Foreign Policy Blogs

Thabo Mbeki and South Africa’s Regional Reputation

In some ways these ought to be salad days for Thabo Mbeki and South Africa. The country's continued growth rate has been in the black for something like one hundred straight months, a claim that few countries in the world can stake. South Africa, already arguably Africa's hottest tourist destination, is poised to show the world its best profile when it hosts the 2010 World Cup. Mbeki presides over a regional power. The country currently holds the rotation chair on the United Nations Security Council.

And yet despite all of these bounties — maybe because of the last of them — some western nations are beginning to question South Africa's credentials on one issue where the Rainbow Nation ought to be leading the way: Human Rights. Ingrid Uys at The Zimbabwean has the story on how some are beginning to perceive South Africa, and especially Thabo Mbeki, as “a blot on the region.”

The potential diminishment of South Africa's reputation comes not only as the result of its fecklessness with regard to Zimbabwe, though Mbeki's wobbliness is not helping matters. But in its tenure on the security Council South Africa has also blocked security Council resolutions on human rights abuses in Burma and attempted unsuccessfully to prevent the implementation of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

It is not, of course, Mbeki's responsibility or South Africa's duty to follow the demands of the West on some sort of party line vote. And South Africa has a tenuous line to walk as it looks outward toward equal acceptance by the west as a vital player within the region and the world while at the same time maintaining its status within Africa, which is often more resented than outside observers might understand. Nonetheless the path that South Africa appears to be forging early in its tenure on the security Council is disquieting, especially when considered in light of the lack of leadership coming from Pretoria with regard to Zimbabwe. One hopes that South Africa does not so prize national sovereignty (as is the case with the Chinese approach to foreign policy and the rhetorical anti-colonial chatterings of Mugabe) that it loses sight of the fact that power sometimes requires the willingness to coerce and compel as well as to support and encourage.