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Quiet diplomacy: The new constructive engagement

One of the striking features of Thabo Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy is its remarkable similarity to the policy of constructive engagement the United States pursued toward apartheid South Africa under the Reagan administration.

This policy was intended to encourage a transformation of the South African domestic situation, while also addressing conflicts in Angola and Namibia in which South African forces were heavily involved. As designed by Chester Crocker, then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, the idea behind the policy was to influence the South African regime from within rather than isolate it from without. The Reagan administration consistently rejected the use of sanctions and vetoed such efforts in the United Nations as well as in the US Congress, even going so far as to offer loans to the apartheid government in excess of one billion dollars.

Sound familiar?

Thabo Mbeki has similarly argued that a softly-softly approach to Zimbabwe would be more effective than “megaphone diplomacy”. Until the UN Security Council’s unanimous statement earlier this week, South Africa also used its position to block stronger rebuke of the Mugabe regime in the world forum. One could argue that the massive debt owed to South African parastatals, the reserve bank and private companies — notably for electricity — is a similar “loan” to the Zimbabwean government (according to Tim Hughes of the South African Institute of International Affairs, as of 2004 this was estimated to be around US$458 million).

Whatever your opinion of constructive engagement may be — some argue that it was successful, others see it as a dismal failure — what remains irrefutable is the policy’s lasting impact on public opinion. Throughout the 1980s, civil society in the United States, South Africa and elsewhere criticised constructive engagement as racist and a tacit endorsement of the status quo under apartheid. This was particularly true of those involved in the liberation struggle, including many in the ANC, who saw the policy as hypocritical given the US government’s vocal support for human rights and democratic principles at home and elsewhere around the world. To this day, a wide segment of the South African population I have encountered believe that constructive engagement represented the United States turning its back on the struggle for justice and democracy in the country. Ultimately, as successful as constructive engagement may have been behind the scenes, what South Africa and the world saw, or perceived, was silence and hypocrisy. I would argue that lingering resentment over constructive engagement continues to have an impact on bilateral relations between the two countries today.

Thus, one should ask, what impact will South Africa’s own version of constructive engagement have on its relations with a “new” Zimbabwe, if and when that should occur? Will the next generation of Zimbabwe’s struggle leaders view South Africa with the same contempt that South Africa’s liberation leaders viewed the United States in the 1980s? Will they harbour resentment for what they consider South Africa’s abandonment at their hour of need?

Lest I should be seen as unsympathetic to senior South African government officials who have no doubt wrestled with this question for some time, let me state that I perfectly understand why quiet diplomacy was chosen in the first place. In fact, I believe that quiet diplomacy was the right approach at the beginning of the Zimbabwean crisis. Indeed, it made sense for South African officials to offer guidance to their Zimbabwean counterparts behind the scenes at a government-to-government level and to maintain open lines of communication and dialogue. Roughly eight years later, though, with only escalating economic and political chaos, it has become clear that Mugabe’s government is not listening.

Constructive engagement as pursued by the Reagan administration remains a controversial policy and you do not have to look far to find those who will passionately argue its success or those who will similarly deride its failures. This is certainly true of Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy as well. Yet, perception is often more important than reality. Just as in the case of constructive engagement, one may argue the merits or shortcomings of quiet diplomacy years from now. But the perception that quiet diplomacy represents South Africa turning its back on the struggle for justice in Zimbabwe’s greatest hour of need may continue to haunt the ANC government for years to come.