The New South Africa's New Foreign Policy Mandela's Government Has Sometimes Stumbled Diplomatically, but Its Engagement with Regional Economic Partners Has Been Sure-Footed

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In January, South Africa's decision to market tank-firing systems to Syria raised a storm of protest from a domestic audience concerned with Damascus's human rights record and from international observers concerned about the already volatile Middle East peace process. The prospective sale also raised interesting questions about Pretoria's stated intention of pursuing an "independent" foreign policy.

The widely unexpected success of South Africa's political transition has been its greatest foreign policy trump card. In the vanguard is the country's own international superstar, President Nelson Mandela, a man revered for his record of conciliatory politics and received with rapturous welcome wherever he goes. The president's stature has also given South Africa new found authority in the area of human rights - an unusual position for some white diplomats more accustomed to backpedaling and defending apartheid in bygone years. But the Syrian deal and other publicized missteps with Iran and Libya have undermined this moral high ground and highlighted problems.

A misstep with Nigeria In another example, Pretoria has been criticized for its handling of the Nigerian crisis. In November 1995, following the execution of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues, Mr. Mandela sharply criticized Nigeria's military government and its lack of reform. That was seen to have set back South African-Nigerian relations in the face of a lack of international support for Mandela's stance. Similarly, the handling of the inevitable shift of relations from Taiwan to China left much to be desired - one month promising Taiwan it would be "immoral" to remove ties, and the next doing just that. In spite of these difficulties, there have been some impressive foreign policy successes for the new South African regime, particularly in arms control. As the only unilaterally disarmed nuclear power, South Africa can punch well beyond its weight in this area. One successful example occurred at the 1995 nonproliferation review and extension conference, where South Africa engineered politically palatable, conditional, but indefinite terms of extension. But there could be much more to come. Mandela's oft-stated foreign policy priority is southern Africa. Clearly, the development and security of the 12 members, including South Africa, that comprise the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) are closely linked. What happens to one, given the historical, transport, and economic ties, will inevitably affect the others. This is most graphically illustrated through the seemingly unstoppable flood of economic refugees from all over the region to the bright lights and hopes of South Africa's cities. …