Mandela’s death should be an occasion to come back to his conviction that social justice and political reconciliation should lever an active foreign policy.
After the demise of the apartheid regime and the victory of the African National Congress in the 1994 elections, South Africa’s foreign policy was bound to change. South Africa had been a pariah state and nearly all the parameters of its foreign relations had to be adapted to the new political reality of the country.
Many at the time had predicted a sharp departure from the West as a result of the ambiguous and at times complicit policies followed by the US, the UK, France and Germany towards Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela however applied to South Africa’s foreign policy the model that he followed internally. He rejected confrontation and rancour and moved to build a new paradigm that would both reflect South Africa’s prominence as the most powerful economic and military actor in Africa and mark a radical shift in the principles and values undergirding its foreign relations.
Although the new President refused to criticize authoritarian leaders like Fidel Castro or Muammar Qaddafi, who had consistently supported the ANC during its long struggle, he proclaimed human rights as the guiding light of South Africa’s foreign policy. This choice merged the liberal and socialist currents that sustained the anti-apartheid struggle. Keenly aware of Africa’s development needs it underlined the link between social, economic and cultural rights and civil and political rights. This approach was ‘mainstreamed’ across all other foreign policy initiatives, from peacemaking to the modernization of pan-African institutions.
A symbol and a source of formidable pride for Africa, Nelson Mandela also held a universalist and global concept of foreign policy. He complemented his ambitious plan to develop and unite Africa with a strong commitment towards the global South and the forging of alliances, especially with democratic emerging countries like India and Brazil within the IBSA forum.
Mandela was an ‘ethical realist’ in the way he approached foreign policy. He maintained relations with autocrats and democrats but he also set red lines that should not be crossed. His disapproval of Robert Mugabe’s increasingly repressive ways differed from the ‘policy of tolerance’ followed by President Thabo Mbeki and to a lesser extent by Jacob Zuma.
His legacy has been weakened by his successors. Human rights have been dropped as a symbolic guiding light, with South African diplomats at the UN voting alongside authoritarian countries. Peacemaking initiatives have been bogged down in intractable conflicts, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or between Sudan and South Sudan. The country’s economic base has not grown to the point where it can assure the ‘solvency’ of an ambitious and global foreign policy.
Mandela’s legacy depends on external factors that he could not predict in 1994 or over which the South African government has no real control, like the meteoric rise of China’s global power or the emergence of jihadist terror in Nigeria, the Sahel region and Kenya.
His dreams for a better Africa will also hinge in large part on the capacity of his country to address its internal tensions and social disparities. The persistence of social apartheid, corruption within the ‘new Establishment’ and growing divisions within the ANC constitute a major threat to South Africa’s internal cohesion but also to its international projection as a key political and diplomatic actor in Africa and on the global scene.
Madiba’s death should be an occasion for those who claimed his political heritage to come back to his deep intuition that social justice and political reconciliation within South Africa should be the pillar of economic prosperity but also the lever of an active and benevolent foreign policy.
“Come home South Africa!” The idea that South Africa has to devote itself to solving its internal failings and to use its foreign policy to reach these internal objectives should tower over the South African government as the last benevolent farewell from the founder and father of the ‘new country’.
Photo credit main picture: UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran. Nelson Mandela (ANC) Addresses Special Committee Against Apartheid, 22 June 1990