Nelson Mandela, right, and Desmond Tutu, left, raise clasped hands in celebration at the African National Congress election victory, in April 1994.  Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Nelson Mandela, right, and Desmond Tutu, left, raise clasped hands in celebration at the African National Congress election victory, in April 1994. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

A SIGNIFICANT aspect of the government’s foreign policy is the shift since 1994 from idealism to a mixture of realism and pretentious morality. This volte-face is particularly noteworthy in view of the fact that the protection and promotion of human rights as a universal ideal was the main driving force behind the demise of the apartheid system and the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) democratic victory.

It was logical that the protection and promotion of human rights should have become one of the main pillars of the ANC’s foreign policy. Then-president Nelson Mandela said at the time that "human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs". During his presidency, even in the face of severe criticism, he never wavered from this principled stance on human rights.

Under Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, however, political realism driven by a sectarian ideology became South Africa’s new foreign policy lodestar. Mandela’s human rights commitment officially remained part of the country’s foreign policy but only in the form of a degenerated, watered-down, pretentious morality to assuage international public opinion and promote the national image. In practice, Mbeki’s brand of realism rendered moral considerations subsidiary to ideological predilections and objectives. Under President Jacob Zuma, the Mbeki practice was continued, albeit in a less sophisticated way.

Mandela’s moral legacy took a back seat, allowing South Africa’s hard-won moral authority and special international credibility and status as a democratic role model to decline. In spite of official denials and hollow aspirational statements, the empirical evidence of the government’s digression towards opportunistic realism is overwhelming.

At the launch of her new political movement, struggle stalwart Mamphela Ramphele pointed out that the "most serious flaw in our foreign policy stances is our failure to consistently align our policies with the human rights principles of our constitution". Many others share her view. Christine Petrè of the University of Pretoria Human Rights Centre writes that South Africa’s "voting record (at the United Nations Security Council) failed to uphold and endorse human rights and contradicted its anti-apartheid legacy by voting in favour of rogue regimes".

Along similar lines, The Economist comments that Zuma seems happy to hobnob with dictators, while on his many trips abroad he has never brought up human rights in public. At China’s behest, the government refused a visa to the Dalai Lama, remained silent about the systematic repression of Tibetans and the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. And so on.

In response to mounting criticism against its foreign policy choices, the government routinely resorted to denialism about its human rights commitment, trying to play it both ways. A primary example of this is the statement to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (HRC) in Geneva on February 25, in which Ebrahim Ebrahim, a deputy minister in the Department of International Relations and Co-operation boldly declares: "From the inception of democracy in SA, human rights have been central to our foreign policy…. SA’s foreign policy regards human rights as inherent to all human beings."

No doubt, this normative statement reflects South Africa’s original intentions regarding a morally based foreign policy. Making this statement to the HRC, Ebrahim, no doubt unwittingly, recalls memories of the medieval "Machiavellian" diplomat, as being an "honest man sent abroad to lie for the good of his country" (relating to a bygone era when career diplomats manipulated international politics according to their own whims and secret agendas).

Like a latter day Grigory Potemkin, Ebrahim conjures up a false facade at the HRC, ignoring the frequent sensational headline stories of the past few months about barbarous incidents of rape and murder of women and children in South Africa and the killing of striking mine workers by an undisciplined police force. Ebrahim sings the government’s praises for championing antiracism, an end to gender-based violence and the difficulties faced by women and children and people with disabilities. It is true that a plethora of new approaches, structures and procedures have been introduced, but, unfortunately, to very little avail mainly because of incompetent leadership and shoddy implementation.

On the subject of human rights in South Africa’s foreign policy, Ebrahim is equally evasive, dwelling only on the plight of the Palestinian people, the Tamil question in Sri Lanka and the violence in Syria — in other words, "soft" targets. The "but not" phenomenon, as well as a good dose of hypocrisy and double standards, stand out like a sore thumb in his report, being conspicuously silent about more serious and continuous human rights abuses in places such as Africa, Cuba, North Korea and China.

And, with amazing chutzpah, he goes on to say: "It is critical that the HRC is seen as an independent mechanism for the entrenchment of human rights globally … the HRC must not be compromised". Surely he must be aware that South Africa’s practice on human rights deviates from these criteria. At the same time, it also calls into in question the norms, standards and evenhandedness of the HRC.

It is not argued here that a form of "rational realism" prescribed by South Africa’s intrinsic national interests should not be part of its operational foreign policy. As Hans Morgenthau, the high priest of political realism, argued, the political consequences of seemingly moral action must always be foremost in the mind of the foreign-policy decision maker. Mbeki’s realism as manifested in his "Africa agenda" and "south-south" policy focus was no doubt strategically correct and in the national interest. The same can be said about South Africa’s new membership of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Although Mandela was greatly respected for the non-negotiable moral content of his foreign policy, he allowed himself to be isolated by playing the role of a lone moral crusader. Mbeki sought to avoid this problem, but erred to the opposite extreme by being totally blind to gross human rights abuses in the countries in his foreign-policy inner circle. The same can be said about Zuma’s foreign policy.

It is obvious that South Africa’s foreign policy independence and commitment to human rights will be severely tested by its Brics membership. The operational foreign-policy paradigms of the two most powerful members of Brics are solidly based on the traditional Westphalian concept about the inviolability of the sovereignty of the nation state. This is the very same principle the apartheid government sought to hide behind to prevent external interference because of its human rights violations, to no avail as apartheid was defined as a crime against humanity and South Africa became the "skunk of the world". It is a moot question whether South Africa’s policy makers will reintroduce the noninterference principle in South Africa’s foreign policy at the behest of its Brics partners and abdicate its international moral authority established by Mandela.

No easy choices lie ahead if South Africa wants to continue to grow in status and prestige as an international role player. What seems to be called for is a foreign policy based on an optimal mixture of realism and idealism, underpinned by principled and strategically sound diplomacy and good leadership.

Olivier is a former South African ambassador and is an extraordinary professor in the department of political sciences at the University of Pretoria.