Five months before being elected as South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela said human rights would be the cornerstone of the country’s post-apartheid foreign policy.
Mandela, who died yesterday at the age of 95, spoke with the moral authority of a man who spent 27 years in prison for fighting racial oppression. Yet as president, he formed ties with some of Africa’s biggest despots, such as Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and national interest began to dictate foreign policy, a trend that accelerated after he stepped down in 1999.
“Instinctively, Mandela hoped to keep the line on human rights,” said Peter Vale, a politics professor at the University of Johannesburg who helped Mandela’s African National Congress draft its foreign policy in the 1990s. “It’s very difficult even for a leader of that stature to hold out. Pragmatism ruled and the discourse of people who wanted to have an idealistic foreign policy was just pushed out.”
Mandela was freed from prison in 1990 as the Cold War was ending, a development that threw global international relations into disarray. The ANC took power in the country’s first all-race elections in 1994, with no experience of governing.
“Human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs,” Mandela wrote in a 1993 journal article that spelt out the ANC’s policy approach. “Just and lasting solutions to the problems of humankind can only come through the promotion of democracy worldwide.”
While Mandela forged relationships with dictators such as Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Qaddafi, whom he once described as “one of the revolutionary icons of our times,” he initially tried to match his idealistic foreign-policy pledge with deeds.
In 1995, he unsuccessfully sought to persuade Nigeria’s government not to hang writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. He then failed to win backing from most other African leaders to sever diplomatic ties with Nigeria and impose economic sanctions, an intervention that soured relations between Africa’s two largest economies for years to come.
Mandela also failed to broker a halt to a war in Zaire, which has since been renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. The conflict ended in 1997, when rebel forces led by Laurent Kabila and backed by Rwanda and Uganda toppled Mobutu.
In 1998, South Africa dispatched more than 600 troops to neighboring Lesotho as part of a regional effort to quell a mutiny by junior army officers. More than 60 people were killed.
Mandela’s administration displayed its pragmatism when it switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in late 1996, reflecting its new trade and investment priorities and bowing to Beijing’s one-China policy. Mandela earlier indicated that he favored retaining ties with both.
After Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela in 1999, South Africa increasingly focused on strengthening ties with the rest of Africa, with less emphasis on human-rights issues.
“We should be proud of our identity as Africans,” Mbeki said in a televised address in May 2008. “Our own progress and prosperity is dependent on the progress and prosperity of our neighbors and other African countries.”
As a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, South Africa voted against a 2007 resolution that would have pressed Myanmar’s military government to free political prisoners and abstained on a vote on a resolution to establish a tribunal for political killings in Lebanon.
It also opposed the imposition of sanctions on Sudan for its role in violence in the western region of Darfur and lobbied for the International Criminal Court to drop charges of war crimes and genocide against its president, Umar al-Bashir.
In 2009, Mbeki coaxed feuding political parties in Zimbabwe into forming a unity government, helping prolong the reign of President Robert Mugabe, accused by Western governments of rigging elections and human-rights abuses.
Mbeki lost control of the ANC to Jacob Zuma in December 2007 and was ousted as president nine months later.
Zuma has also largely sought to avoid offending his fellow African leaders, even as his administration sought to play a more proactive role in continental politics. In 2012, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former South African foreign minister and an ex-wife of Zuma, was named head of the 54-nation African Union’s secretariat.
While Zuma backed pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, he lagged behind other African nations in recognizing Alassane Ouattara as the winner of 2011 elections in Ivory Coast and condemning incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo who spurned calls to cede power.
Zuma has also followed Mbeki’s lead in fostering relations with other leading emerging-market nations. His efforts were rewarded when South Africa was invited to join Brazil, Russia, India and China in a political grouping known as BRICS in 2010.
South Africa denied the Dalai Lama’s request to travel to the country in 2009, with Zuma saying at the time that China’s concerns must be respected. China alleges the Dalai Lama is seeking secession for Tibet.
In 2011, the government failed to respond to the Dalai Lama’s request for a visa to attend the 80th birthday of his fellow Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, sparking a furious riposte from Tutu.
“Hey Mr. Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me,” Tutu told a news conference in Cape Town. “You represent your own interests. You are disgraceful. We were helped by the international community to overcome apartheid. People believed that we as South Africans were automatically on the side of those who were being oppressed.”
While the government’s communication of its foreign policy has been lacking at times, its pragmatism is understandable, said Jan Hofmeyer, head of policy and analysis at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town.
“The reality is that as far as international relations is concerned, every country has to act in its best interests,” Hofmeyer said in a phone interview. “Sometimes that involves dealing with countries that do not necessarily share your values with regard to democracy and human rights.”