, click Here.)

by Stef Terblanche

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