Thursday, February 14, 2013

Where in the World is South Africa

14 Feb 2013 | Tony Leon  | Seminar presented by Tony Leon, Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS), Wallenberg Research Centre, Stellenbosch, South Africa


The seminar will elaborate on the final chapter of the recently completed book, “The Accidental Ambassador - From Parliament to Patagonia” (Pan Macmillan; to be published in April 2013). The paper attempts to answer the vexed question, in terms of foreign policy, “Where in the World is South Africa?”

Most of the current constructs which theoretically underpin foreign policy for this country are either overblown or incoherent; they do not appropriately define or advance or prioritise South Africa’s national interests abroad; nor do they acknowledge the tensions embedded in the clash between normative policies and realpolitik.

Drawing from ‘real time’ experiences in international diplomacy, the direction, and some of the dilemmas, South Africa, as a middle-range power in the world, confronts in its international engagements, will be explored. The cost-effectiveness of South Africa’s global projection will also be examined, and some practical reforms to achieve better results in the age of austerity will be suggested.

1.  National and International Institutions “Stress-Tested” by Events.

Warren Buffett, the famed US investor, noted: “Only when the tide goes out do we see who has been swimming naked.” Many of the institutions which we built to maintain our countries and the world, and improve their condition do just fine when growth is up and conflict is down. But they sometimes fail and falter when they are stress-tested by adverse currents and rough tides.

The paralysis of the United Nations Security Council over Syria, the problems for the Eurozone in arresting the fear of debt default in its southern flank and the difficulty of the G 20 in decisively turning around the global financial crisis are three instructive examples .This is not to say that there is either an unwillingness to act or a conspiracy behind their agendas. Rather it suggests that, objectively, some of the challenges we face are simply too big for the institutions designed to contain them. There is much talk, as well, of the decline of the world’s hyper-power, the USA, and whether this condition is temporary or terminal. Another endless debate concerns whether China’s rise is assured and what this means to the Pacific and beyond. The developing world is also “enjoying” a better financial crisis than the historically developed economies. But however fundamentally these shifts in the tectonic plates of international economics and diplomacy reset the future world order, right now we are somewhat suspended in a leaderless world. The political consultant Ian Bremmer described this new order as the unstable “G. Zero World.”

I think the above snapshot of the world around us is a necessary caution before interrogating certain elements, design faults and implementation challenges which confront South Africa, a middle-ranking world country, as it finds its place and prominence in the world two decades after we became again an admired member of the comity of nations after half century of international isolation and pariah status.


My diplomatic friend, US Ambassador Vilma Martinez amused her guests one evening around her dinner table at her palatial Buenos Aires residence by telling us that, in State Department-speak, “OBE” meant “overtaken by events”.

Although much of the foreign policy bureaucracy in South Africa and the rest of the world has been captured, and remains enthralled, by management consultants, with their emphasis on” business plans”, “mission statements”, “visions” and  the entire  gamut of measurable deliverables and other excrescences embedded in the ‘culture of performance’, it is often real time events, especially those which mushroom into crisis proportions, which test the relevance and limits of any nation’s external projection.

2.  The Theoretical Underpinnings of South African Foreign Policy: ‘box ticking’, ‘all of the above’, ‘a bit of this and a bit of that’.

After three years of trying to decode South Africa’s foreign imperatives and make sense of its often erratic implementation I thought “overtaken by events” to be a fair description of our own policy-making and execution. I also thought that Abba Eban’s famous aphorism about the Palestinians – “they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, applied to South Africa’s external projection.

2.1: DIRCO 2011-14 Strategic Plan: Africa and the World

 On paper – South Africa’s international objectives are clear enough, if not hugely ambitious and very generalised. When I read my department’s 2011-2014 Strategic Plan, which covered the period of my ambassadorship, I realised, soon enough, it was less a user’s road map and more an exercise in bureaucratic box-ticking.

The Strategic Plan as a theoretical exercise in country-positioning was perhaps unobjectionable. It proclaims the vision of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO), as -

An African Continent which is prosperous, peaceful, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and united and which contributes to a world that is just and equitable.

One might describe this combination as a summary of South Africa’s constitutional premise and a normative pitch for a new world order, undergirded by our geographic and strategic self-identification in and of Africa.

None of this, given our country’s history, its current political trajectory and the provenance of it, and our geography, is surprising. Nor is it either new or even indigenous. Over two centuries ago, Napoleon apparently observed, “Know a country’s geography and you will soon enough know its foreign policy.”

The Department’s mission is specifically rooted in Africa, as the promotion of ‘South Africa’s national interests and values’ is co-terminous with the “African Renaissance” and the creation of “a better world for all” (the latter proposition, while unarguably a public good, and hugely ambitious, is simply the externalisation of the ruling party, ANC, election slogan since 1994, which promises, domestically, “a better life for all”.)

Indeed on the pre-eminence of Africa, the first and second of Dirco’s six strategic priorities which flow from its vision statement are African-centric, viz Priority I: “Enhanced African Agenda and Sustainable Development”; Priority 2: “Strengthen Political and Economic Integration of SADC”. Priority 3: “Strengthen South-South Relations”, might be read as a form of solidarity-seeking with fellow members of the developing world which share Africa’s international agenda and aspirations.

 However, the two remaining regional and international priorities (4: “Strengthen Relations with Strategic Formations of the North” and 5: “Participate in the Global System of Governance”) suggest that the ‘rest of the world’ is covered by the priorities, but this again question-begs as to priorities, focus and recognition of limitations of both resources and political capital.

 Using the strategic plan as a guide to our positioning and prioritisation in the world had clear limits: As a practitioner of South African statecraft on the Southern cone of South America, I discerned that we intended to cover the world without admitting, on paper at least, the need to make tough choices or fix priorities. Were we to place a premium on our African hinterland? What about our ties with the developed economies of North America and Europe, our traditional and current major economic partners? Did the rise of China afford it primacy in our international partnerships? And what of ‘’the South” (a polite update of the term ‘third world’)? Our accession into the grouping of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India and China) presumably meant that this quartet was where our heart and national interest lay.

In fact, the strategic plan simply listed the lot of them without distinction and suggested an African-biased “all of the above” approach.

Even on the “Africa First” approach there were some objections, at least from some quarters in the academic world and indeed on an objective read of our country’s trading and commercial interests which, overwhelmingly, lay to the east and north of us, rather than to our South.

Jesmond Blumenfeld, for example, in a paper presented at a recent local colloquium, was moved to observe:

This (Dirco) vision has recently been described as emanating from “an underlying philosophy that ‘South Africa’s destiny is inextricably linked to that of the (Southern African) region and the rest of Africa.’ However, no evidence has been adduced to demonstrate the validity of this assertion, nor have any benchmarks been offered that would permit it to be tested.

Thus, the interest basis for this apparent pre-eminence for Africa is unclear, at best. Dirco’s Strategic Plan defines the country’s national values at length-including commitments to promote human rights, democracy, justice and international law and conflict resolution, the ‘African Agenda’ (etc.). However, there is no articulation, at this strategic level, of what constitutes South Africa’s ‘national interests’ and therefore what foreign policy should seek to achieve on the country’s (and its citizens) behalf.

Strangely enough, it is the lesser-mentioned, lowest ranked and general provisions of Priority 6 (“Strengthen Political and Economic Relations”) which actually forms the spine and backbone of most of the diplomatic work and effort of South Africa’s 127 Missions in 108 countries abroad, and which proved in my own diplomatic efforts to be, by far, the most useful indicator for planning, benchmarking and implementation of foreign policy. The fact, however, that what the US State Department terms (and highly prioritises in its work abroad) “economic statecraft” receives such slight attention in our foreign policy planning is telling.  I deal with this aspect below (see 2.4.1).

2.2 The 2011 White Paper on South Africa’s Foreign Policy: “Building a Better World: The Diplomacy of Ubuntu.”

There was some hope and expectation that the promise of a White Paper on South Africa’s foreign policy would be more definitive and resolute in prioritising South Africa’s international projection and executing it in a coherent manner.

 In fact, in the run up to the publication of the department’s White Paper which Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane had been heralding since her first parliamentary  budget speech in office, in March 2010, I rather naively accepted at face value her invitation to all embassies to prepare a response from our mission to the draft document.  The Minister in her 2010 Budget speech indicated that the White Paper process was to be open and consultative (a welcome departure from the opaque nature of foreign policy-making under the previous administration of President Mbeki). Furthermore, she stated that the purpose of the process was-

To take stock of our successes as well as lessons learnt where we have perhaps missed our targets, and to evaluate our capacity in terms of the way forward.

And so, my colleagues and I laboured away against a tight deadline, and produced, I thought, a crisp seven-page response and sent it back to head office. We addressed a range of problems and inconsistencies of foreign policy in practice which the white paper, far from resolving, did not even admit existed! Our response, with detailed referencing, pointed out that the 1993 claim of Nelson Mandela, on the eve of his presidency, that “human rights will be the light which guides our foreign policy” had been largely observed in the breach and cited numerous examples of our rights-delinquencies, particularly during our first term and ill-starred role in the United Nations Security Council which ended in 2008, which had seen South Africa turn a blind eye to violations of fundamental rights - from Belarus to Zimbabwe. Our posturing there appeared to be animated by an anti-western, struggle-solidarity which I termed (to my colleagues but omitted from the response) “gesture politics.” Needless to note, there was no acknowledgement from head office to our carefully crafted views and not a word of them appeared in the revised document.


In certain areas, for example, condemning the Burmese junta in 2009 for detaining opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (who was subsequently released and participated in its restored parliament) and taking a tougher line against Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (to little discernible effect as he enters his 33rd uninterrupted year in power in 2013), South Africa under president Zuma appeared to have noticed and even acted on some of the criticisms. However, the hard test for the ‘new approach’ still lay ahead, as I relate (see 2.4.2, below).

In the event, the ‘final draft White Paper’ (13 May 2011) neither acknowledged some of the core dilemmas and shortcomings of previous iterations of foreign policy. It specifically repeated a lengthy list of national interests, without stating in which order they would be executed and how they would be realised abroad. It contained proposals for further bureaucratic building blocks (for example, the creation of a single agency to channel development aid – the South African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA) and a South African Council on International Relations (SACOIR), without defining criteria for its grant allocations, in the case of the former, or for its constitution and powers in the case of the latter.

In the opinion of Ambassador Tom Wheeler, a former South African diplomat and currently Research Associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) –

The key focuses of South African foreign policy, its African Agenda, South-South Co-Operation, North-South Dialogue, Multilateral and Economic Diplomacy, and bilateral relations with individual countries, have been listed on the DIRCO website for years. Nothing new (in the White Paper) here. Nor is there any attempt to identify the countries which are of special importance to South Africa in promoting its interests.

South Africa’s current foreign policy has been described as “care and maintenance” of what was created during the Mbeki presidency. The White Paper does little to disabuse that characterisation.

Other analysts were equally unmoved by the White Paper, or thought it added anything of new significance for future use.

 For example,  Dr Mzukisi Qobo, senior lecturer in political sciences at the University of Pretoria, described the exercise and its outcome as “old wine in new bottles…it includes almost everything under the sun.”

Policy analyst, Dr Greg Mills was crisper and harsher: he described our foreign policy as “a bit of this and a bit of that.” In the same article he also dismissed our diplomatic techniques as “largely analogue for the digital world, and leadership anodyne, rather than dynamic.” This rather painfully chimed with my lived experience as an ambassador.


2.3 National Development Plan 2030(Chapter Seven): “Positioning South Africa in the World.”

Only after returning from diplomatic service abroad in late 2012, did I discover that one of the chapters in the National Development Plan 2030, published by the National Planning Commission (NPC) of the South African Presidency, dealt explicitly, and at length, with “Positioning South Africa in the World.” Admittedly, it was only presented, in its final form, to the President and cabinet of South Africa in August 2012, which might explain the absence of any of its cogent recommendations in foreign policy planning during my tenure abroad. However, its key points deal far more persuasively with the need for South Africa to shape its policy by recognising –

The interplay between diplomatic, political, security, environmental, economic and regional co-operative dynamics that define early 21st century international relationships. In particular, our foreign policy should remain cognisant of global shifts in soft and smart and mental power form West to East; the stratification of regional groupings in the world; the proliferation of threats to human and state power; to internal and external sovereignty; and to natural resources.

Its clarion call for South Africa to develop “a clear strategy” based on the country’s global, continental and regional situation is, in its decorous language, doubtless indicating the key omission to which I have already referred. It further elaborates on other recommendations, from creating a cost-efficient and streamlined department to a frank acknowledgement of South Africa’s relative decline and influence as “a significant presence in world affairs” since the heady days of 1994. Crucially, it indicates that international relations needs to be grounded “in the realities of the international competition for resources that are scarce…and diminishing…and unpredictable.”

However, its impressive schema of South Africa’s place in the world does not, interestingly, address the other contradiction of foreign policy execution, i.e the centrality or otherwise of human rights to inform our approach to key issues. This omission will be explored below (2.4.2).

It remains to be seen whether the thinking and strategizing in this document begins to inform and influence foreign policy-making for South Africa going forward. 

2.4. “Theory Clashes with Practise”: Two Examples-

2.4.1: The limitations of the theoretical underpinnings of foreign policy planning when implemented abroad-

I discovered, in practise, that  little of the departmental planning and the theoretical underpinnings of our foreign policy were of much assistance on-the-ground in implementing our national interests in South America. Indeed, I quickly reached the conclusion that for our foreign missions, in Buenos Aires at least, we would have to create first, our own selling points for South Africa in the dynamic and challenging markets of South America and then decide how to promote these objectives. I also took the view that a foreign mission abroad had to achieve a certain and measurable level of cost -effectiveness in order to justify its significant overheads. It is noteworthy that the total Foreign Affairs budget is currently approximately R5bn, most of which is expended on our foreign missions abroad.


 So where does that essentially 18th century construction, the foreign embassy, fit into the picture? How, with governments and people across the world battered by ‘the great recession’ and states confronted by widening deficits and shrinking budgets, do we justify the expenses, even perhaps the anachronism, of a diplomatic mission?

South Africa, a middle-ranking power, boasts of no fewer than 124 legations in 107 countries abroad, each of them expensive to maintain with an annual running cost, per mission on average in the R10-R15m range. Each South African embassy abroad is charged with implementing our hugely ambitious and expansive goal of “creating a better South Africa and contributing to a better and safer Africa in a better world.” As I prepared to return home in late 2012 at the end of  my mission as a self-described “accidental ambassador”, I outlined  some of  the objectives I attempted to implement in my three years   as a  South African Head of Mission: I concluded that:
1.  Pre-eminently, an embassy should be a profit not a cost centre: Around 95% of our operating budget is ring-fenced by fixed costs, from salaries and rentals to administrative charges. Without the generous sponsorships we managed to secure for everything from business and investment seminars to art and movie exhibitions, little would have been seen or heard of South Africa in this corner of the world. But it is not just about vigorous fundraising and projecting your country through public diplomacy, important as those instruments are in the embassy toolkit. More than that, if an embassy, and its ambassador, is not watching the numbers, from trade statistics to tourism arrivals to FDI-flows and, crucially, making them grow then he or she might indeed fit the acid description penned by another “accidental ambassador’’. John Kenneth Galbraith (the famed economist and US envoy to India in the 1960’s) said that many ambassadors were “a spectacular example of what economists call disguised unemployment. “An embassy needs to be much more than a glorified combination of post office (for the relaying of messages) and a travel agency (for visiting politicians).

2. An Embassy should at all times be the first port of call, and the last line of defence, for its distressed citizens abroad and, crucially, its resident investors and trading companies. Larger multinational corporations have less need of embassy assistance (although with rising protectionism in Argentina, for example, we often successfully managed interventions on their behalf). But smaller and medium size enterprises back home certainly do.

As regards, South Africa’s “selling points’’ or its unique value proposition in the hyper-competitive and globalised world, my embassy colleagues and I found it necessary not to simply package South Africa as “part of the rest” but to distil the essence of , what the marketing experts call, our ‘differentiating edge’.

I would (and indeed in my ambassadorship, did) describe these under the following heads which could, with the necessary substitution, doubtless be applied by South African diplomats and trade officials elsewhere in the world:
-  South Africa has unique selling points which cannot be easily replicated elsewhere : our mineral pre-eminence especially in platinum group products; our unique tourism diversity, especially the combination of the majestic beauty and sophistication  of Cape Town and the rugged  allure of our game reserves ; our geo-strategic location midpoint between South America and Asia –both home to the most dynamic markets in the emerging world, underlined by the fact that some 70% of SAA inward bound passengers from Brazil and Argentina are en route to an Asian destination; the extraordinary example of our constitutional settlement and the power of our negotiated settlement and the icons who created it as a mighty add-on of cultural and political significance.


You will readily see from this list that certain current dangers and lurking future threats can upend or destroy some, perhaps not all, the items on our national menu of universal uniqueness.

-  The second list is not unique to South Africa, but our continued holding of these assets makes us a competitive ‘’sell’’ in a highly competitive world and especially attractive in places, such as my recent host countries where, critically, some of these key elements are either missing or under threat: these include  South Africa’s market access to Europe, Middle East and the United States, augmented by bilateral  and unilateral (such as AGOA) trade agreements and investment protection treaties; Rule of Law certainty and constitutional protections of property and investment .


You will also see that every element on is list is currently either under review or even in some danger. It is perhaps ironic, that Minister Rob Davies with whom I happily and energetically co-operated in selling South Africa in South America and whose department has some seriously outstanding trade officers in our embassies abroad, is discarding the bilateral investment treaties with some of our European partners, the existence and continuance of which add  such value  to our investment  toolkit! Another self-imposed ‘own goal’ in terms of attracting FDI to this country is the recently mooted ban on foreign land ownership.


This menu of offerings underpins an essential point: whatever our other interests, and perhaps pretensions, in the wider world, in essence a country’s foreign policy is the external projection of its domestic policies, attributes and aspirations.

2.4.2.” Theory Clashes with Practise” (2)

The Wrong Side of Human Rights: The Arab Spring Exposes the Contradiction between policy and Realpolitik.

The expectation, so often disappointing in result, that South Africa would give voice and effect to the practise of ethical diplomacy and providing an antidote to the diplomatic school of realism so prevalent in the world, was not simply the consequence of Nelson Mandela having bequeathed a hostage to fortune in his famous Foreign Policy article back in 1993. The anticipation was informed by the very nature of the struggle, and the forces it opposed, of the governing ANC when it engaged in the battle against apartheid. This is well described by Professor Peter Vale:

Apartheid’s single greatest legacy could be that the world will rally people to struggle against the injustice and poverty brought about by the inhumanity that people do to one another.

And who better, many in the world asked reasonably of us, than the forces which helped remove the scourge of racial discrimination from the South African legal and democratic order?

I did not confine my concerns about our various lapses and inconsistencies on the international stage to a joint embassy response to a white paper, as mentioned above.  On two occasions, I wrote directly to the Minister and the Director General to express serious and personal concern at acts and omissions that I thought seriously diminished our moral capital in the world, as I will recount shortly.


And, as we used to say during my time in legal practice, ‘’hard cases make bad law”.  Nothing perhaps exposed the dashed expectations and glaring contradictions and the somersaults of our foreign policy than the ”Arab Spring”, which started to burn in December 2010, and soon spread across much of North Africa and the Middle East; long-repressed citizens under the heel of various fiefdoms and tyrannies began to demand and demonstrate for basic democratic and economic rights, just as their compatriots in South Africa had done some two or even three decades before.

 Two such cases, Libya and Syria, tested the limits of South Africa’s ‘new approach’ (which at first blush appeared under President Zuma to be more robust in advancing a human rights agenda internationally, than had been the case under previous administrations).

For example,to my intense and pleasant surprise, one night in early March 2011, I was watching the CNN live feed from the UN Security Council debate on the situation in Libya and witnessed South Africa cast an historic vote in favour of Resolution 1973 (uncharacteristically parting company with Russia and China on the Council, who abstained) which called for “all necessary measures to be taken to protect Libyan civilians under threat (from dictator Muammar Qaddafi) including the imposition of a so-called ‘no fly zone’. “At last”, I mentioned to some colleagues, “we are on the right side!”

Subsequent developments on this front severely tempered my initial enthusiasm. South Africa rapidly backtracked on this vote, often performing such contortions of logic or illogicality that our reversals of position undermined our initial posture. Zuma soon enough denounced the air strikes which NATO commenced against the Qaddafi forces, which was entirely on all fours with the ‘no fly’ provision (which essentially meant that Libyan ground and air forces could not operate in the area of exclusion). South Africa had entered the big league of ‘having your cake and eating it’. Days after the historic UN vote, Zuma denounced the ‘killing of civilians’ and ‘the foreign occupation of Libya’ to a local crowd at home. This led The Economist to question whether Zuma was naïve enough to believe that the ‘’all necessary measures’’ he was in favour of to protect Libyan civilians could be ‘’done without recourse to force.” Appropriately, this critique on our foreign policy was headlined “All Over the Place” –a good a short -hand description of our zigzagging pronouncements.

Of course behind these lurches was a severe dose of what George Orwell famously called ‘double think’- holding two contrasting views in your head and firmly and simultaneously believing in both of them. Many political leaders suffer from this affliction, but SA’s foreign entanglements seemed to represent this ailment in extreme form. There was, at least in the case of Libya, a backstory. South Africa’s desire, stronger under Zuma than under his predecessor, to ‘be on the right side of history’ and to – at least on occasion – stand on the side of the oppressed collided with the debts his movement owed to Qaddafi, both of the literal and political sorts. Qaddafi had been a big bankroller of the ANC (this nugget I was told first hand by Nelson Mandela back in 1994); in return Mandela showered the Libyan dictator with state honours in 1997 and it was widely rumoured that the Libyan dictator had then funded Zuma‘s wilderness years after his ousting by Mbeki as deputy president in June 2005. Doubtless, this constituted an explanation for our subsequent gyrations over Libya: a ridiculous call for a ‘negotiated settlement’ between the imperilled Qaddafi and the rebels who were closing in on him and, then, when it was clear that the rebels were effectively in power in Libya a refusal for quite some time to recognise – in contrast to most Arab and Western states – Libya’s National Transitional Council as the government of Libya.

In late August 2011, my colleagues in the Africa group of ambassadors in Buenos Aires (which included North African Arab representatives) expressed to me considerable surprise at South Africa’s stance over Libya. I muttered some banal explanation, but was vehemently embarrassed by our posture. On return to office that day, I wrote a note to DIRCO Director General, Ambassador Jerry Matjila. In my missive of 31 August I advised -

“There is a perception that we have a policy of either support for Qaddafi or have placed such a premium on avoiding regime change that other foreign policy commitments (support for human rights and the democratic aspirations of subjugated people) are subordinated to this end. Whatever the merits or demerits of the NATO campaign against his regime, it seems to me infinitely less bad than the suffering he has inflicted on his own people and the apparent lack of support and legitimacy which his 42 year old rule has enjoyed.”

  There was an almost immediate response from the Director General to this note. He advised that one of the issues confronting all ambassadors, ‘’from time to time”, was the need to advance positions with which they personally disagreed. But this of course was not the point at all: no Argentine authority had asked me for a brief on our Libyan stance and since it was difficult to fathom any consistency in it, I would have been stymied to advance one of any coherence. He simply evaded my central contention.

The slippery slide down the road to inconsistency gathered pace as the Arab Spring lit the fires of resistance in Syria. I had been quite stunned when, during a heads of mission gathering in Pretoria in mid-2011, ”our man in Damascus”, the South African Ambassador to Syria - had taken to the floor to denounce the abuse of social media by Syrian pro-democracy activists for presenting, in his myopic view, the world with “a distorted view of the position on the ground”. No doubt our emissary was a keen supporter of the besieged regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who at that stage was energetically slaughtering his civilian population as they rose up against his dictatorship and rule of fear. By late 2012, it was estimated that over 60, 000 Syrians had been killed, largely by government forces.

While a direct military option was not on the table, it was clear that most democratic countries and the bulk of the Arab World and neighbouring Turkey were of one mind to apply coercive diplomacy, from sanctions to asset-freezes and even arming the rebels – to express revulsion against Assad’s savagery. South Africa was not among them.

Instead, DIRCO issued a mealy-mouthed statement of spectacularly misguided even-handedness, as though there was a moral equivalence between a brutal regime and its opponents. One paragraph from the department’s ‘expression of concern about the situation in Syria’ was truly remarkable. The DIRCO statement noted that “South Africa condemns all forms of violence, including the use of force against unarmed civilians, as well as hostility against security forces and sectarian violence. (My emphasis).

Elsewhere in the Middle East, however, South Africa found one arena in which to proclaim its solidarity with the rights of oppressed and marginalised people: in every forum and statement, it energetically stood up for the beleaguered people of Palestine. But since their adversary was (for the ANC) the easy target of Israel, this selectivity simply drew attention to our silence on far worse rights-violators in the same neighbourhood.

Unsurprisingly, when the UN Security Council later voted to condemn the human rights abuses by the government of Syria against its own civilians, South Africa abstained.

I thought this appalling enough. But our straining every sinew to, at best, stay neutral between oppressor and oppressed or, more balefully, to provide succour to the Assads and Qaddafis of the world  impelled me to take advantage of the invitation of the Minister (Maite Nkoana- Mashabane), offered at the outset of my mission, to express to her ‘any concerns’. So, on 12 October 2011, I sent her a letter indicating that our posture on Syria and our refusal to grant the XIV Dalai Lama a visa to visit South Africa, “undermined our commitment to advancing a principled foreign policy, based on human rights and democracy.”

My politely worded rebuke received no response, but it did (I noticed from the ensuing timeline) lead to the department enthusiastically endorsing my decision to return a year early from my posting and even trying to advance the date. As Britain’s great jurist, Lord Denning once noted, “The arm of coincidence is long, but it does not stretch unto infinity.”

After my return home, the SA Institute of International Affairs invited me in November 2012 to address a meeting at the University of Witwatersrand, on my view of foreign policy. I concluded my remarks by noting -

“I think the point is plain: whatever else might be said for our foreign policy, and there are in fact some significant accomplishments, the promise of Nelson Mandela in 1993 that ‘human rights will be the light which guides our foreign policy’ is not among them.” I had obviously become very diplomatic by then, since this was something of an understatement.

2.6. Learning and Listening –Home Thoughts Learnt Abroad: Lessons from “The South”.

One of the less helpful ‘noises off’ which intruded on my mission’s attempts to ‘sell South Africa’ as a safe haven for foreign investment, were  the  economically illiterate remarks of Julius Malema, then president of the ruling party (ANC) youth league in favour of wholesale nationalisation of mining assets and . He both scared foreign investors and delighted the mass of unemployed youths. He was, via the ANC disciplinary machine, later expelled from the party before my return. But for all the hypocrisy and populism of Malema, he had given voice to a rising and justifiable discontent among the many, some 50%, of the youth, who had never enjoyed a formal job any had little prospect of obtaining one. For all the many things which South Africa had got right in the past two decades, the failure of both our system and leaders to address meaningfully this burning issue, remains the greatest danger for the country going forward.

Perhaps one of the most important, and underrated, aspects of a diplomatic presence abroad is the ability to report back home to your diplomatic principals on key policies and practices in your countries of accreditation which might, usefully, be considered with the necessary adaption, at home.

South America offered no end of lessons on how to address, or not, South Africa’s central current failures-the negative trifecta of low growth, high unemployment and widening inequality.

 Copying Argentina, through raiding the public purse to buy off discontented voters and fuel inflation and scare off investors was one path; but it was, at the time of my departure from Buenos Aires, leading to a cul-de-sac of ever more desperate short term measures which crippled its future prospects. The other and smarter course was the tougher road hewed by neighbouring Chile and Brazil and further away Colombia (which was on the verge of overtaking Argentina as the second largest economy in South America by October 2012). This required the creation of a virtuous cycle of addressing unemployment through boosting and building the platform for sustainable growth and incentivizing responsible behaviour in exchange for subsidies (.e.g. in Brazil, child support grants were only obtainable in proof of school attendance and vaccinations). And, of course, subjugating short-term considerations for long term pay offs.

South Africa gave voice to both options and the government itself, in another display of ‘double think’, at home as it  often does abroad, seemed to embrace rather than resolve the contradiction. On the one hand there was the ‘diagnostic overview’ of the National Planning Commission, published in November 2011. It was authored by a powerful committee, appointed by President Zuma to chart a national course into 2030.

On its last page, appeared a paragraph which perfectly encapsulated the sort of winning and inclusive state which South Africa, with the right admixture of good and farsighted politics and bold leadership and an engaged citizenry, could become. The commission stated –

Successful countries have what is called a ‘future orientation’. Their policy bias is to take decisions that lead to long-term benefits, as opposed to short-run solutions that could have negative effects later on. Such countries generally prefer investment over consumption; have high saving rates, sound fiscal policy, high levels of fixed investment, a high degree of policy certainty and clear rules of engagement for the private sector. A clear and predictable policy environment enables business to take a long-term perspective on growth and development. Countries with a future orientation generally spend more on education, and value it more in communities and households.

On the other hand, my last act of public diplomacy abroad was to deal with the fallout from the massacre of striking miners had occurred at a platinum mine I had never heard of near Rustenberg in the North West Province. Marikana was a name which would soon enough, however, echo across the world as a synonym for everything that was wrong and ugly in today’s South Africa. For on that bleak winter’s day police shot and killed 34 miners engaged in an illegal wildcat strike; more than a dozen others, including policemen also lost their lives at the hands of violent strikers. It was the single most lethal use of force by state security forces against civilians since the end of apartheid and even well before that. Between the fine prospectus for a better South Africa, offered by the national planning commission and the dismal events at the Lonmin mine at Marikana, lies a gulf. Whether we cross it, in safety and in time, remains the essential challenge for the future.

2.7. Conclusion

 The key aspect for South Africa going forward is the need to renew our national purpose, not looking back with nostalgic sentiment, but by approaching the future with renewed determination. This is not simply a reflection from afar, or a ‘home thought from abroad’ as it were, but a direct consequence of the fact that South Africa’s status in the world has been achieved as a consequence of the immense strength (a classic example of what Harvard professor Joseph Nye terms ‘soft power’) of the example which we provided to the world. This was during the period of our political and constitutional transition from apartheid to democracy in the early 1990’s. Our power of example, rather than the example of our power back then, created a following wind of high expectation and international goodwill, which we have seldom matched in the more prosaic and difficult two decades since then.


Tony Leon served from 2009 until 2012 as South African Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Previously he led the Democratic Alliance in South Africa and was the Leader of the Official Oppositions in Parliament. He is a qualified attorney and lectured in law at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He was awarded Fellowships to the institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (2007), Cato Institute, Washington DC (2008), and Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (2013). He has authored two books, “Hope and Fear-Reflections of a Democrat (1998) and “On the Contrary-Leading the Opposition in a Democratic South Africa (2008). His forthcoming book, “The Accidental Ambassador-From Parliament to Patagonia” will be published in April 2013.

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