South Africa's foreign policy: Human rights and national interests

South Africa's foreign policy: Human rights and national interests.

At the Auckland conference of Commonwealth Heads of Government, President Mandela took a powerful position of principle over the abuse of human rights and denial of democracy by the Nigerian military government. All South Africans had cause to feel proud of the way in which Mandela not only shaped but led the response to the crisis occasioned by the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow dissidents. G7 states like Britain and Canada accepted Mandela's lead and he was hailed as perhaps the only world leader of truly international moral stature.

This stand was pregnant with promise within our own region too, for South Africa is in a strong position to influence events in a democratic direction in countries far closer to home than Nigeria, as its successful attempts to exercise moral suasion in Lesotho and Swaziland have already demonstrated. It seemed possible that the new South Africa would carry its moral message to the world in the shape of a foreign policy based on human rights. The international prestige of South Africa's democratic revolution was further reinforced by the enthusiasm this stand provoked.

A UN Security Council seat?

At this point an enormous diplomatic opportunity beckoned. There has long been discussion of the broadening of the permanent membership of the UN Security Council from its present Big Five to include Germany and representatives of Asia [Japan], Latin America [Brazil] and Africa, but there has never been an African representative the big powers could agree on. Suddenly, the jigsaw seemed complete: Mandela's South Africa, proudly bearing the flag of racial reconciliation and human rights, could become one of the new Big Nine - a place in the comity of nations that even ]an Smuts in his heyday had never dreamed of.

In only a few months this prodigious promise has been comprehensively squandered. No sooner had Mandela returned home than mutterings were heard that South Africa was now isolated in Africa, that it had been somehow "manipulated" into taking up an anti-Nigerian position by "the forces of British and American imperialism".

It soon became clear that key members of the government regretted Mandela's stand and were determined to effect a rapprochement with the Abacha regime in Lagos. We had soon to endure the humiliating sight of South Africa's Foreign Minister, Alfred Nzo, working hard to water down a UN resolution condemning Abacha's atrocity-strewn rule. Worse still, when the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers met it was the reliable Commonwealth liberals, Canada and Australia, who had lent such doughty support to the anti-apartheid struggle, who were now loudest in their demand for stronger action against Lagos while South Africa shuffled its feet: an embarrassed Nzo tried hard to dodge questions about Nigeria.

For the truth was that we now had a Nigerian policy which even the government was ashamed of owning up to. just how shameful only became apparent when the exiled Nigerian democratic movement led by the Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, attempted to hold a conference in Johannesburg on 29 March, with the objective of setting up headquarters for a united Nigerian democratic movement here on African soil. The Helen Suzman Foundation gave the Nigerians all the support we could, finding speakers for them and offering our hospitality and support. But the conference was sabotaged.

In the six weeks before the conference South African embassies all over the world, on orders from the Foreign Ministry in Pretoria, refused to grant visas for Nigerian democrats to enter South Africa and, just a week before the conference, the ANC National Working Party [NWP] called for the conference to be cancelled.

Betrayal of Nigeria's democrats

It went ahead, though in tragically diminished form: quite shamefully, Soyinka was unable to set up his headquarters on South African soil and the only Nigerians able to attend were those travelling on Canadian and American passports who did not need visas.

At the door of the conference one NWP member put out the word that the reason why attendance was so low was that it was so difficult for Nigerian dissidents to leave Nigeria, although he must have known this was a lie: the dissidents left Nigeria easily

enough but, unable to meet in South Africa, met in Oslo.

In a cynical touch reminiscent of the PW Botha days, the Nigerians were told on the day of the conference itself - far too late - that entry visas to South Africa could now be granted. Meanwhile, the promise that the ANC and government would help pay for the conference evaporated and the Nigerians were left holding a large bill. These Nigerian democrats were shamefully treated.

Nigeria is the largest country in Africa, the world's biggest black nation and they had looked to South Africa to stand up for democracy there. They had believed what Mandela had said in Auckland but Pretoria had stealthily embarked on a policy of appeasement towards Abacha, a policy which would have been threatened had the Nigerians been allowed to set up their exile HQ in Johannesburg.

There is now talk of a Mandela-Abacha meeting, though Nigerian dissidents treat with derision the idea that it might achieve anything and Mandela himself sounds distinctly reluctant to meet Abacha.

Meanwhile South Africa has incurred considerable criticism over the way it has sought to nurture relations with Cuba and Libya, both of whom have appalling human rights records and do not tolerate free elections or a free press.

Most damaging of all, Nzo put his name to a communiqué which was widely seen as taking Libya's side in the Lockerbie bomb affair. This was the most expensive document Nzo has ever signed, for with this one gesture all hope of a seat on the UN Security Council vanished. There is simply no way that the major powers will allocate such a thing to a country that aligns itself with Libya.

It is naive to imagine that South Africa can have a selfless foreign policy based solely on human rights. The promotion of national interest is the inevitable and entirely proper heart of every country's foreign policy - indeed, it could be argued that it is any government's moral duty to its citizens to promote that interest. So it would not be surprising if South Africa wished to modify a purist human rights stand to stay on side with states with whom its trade, investment or defence links are particularly strong.

But South Africa has no such links with Nigeria, Libya or Cuba: it has compromised its principles for nothing. Indeed, the situation is actually worse, for its behaviour has unnerved precisely those countries and milieux on which South Africa depends economically, with results in the money markets that we all know.

Return to Mandela's policy

When South Africa first announced its strong line against the Abacha regime, the Helen Suzman Foundation wrote to Alfred Nzo, warmly congratulating him on this principled and humanitarian policy and expressing the wish that South Africa would exercise similar pressures in favour of democracy elsewhere in Africa. In fact, it is now clear, we were supporting President Mandela whose unerring instinct and initiative in this matter have been sadly unsupported by his own Foreign Ministry. We would now enjoin Nzo to return to the Mandela line not only because it is profoundly sad to have betrayed Soyinka and Nigeria's democratic opposition but because when humanitarian principle and national interest lead in the same direction, it is foolish, if not immoral, to choose the opposite path.