Picture: THE TIMES
Obsession with anachronistic ideology does not add one iota in value to our security and welfare, says the writer. Picture: THE TIMES

FOLLOWING the example of human rights abusers such as China and Russia, SA regards international protection of human rights as a pretext for interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states and part of a "western conspiracy". Voting against such measures in the United Nations (UN) has become a consistent pattern of its foreign policy.

This is exactly the opposite of what was expected from a country that owes much of its liberty to the struggle for human rights. What makes the volte-face even more remarkable, if not cynical, is that the African National Congress (ANC) uses the very same arguments as the apartheid government regarding the applicability of the Westphalian noninterference principle (Article 2 par 7) of the UN Charter.

After the success of the ANC’s universal human rights campaign against apartheid, it was logical to expect that it would make international morality the lodestar of its future foreign policy.

That was precisely what former president Nelson Mandela did. He proclaimed: "SA’s future foreign relations will be based on our belief that human rights should be the core concern of foreign relations … we are ready to play a role in fostering peace and prosperity in the world we share with the community of nations."

Lamentably, his successors have strayed badly, accounting for the biggest irony of SA’s current foreign policy.

Mandela’s moral leadership was simply brushed aside.

Obsessed with myopic, opportunistic ideology, the protection of human rights has for all practical purposes been relegated to the bottom end of the government’s foreign policy agenda.

How this posture serves our national interests is never properly debated or explained to South Africans. Abusers of human rights — countries of the ilk of Syria, China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba and Russia — are these days among our best friends. A recent article in The Economist described our foreign policy as "clueless and immoral", which risked turning SA into a "laughing stock".

Comments such as this cast shame not only on the government, but on SA as a whole. As a proud nation, we deserve and expect much better.

After apartheid’s demise, SA had a unique opportunity to establish itself as a leading nation in the world. This opportunity was wasted and lost under Mandela’s successors. SA has lost influence and prestige in Africa and the rest of the world and is no longer being taken seriously as an independent international role player.

Our diplomacy, run by a bloated and mostly inept diplomatic service, has failed hopelessly to muster the international support so necessary to add to the welfare and prosperity of the nation.

Ineptitude is being demonstrated most glaringly by the government ceding SA’s foreign policy independence to its Brics partners, China and Russia in particular. The country’s alignment in world politics and economics and how it votes at the UN and other international forums resembles the behaviour of a captive client state.

Epitomising the country’s total loss of a moral compass was the refusal, at China’s behest, of a visitor’s visa to Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. Yet Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, a man accused of overseeing genocide and mass rape in Darfur, got red-carpet treatment during a visit here and was whisked safely away to escape arrest in terms of a court order.

This bizarre picture falls nicely into place when one looks at the recent foreign policy memorandum of the ANC.

Some of the pearls of wisdom in this document include:

• The destruction of the Berlin Wall was a triumph of Western imperialism, not the freeing of captive nations;

• The Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests were an American-backed counter-revolution;

• The conflict in eastern Ukraine is directed from Washington;

• The sole intention of US policies in Africa and the Middle East is to topple democratic governments; and

• To liberate humanity from the bondage of imperialism, SA should be instrumental in closing American bases in Africa.

The fingerprints of the South African Communist Party are all over this document. Our foreign policy making has been hijacked by a small, misguided Marxist clique in the Union Buildings. Hostility towards the West, their pet aversion, sticks out like a sore thumb.

This is precisely what China and Russia expect from Pretoria, which complies with gusto, making fools of its officials and the country. But this is exactly what Lenin’s "useful idiots" are supposed to do!

What it boils down to is that our foreign policy is being directed and dominated by factional ideological interests rather than substantive national interests serving the welfare and security of all citizens. This policy renders the government allergic to engaging western industrialised countries on amicable terms in spite of their historical, present and potential contribution to our welfare and security.

Their co-operation is simply taken for granted, while "special relationships" are formed with China and Russia. Obviously, as many countries have shown, antiwestern policies are not a requirement to do business with China or Russia. But the government thinks so.

Undoubtedly, obsession with ideology has distorted the government’s perception of national interests to a dangerous level. New thinking is called for. A better, more rational balance between principles with national interests is needed as a first step.

To sail between this Scylla and Charybdis, wisdom and leadership are needed. Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that a near-bankrupt SA runs the second-biggest diplomatic apparatus in the world, these qualities are absent.

The question South Africans should be asking of their government is: where is the beef?

Obsession with anachronistic ideology does not add one iota in value to our security and welfare. Instead, the country slips deeper into dilapidation and decay, losing international prestige. Our finances are already on the brink of junk status, and our ratings are declining across the board.

A very sorry tale indeed.

There is still a lot of goodwill towards SA in the world, from which it could benefit. As a first step, better democratic control over our foreign policy should be introduced. Civil society in the country should become more involved to wrest the monopoly from the small clique of ideologues in the Union Buildings.

Parliament, business, academia and the media should do far more to promote a more effective, representative and responsible foreign policy.

• Prof Olivier, a former South African ambassador, is with the University of Pretoria’s department of political sciences