Gaddafi may have lost his final battle last night, but South Africa lost the war.
As the last country to stand with the embattled “father of the nation” in spite of the West’s determination to get rid of him, South Africa’s international reputation was dragged through the mud as harshly as Gaddafi’s bloodied corpse was dragged through streets.
Zuma’s ineffectual attempts to broker a diplomatic solution in Libya have been widely ridiculed, particularly by the ANC’s liberal critics.
Yet many of those same liberals also condemned South Africa’s denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama.
The government’s critics can’t have it both ways.
In foreign policy terms, there was essentially no difference between defending Gaddafi and defending the Dalai Lama. Both are individual figures with strong personal emotional and historic links to South Africa’s ruling elite. Both Gaddafi and the Dalai Lama were Mandela’s personal friends (Madiba’s own grandson Zondwa’s middle name is Gaddafi); both helped the ANC in the anti-apartheid struggle in symbolic, military and financial ways.
Though neither carried much weight anymore for South Africa’s current situation, they were considered enemies by large powers on which the country is geopolitically and economically dependent (US/EU and China).
But while in the case of the Lama, Zuma was blamed for bowing to pressure and bribery from a big power (China); in the case of Gaddafi, he was criticised for doing the opposite: standing up to a big power (USA) to defend an old ally despite knowing that this might carry a high political and financial cost.
How did each strategy work out for South Africa?
When it ignored “principle” and bowed to geopolitics with respect to the Lama’s visit, the country suffered some domestic opprobrium but without any lasting financial or strategic damage. In fact, South Africa earned important brownie points with a China increasingly preoccupied with its image abroad and tetchy about international perceptions of its human-rights record.
Compare that with the inevitable and unenviable consequences of having gone against Britain, France and the US with respect to Gaddafi.
Just like Russia fell from being a privileged player in Saddam-era Iraq to almost totally frozen out in the wake of the US invasion it opposed, South Africa can expect to languish at the end of the line for any lucrative commercial, political and military dealings with post-Gaddafi Libya.
The lesson? Only a masochist would oppose Western geo-political hegemony on grounds of principle.
This kind of negative reinforcement can have a strong effect on future policy.
For example, Russia, chastened by its defeat on Iraq, thought better of opposing the US and Nato too strongly when it came to Libya, even though Gaddafi was a close ally.
Of course, less international support for dictators is surely a net positive for the world, and it’s certainly a great thing that they no longer have anywhere to hide.
In South Africa’s case, the good news is that its leadership will probably start re-thinking its cosy relationship with Mugabe — another despot in America’s gun-sights.
But the lessons of the Libyan debacle also carry a dark side: an emergent realisation of the overwhelming costs and general futility of diplomatically opposing Western military action.
South Africa’s costly and embarrassing failure to avert war in Libya might set a dangerous precedent: oppose superpower militarism at your peril! Of course, most people would agree that the end of Gaddafi is no great loss; that, no matter what ulterior and self-interested motives Nato had for getting rid of him, the guy was better off out.
But giving the US and its allies a blank cheque by forfeiting opposition in advance, on the grounds that it would be politically or economically suicidal, risks creating a world in which movements like the ANC and Swapo — once considered terrorist organisations in the US — would never have had a chance.
Their success owed much to support and funding from dissenting countries that refused to fall into line — states like Cuba, Libya and the non-aligned world. They could do that because a rival superpower — Russia — was watching their back.
In the words of Madiba himself, Gaddafi “assisted us in obtaining democracy at a time when [the US and the West] were the friends of the enemies of democracy in South Africa”.
With the Soviet Union and Gaddafi gone, and South Africa and other non-conformists in the process of being goaded into submission, who would ever again dare send guns and money to a future Mandela?