NOT LONG AFTER I MOVED [O South Africa, in mid-2009, I was invited to the government's relaunch of its national "brand." Over hors d'oeuvres and cocktails in a pavilion overlooking the Cape Town waterfront, Paul Bannister, the tanned, pink-shirted CEO of a governmental marketing arm called Brand South Africa, told a group of journalists that it was time to move past Nelson Mandela and the Rainbow Nation thing and toward a new, more muscular national identity.
How to characterize this new identity, though, posed a trickier problem. Bannister offered us a series of ad agency generated concepts, each one vaguer and more Madison Avenue than the last: "South Africa: alive with possibility." "A country that inspires others in different ways." "The Apple of nations: Think different!"
I couldn't help thinking of the brand relaunch again this past fall, when the South African government refused to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to attend Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu's birthday party in Cape Town. Even Tutu was mystified. If there's any country that ought to welcome the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader with open arms, it should be South Africa, so recently emerged from its own world-famous struggle against a repressive regime. The refusal, Tutu complained, reminded him of "the way authorities dealt with applications by black South Africans for travel documents under apartheid."
In truth, South Africa's foreign policy has been perplexing--and unsettling--for years. In 2007, South Africa voted against a United Nations resolution calling on Myanmar's military junta to stop its human rights abuses. A year later, it helped thwart a U.N. attempt to impose sanctions on ruinous Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, even though--as the American U.N. ambassador angrily pointed out--similar sanctions more than 20 years earlier had helped deliver South Africa from apartheid. Often, South Africa's diplomats have appeared confused, mobilizing against rogue regimes only to back quickly away. Last March, for example, after first supporting the U.N. resolution mandating the no-fly zone to support Libyan rebels fighting Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, South Africa turned around to slam the resulting NATO bombing campaign, balked at releasing $1.5 billion in assets to the rebels, and griped about the unceremonious way Qaddafi was chased out of Tripoli. President Jacob Zuma himself flew to Tripoli in May and expressed sympathy for Qaddafi, noting the bombings had "claimed the lives of his son and grandchildren."
What's going on here? Has South Africa forgotten its own inspirational narrative in refusing to advance the cause of human rights internationally? For many, the story of South Africa's sorry footprint on the world is very much the tale of a rising economy taking precedence over gauzy ideals. Few stories about the Dalai Lama flap (the second time in two years South Africa refused to grant him a visa) failed to note that it coincided with the South African deputy president's trip to Beijing to announce a $2.5 billion investment deal with China. Qaddafi, too, lavished South Africa with money; he owned the gold-tinted, luxury Michelangelo Hotel soaring over Johannesburg's financial district. And neighboring Zimbabwe, regardless of its perilous state under Mugabe, is a hot target for South African investment. South Africa seems determined these days to earn its new identity as a regional superpower--the "S" recently invited to join the booming BRIC economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China.
It didn't start out this way. In the years following its democratic transition, South Africa defaulted to a foreign policy dictated by the principles of its liberation struggle. A 1994 foreign-policy document written by the African National Congress (ANC), the Mandela-headed movement that became the ruling party that year, put it simply: The "struggle to end apartheid was a global one," and South Africa should honor its history by embarking on a "worldwide Human Rights campaign. …