South Africa for a long time boxed beyond its weight in the international relations arena. No longer. It’s become the diplomatic ingénue on the block, fumbling and stumbling from one diplomatic blunder to another.

After two decades of African National Congress ambiguity regarding SA’s role in the world, we are now outwitted, outfought and outclassed by feisty new contenders elsewhere in Africa. That’s partly because SA is still in thrall to picking sides on the basis of outworn pseudo-socialist loyalties, rather than acting clinically according to where our interests lie.

An example is this week’s US travel warning to its citizens over the possibility of terror attacks against foreigners at upscale malls in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The US advisory was followed in short order by similar ones from Britain and Australia to its citizens, which is not surprising, since these three countries co-operate closely in intelligence gathering.

Of course, no country wants to be the subject of such an advisory. It could hurt business and tourist arrivals – although such advisories have become so common that they seem to have a negligible effect on discouraging travel. However, the realpolitik is that every country understands that other nations have a duty to protect their citizens, wherever they might go in the world, and to do so as best they are able.

Indeed, this is the tenor of the mild response from State Security Minister David Mahlobo, who issued a statement noting that the US warning was merely a “standard precautionary recommendation”, that his ministry was doing its job in keeping SA safe from terror attacks, and giving the assurance that there was no imminent danger.

But this was followed within 24 hours by a fairly bellicose statement from the department of international relations and co-operation that upped the ante from quizzically raised eyebrow to a spittle-lipped grimace.

It read in part: “ … the SA government rejects attempts by foreign countries to influence‚ manipulate or control our country’s counter terrorism work. We reject attempts to generate perceptions of government ineptitude‚ alarmist impressions and public hysteria on the basis of a questionable single source.”

SA went on to dismiss the warnings as being unsubstantiated and based on dubious intelligence. To further indicate the SA government’s extreme displeasure, International Relations summonsed the ambassadors of the three offending countries, to present them with a formal diplomatic protest.

So why the dichotomy? It is not fanciful to speculate that Mahlobo’s pragmatic approach to working with the US on terror threats is grievously offensive to some hardline ideologues at International Relations.

In the US Embassy reaction to the International Relations statement, there is a sly dig that bolsters this view. It reads: “We have been‚ and continue to be‚ pleased and impressed with the high level of professionalism and transparent co-operation with the SA government … [but] … we cannot comment on the internal communications process within the South African government.” In other words, if the SA left hand doesn’t know or like what the right hand is doing, sort it out between your schizophrenic selves.

It is no secret that, anti-Western feelings run strong in the ANC. Deputy Defence Minister Kebby Maphatsoe last year accused Public Protector Thuli Madonsela of being an “enemy agent” for the US Central Intelligence Agency, trying to topple President Jacob Zuma, only to have to apologise when he could not produce a shred of evidence to substantiate his claims.

And earlier this year ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe one of the most powerful people in the party, articulated the view that the US was hell-bent on “regime change” in SA. As part of this strategy regular clandestine meetings were supposedly being held at its Pretoria embassy, which was also running a leadership-exchange programme that exposed young South Africans to insidious indoctrination and then “planted’ them back in SA institutions to undermine the ANC.

At the heart of such foolish statements by high-ranking ANC leaders is a kind of purblind political naïveté. Not because the Western nations don’t do everything they can, legitimate and illegitimate, to advance their own interests. It is ingenuous because the SA government apparently simultaneously holds the specious view that its new best friends – China, Russia, Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba among others – are somehow different.

All nations act in their selfish best interests. There is no altruism in international relations. The best one can hope for is that one’s own country’s best interests coincide with those of a sufficient number other nations, that one can progress in a kind of mutually beneficial but inadvertent diplomatic lock-step.

Terrorism is one of those issues on which one wants to have as many allies as possible on one’s side. Not only may it happen here sometime in the future, it already has, with the 1998 bombing of Planet Hollywood in Cape Town. Memories are short.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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