Mbeki Guided SA Foreign Policy with Strategic Intelligence and Mental Agility

Cape Times (South Africa), October 23, 2008 | Go to article overview

Mbeki Guided SA Foreign Policy with Strategic Intelligence and Mental Agility


BYLINE: Garth le Pere

Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, once famously opined that "the president makes foreign policy". In South Africa's two presidential eras, this was certainly the case: the country was fortunate to have two architects who crafted an international reputation and profile for the country that belies its size, social pathologies and geographic location.

Crucially, Nelson Mandela presided with aplomb and great moral authority in reintegrating South Africa into the sinews and circuits of international relations from which it had been relatively isolated since 1948.

Building on the foundation stones of the Mandela era, Thabo Mbeki was able to devise a pragmatic calculus, anchored in multilateralism, that balanced the ANC's idealist leanings against the realist imperatives of a globalised world. Where the country initially wrestled rather ambivalently with the dialectic of identity, Mbeki firmly located South Africa's interests in Africa and the global South, while at the same time promoting a strategic engagement with developed countries, especially the European Union and the United States.

Of course, Mbeki's multiple successes as an African statesman will always come up against two issues that will indelibly blot his legacy copybook: his agnosticism on HIV/Aids and his controversial handling of Zimbabwe. But these issues should not mask the strategic intelligence and mental agility he brought to navigating the South African ship of state through the turbulent waters of the post-Cold War era.

Under Mbeki's stewardship, South Africa has emerged as a respected player on the African and broader international stage. What makes this all the more remarkable is that, with judicious use of moral capital, great strides in foreign policy have been registered in a mere 14 years.

Starting with the continent, as early as 1993, Mandela said that "South Africa cannot escape its African destiny". Hence, contributing to peace and stability in Africa and resolving some of its more intractable conflicts have been key concerns. Mbeki has played a critical role in peace negotiations and conflict resolution initiatives in Burundi, the Comoros, Cote d'Ivoire, the DRC, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Rwanda, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

There are more than 4 000 South African soldiers who represent the country's active participation in African peace missions. In areas of post-conflict reconstruction, technical assistance has been provided for elections and building civil administration and institutional capacity. We must also remember Mbeki's contribution to shaping the new architecture of the African Union and in formulating the normative and substantive elements of Nepad.

In the immediate region, Mbeki helped to advance the regional integration agenda in support of peace and development, and the country was integrally involved in shaping the parameters for launching a free trade area earlier this year.

South Africa's standing in Africa, however, has been compromised somewhat by the perceived "predatory" and reckless behaviour of some of its corporate actors. The tragic outbreak of xenophobic mayhem and violence in May this year has further dented the country's image and stature on the continent. …

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