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The price of no more Gaddafis? No more Mandelas

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?


  • Journalist Vadim Nikitin claims to be working on a book about nostalgia. He blames his poor judgement and unhealthy obsession with the past on having been born perilously close to the Soviet Union's largest nuclear submarine base.


  1. Cedrick Cedrick 21 October 2011

    Another article written by ‘Africans’ with more allegiance to Europe than Africa. To these people a perfect Africa is one that is a puppet to Europe; does everything Europe wants it to do- an Africa that kneels down before Europe.

    Part of the reason is because these ‘Africans’ have figured out that when Africa subjects itself to Europe they are the ones who benefits the most for obvious reasons.

  2. Abraham Abraham 21 October 2011

    I must concede that you raise a quite powerful point by comparing Gadaffi and the Dalai Lama in reference to South Africa, I didn’t think of this. I’m going to agree with you that checks and balances in the international realm are necessary, whether it is to keep the “West” in check or other emerging powers. I’ll leave these two points as they are.

    When I think about this article in totality there are some things that bother me. You are necessarily assuming that the picture you draw is the end of the story. While a crazy Gadaffi may have been necessary at the time to host Mandela do you really think that the situation today is the same as it was when Gadaffi took power? Are you really of the opinion that various other alternatives haven’t come to rise when it comes to opposing oppressive regimes? Do you really think the West’s power in the political sphere will remain that strong for much longer? I’m obviously suggesting the opposite to what you seem to take as fact.

    17 years after the advent of democracy we’re sitting with the realisation that the dreams we had were mostly dreams.

  3. Bette Davis Bette Davis 21 October 2011

    Dear Cedrick – Read the article carefully – your comment is exactly the opposite of what the artile says. He has taken a sympathetic view towards Africa and indicated the damage or risk of challenging Western interventions. Ignore le photo and read le text.

  4. MamaG MamaG 21 October 2011

    I agree with Cedrick.
    I would like to point out that what has been happening in Libya has never been a civil war, it was an all out NATO invasion. Vadim Nikitin has to but look at the type of people who dragged “Gaddafi” through the street to see who he is supporting. I prefer to support people who conduct themselves with respect. I have to ask him if he would like those animals to be his next door neighbours then he should rethink his “Only a masochist would oppose Western geo-political hegemony on grounds of principle.” I have lived my entire life basking in the aftermath of the Western geo-political hegemony and I prefer my principles. Masochist? Maybe, but at least I can look at the animals who Killed 60 000 people since March and call them Animals.
    This whole post reeks of capitulation. Mr Nikitin seems like the type that would rather do wrong knowingly than go against a bully. I believe he was one of those unfortunate kids in school who would rather let himself be bullied into submission than standing up for himself with the idea that if you are going to get beaten up you better get in a few punches of your own to let them know that beating you up is not going to be an easy thing so they will rethink beating you up it next time. The only Masochist in this Post is Mr Nikitin. Give in to the Bigger Powers right or wrong is his message. He clearly grew up being taught that you should submit to Power even if it is wrong.

  5. Sello Sello 21 October 2011

    Comparing Gaddaffi to the Dalai Lama…..speechless, absolutely speechless! For me, your ideology fails right there. And also the fact that it would not be a bad thing if we did not need any more Mandelas and if the world was a beautiful place. You yourself seem to be wanting it both ways – an inclination very evident in the title of your article. but do not feel bad about it my dear Vadim, that is how the world stays balanced. The world is wired to need evil and good people…we seem to need conflict.

  6. Stephen Stephen 21 October 2011

    That SA should act in its own best interest goes without saying. But the knack she has of making a bloody fool of herself in doing so in another matter. Surely there are smarter ways than pandering after genocidal maniacs?

    Interesting perspectives Vadim.

  7. Jarrod is actually a pseudonym Jarrod is actually a pseudonym 21 October 2011

    ignoring the fact that Africa has also benefitted from the introduction of “European” technology and investment??? “Africans” should stop focusing on where allegiance lies and start focusing on progression and innovation.

  8. ian ian 21 October 2011

    um Cedrick, Vadim is a Russian…not an African, the clue is in the profile…but other than that glaring error your point is just puerile.

  9. Captain Nemo Captain Nemo 21 October 2011

    The assertion that Zuma was criticised for “standing up to a big power” is completely off mark and only makes sense if one assumes that NATO’s immediate objective (i.e. get rid of Gaddafi), and the position held by Zuma’s critics on this matter were divergent. The issue was never about SA’s relationship with the West. As you’ve said, “most people would agree” that Gaddafi had to go, NATO’s ulterior motives notwithstanding. SA’s response to the crisis appeared to stand in the way of a Gaddafi-fee Libya; THAT is where the criticism came from.

    Whatever your perspective, I find it difficult to see how one could view an exiled religious leader with no executive (read: military) clout, and a sitting dictator in the throes of revolution as being fundamentally identical. If anything, the only parallel here is one democratic country going curiously out of its way to support the domestic (and morally ambiguous) interests of two decidedly undemocratic foreign allies.

  10. Dave Harris Dave Harris 21 October 2011

    This love-affair you have with “western military power” is infantile. You underestimate the will of the people.
    Remember that the ANC liberated SA in spite of with the well-oiled, and well-funded fearsome apartheid military machine – SADF. India obtained its freedom at the height of the British Empire. The mighty Russian army could occupy Afghanistan and neither could the US a military superpower occupy Vietnam, Cuba, Iraq…
    The ousting of the dictators in the middle east has paved the way for the rapid and inevitable Islamization of the Middle East.
    btw. If Vadim is Russian and not a white South African, then I’m a boer from Oranje ;-)

  11. Daniel Berti Daniel Berti 21 October 2011

    Interesting article.

  12. Goldenchild Goldenchild 21 October 2011

    Quote “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?”
    The west’s power is not the end all and be all of everything, just like all the super powers that were there before it will also fall, the signs are beginning to show. So I’de rather stick to my principles and in due time fate will tell.

  13. Robard Robard 21 October 2011

    Guys, Vadim is pulling your legs. See: “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.” The idea that policy should be influenced by whoever happens to be the personal friends of the leader of the day is of course the very antithesis of the democratic ethos of governance. (Vadim, your satire is too deadpan for a South African audience.)

  14. Clarence Esau Clarence Esau 21 October 2011

    South Africa’s policy in the two instances under discussion is simple… Side with the despotic dictators, that is, after all, what the democratically elected leaders of the country with the most liberal democratic constitution are called upon to do…


    Then what?

  15. Peter Squires Peter Squires 22 October 2011

    How can you compare Gaddafi to the Dalai Lama???? One is a man of peace the other an evil bar steward who had people living in terror. The one is a killer the other a pacifist. Good grief. THINK!!!

  16. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 22 October 2011

    @Harris, the ANC didn’t win one battle against the NA government of SA. Gaddafi couldn’t defend himself because Reagan bombed Libya and Gaddafi didn’t do anything. Most of the money that the ANC got came from the US and European countries.

    @Robard, that was a very good comment, the SA foreign policy is determined by who are friends in power at that time.

  17. Citizen Mntu Citizen Mntu 22 October 2011

    @Dave Harris – Would you care to explain the difference betwen “a white South African” and an ordinary South African and “a Russian”? Your obsession with race is as false as forced laughter, and your suspicious nose is sniffing an empty pan. Then again, could it be possible that you support the racist faction of the ANC? Anything is possible in a fallen world, eh?

    And regarding the ANC’s role in destroying the apartheid system – never forget that it was the UDF which got things moving at the crucial moment in 1983. It was the UDF and Cosatu that did the hard work over here. The ANC then managed to hijack The Struggle by riding the high horse of international brand-recognition.

  18. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 22 October 2011

    To place Gadaffi and The Dalai Lama in the same sentence is a travesty and disgusting. Gadaffi was a mass murderer and like Mugabe he bought friendships in the highest places.
    Its sad that people’s moral go out the window when a cash cheque is waived about.
    The Dalai Lama has tried to free his people by peaceful means and I am unaware of any people that have been murdered in his name.
    Shame on you for trying to give ‘status to killers or ranking good men with killers.

  19. Reasonable Reasonable 22 October 2011

    Vadim, I love your blogs. You make perfect sense so please don’t listen to the armchair critics.
    And as a bonus, you are a real cutie pie!

  20. Vadim Nikitin Vadim Nikitin Post author | 22 October 2011

    @ Dave Harris: Haai, vriend – ek het jou soveel verlang! Sê hallo aan Carel Boschoff vir my :)P

    Cedrick and Mama G—Meet Bette Davis and Ian. Or, to adapt that statement to your “mirror image” school of reading comprehension: “DON’T meet Bette Davis and Ian”

    @Abraham: Thanks for your astute and engaging comment. It’s true that my piece may have underestimated how much the world has changed over the last 20 years (sometimes it’s hard to snap out of the old cold war mentality:) Maybe the internet and globalisation have now empowered international activists, online campaigners, and even ordinary people armed with Twitter and Facebook (see Arab Spring) to do the Mandelas-supporting work previously reserved for the fickle and strings-attached largesse of crazy Gaddafis and the Soviet bloc. I only hope you’re right!

    @ Robard: I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about!

    @Goldenchild: Wise words too rarely heard in politics…

    @Jarrod is a Pseudonym: I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE!

    @ Captain Nemo: Stop trying to sink my warship!:) But still, you make a good point at the end: “the parallel here is one democratic country going curiously out of its way to support the domestic (and morally ambiguous) interests of two decidedly undemocratic foreign allies”.

    @Reasonable: Very reasonably said indeed! You can come be a (not too harsh!) critic on my armchair any day.. ;)

  21. Stefan Stefan 23 October 2011

    SA should stick to democratic principles, not past friends turned dictators, oppressing their people. (Mugabe, gadhaffi etc…). This doesn’t mean we have to sell out to Europe or US. It does however mean to take a standpoint against countries such as china, Cuba, Zimbabwe former Libya etc etc etc… This is what it is to be Proudly South African. Politicians so often if not always miss the concept of truth and replace it with convenient sticking to power realism. Diplomacy becomes ugly when your forfeit the basic truths on which your country is built.

  22. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 24 October 2011

    It doesn’t surprise me that people cannot see that SA actually took the high road in NATO’s war on Libya. It also doesn’t surprise me, that what are actually right wing western centrists are being described as “liberals”.

    For everyone who thinks that SA is still a pariah in the international world for denying DL a visa. Consider that the United States denies Visas to ambassadors from countries its campaigning against regularly. Ambassadors who are required to speak at the UN, and barely a peep from the press. Are we sure that we are being sensitive to the international community, or are South Africans really pledging allegiance to the English speaking capitalist members?

  23. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 24 October 2011

    @ Stefan – so what action does that stand against these regimes translate to? And what action are we then to take against the US and the EU for what are patent war crimes and crimes against humanity? Surely, if that loyalty and principle stand for something, you can define that clearly and fairly in relation to ALL nations?

  24. ardee ardee 24 October 2011

    Why do people refer to previous allegiances, or who helped who? What about right and wrong? With this type of thinking blaming the west for everything, I wonder who those multitudes in the streets in Tripoli were that were celebrating the demise of Gadaffi? Was it western orchestrated?

    Why do people give so much power to the west? That the west can manufacture everything such as to mobilise masses to demonstrate in the streets in Cairo, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria? Are we saying that the “poor ignorant” citizens of those countries cannot think for themselves.

    What has happened to decency and humanity? Or does previous allegiances supercede all of that?

    We must stop insulting the intelligence of other human beings. Hundreds of Libyans were killed in their quest to free themselves from Gadaffi. Do you think it is easy to take up arms and die during it?

    This article is so cynical to assert such a notion.

  25. The Creator The Creator 24 October 2011

    Interesting, but ultimately superficial. If we hadn’t voted for armed aggression against Libya in the first place — which was what the no-fly zone was all about — we would have had a better case to stand up against the war, although obviously we couldnb’t have prevented NATO from bombing the hell out of Libya.

    The fact is that if countries actually stand up for their national interests, they have a chance of getting somewhere. For instance, if South Africa had lobbied China or Russia to vote against the no-fly zone, then it would have been vetoed, Gaddaffi’s troops would have taken Benghazi, and the chance of aggression would have ended. Whether that would have been good for Libya or not is as yet up for grabs, but what we know is that the success of the NATO aggression is bad news for independent weak countries everywhere.

    But it is possible for radical movements to succeed in the chinks of the world machine, even though (as in Bahrain and Yemen) they all too often fail. In the long run, a movement like the ANC was bound to succeed in the struggle against apartheid. To the extent to which Western imperialism supports tyranny, yes, that’s a problem. But Western imperialism has its own problems which are not going to be easily solved. The automatic assumption by some that we should do whatever rich white people in Washington want us to do may in the end mean chaining oneself to a sinking ship.

  26. Lennon Lennon 24 October 2011

    @goolam.dawood: It would seem that there is little we can do to stand up to the the West. Their policy is simple: “Do as we say or we bomb you into submission.” China’s approach is to build things or simply pay bribes.

    Other than making life difficult in the UN Security Council, there’s little to be done since the West will conveniently just resort to hiding behind the (defunct) NATO. The only countries which could (maybe) do anything militarily are Russia and China, but that would lead to a new world war.

    According to a report on CapeTalk last night, Kgalema Mothlanthe reckons that the UN needs to be reformed and I agree. It’s not 1945 anymore. The world has changed drastically since then and the UN is nothing more than an impotent body to be manipulated by those with Veto powers. Makes me wonder if anyone has considered forming a more representative global body. Mind you, such an “anti-UN” could just invite more conflict.

    Either way, I think it’s time that Africa’s leaders and citizens step up to the plate and stop bowing down to foreign interests. If they want our resources, then it’s going to cost them. We’re the ones who have them, why should we not dictate the terms of sale?

  27. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 24 October 2011

    Actually Mandela is a friend to Mugabe as well – he openly praised his “Unity Government” policy of incorporating Nkomo, but seems to have been totally ignorant of the slaughter of Nkomo’s support base in Matabeleland in the 1980s, unless he simply chose to ignore this tribal revenge of the Shona.

  28. John Patson John Patson 24 October 2011

    “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.”
    This is far too simplistic.
    The Russians were not favoured in Iraq until after the first Gulf war, and even then, being “favoured” cost Russia more in financial terms than if it had been neutral.
    And if you expect the Libyans to hand over contracts to France, Britain and the US because they provided air support, you are dreaming.
    They will give contracts to whoever pays the most, including bribes, which given that bribe giving is banned in the US, France and Britain (and the ban is increasingly enforced) means South Africa and Russia, is way in front of the field.

  29. ardee ardee 25 October 2011

    @ Goolam

    Again I ask, did the west orchestrate the masses to come out into the street? Are the west so powerful to convince people to die? Make no mistake hundreds of Libyans died fighting Gadaffi’s troops. People do not die for fun.

  30. Freedom after War Freedom after War 25 October 2011

    @David Harris: Saying that India won its independence at the “height” of British power is ludicrous. India was one of many colonies who were granted freedom right after WWII mostly because Britain could no longer afford to stay. say rather that India gained its freedom at the cost of British power.
    Similarly, while the apartheid machine may have been strong in South Africa, how can you discount the importance of South African isolation and vulnerability against the ENTIRE rest of the world?

  31. SouthEaster SouthEaster 26 October 2011

    Gaddafi stole money from the Libyan people and doled it out to the ANC as bit of expedient pseudo-revolutionary window-dressing.

    The ANC grabbed the cash, ignoring the fact that it was sticky with Libyan blood.

    That’s all there was to it.

  32. Matthews Bantsijang Matthews Bantsijang 25 February 2012

    iNTERESTING: ‘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.’

  33. Matthews Bantsijang Matthews Bantsijang 25 February 2012

    “Mandela’s legacy exemplifies wisdom, strength and grace, and on the anniversary of his birth we salute the example of his life.”

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