Foreign Policy Blogs

Remembering Mandela and his Foreign Policy


President Bill Clinton with Nelson Mandela at the Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA, July 4 1993. From the “Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States”

When I heard the news that Nelson Mandela, our beloved Madiba, was gone, I had flashbacks to the first time I laid eyes on my South African wife. I didn’t know much about South Africa at the time, and for some reason or another I kept calling her “Mandela” over the course of the entire evening. Thinking back, why she agreed to a date is beyond me. However, the point I am trying to make is even as a very young international relations student, an American who had never left the borders of the United States, I knew about Mandela and what he stood for.

Today, our beloved Madiba is gone. Much is being said about his values and principles that made him a global icon. And it was Nelson Mandela’s international stature and profile in the early and mid-1990s which often became South Africa’s image, and in some cases, its foreign policy.

When Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, he and South Africa as a nation became a symbol for reconciliation and bringing peace for having overcome apartheid. Speaking at Harvard University after receiving his honorary doctorate in 1998, Mandela stated that Harvard embodies the spirit of universality which marks a great university. “To join the ranks of its alumni is to be reminded of the oneness of our global world… Hence our universal obligation towards the building of a world in which there shall be greater equality amongst nations and amongst citizens of nations,” Mandela reiterated.

He adopted this principle of universality under similar lines in South Africa’s foreign policy. It was a view that encompassed universal liberal ideals and human rights and became evident with South Africa assisting in mediating incidents in Asia and Europe. This included Northern Ireland and East Timor with Mandela assisting the latter by meeting with imprisoned East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao in July 1997 and calling for his release.

Mandela used diplomacy as his tool to help solve other countries conflicts and indeed he did use his saint like persona in places like Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo), helping to end the civil war in 1997. At the time, he was the first head of state to make a public appearance with rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila. Mandela also assisted in issues such as the Lockerbie bombing that occurred in 1988 but whose implications lasted much longer. Mandela was highly praised for his help in persuading Libya to hand over two suspects wanted in connection with the Lockerbie airplane disaster, where two Libyan intelligence agents bombed Pan Am flight 103. Even after his presidential term ended, he was still busy pursuing peace in nations like Burundi.

Involvement in places like Burundi, Libya and Zaire, amongst others, showed President Mandela’s clear foreign policy orientation and the roles her and his colleagues envisaged for South Africa. Mandela and Pretoria in general felt a great responsibility and loyalty towards Africa with a particular focus on the Southern African region. One can argue that the greatest feature and strength of the South Africa’s foreign policy since 1994 has been its identification and engagement with the rest of continent and with issues important to the Africa’s leaders and its citizens. A 1994 article by Mandela entitled “The Future of South Africa” further displays South Africa’s leaning towards Africa:

“South Africa cannot escape its African destiny. If we do not devote our energies to this continent, we too  could fall victim to the forces that have brought ruin to its various parts. […]Southern Africa commands a special priority in our foreign policy. We are inextricably part of southern Africa and our destiny is linked to that of a region, which is much more than a mere geographical concept.”

However, not everyone was happy with Mandela’s stances on certain issues, especially when he took the moral high road in dealing with Nigeria in 1995. He recalled the South African High Commissioner from Nigeria, urged the United Kingdom and the United States to impose oil sanctions, requested United Nations action and called for a special Southern Africa Development Community meeting to discuss the issue. Unfortunately for Sara Wiwo and the other political activists, Mandela’s actions proved to be fruitless, and his fellow Africans criticized him for not learning the unwritten continental code that African states shouldn’t turn against each other.

Other questions were raised about South Africa’s support of universal human rights, especially from the West. Many Western leaders due to South Africa’s positive relations frowned upon Mandela with certain individuals and countries those were human rights abusers but formerly supported the ANC while they were in exile. This included Fidel Castro of Cuba, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and Yasser Arafat of Palestine.

There were also strong criticisms internally that South African foreign policy had descended into an inexcusable “ad hocery” of case by case decision making without any discernible framework, and that South Africa’s foreign policy ‘was too driven by the whims’ of President Mandela.

Mandela was further criticized towards the end of his presidential terms which saw a shift away from traditional diplomacy to a country’s foreign policy that was to be more about foreign economic policy. Only two weeks after Thabo Mbeki became the President of the ANC (and later President of the country), Mandela made the announcement that South Africa would normalize relations with mainland China, even though Taiwan was South Africa’s long time ally and significant foreign investor. Today, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Mandela was also “one of the founders of China-South Africa relations, and an active champion of bilateral friendship and cooperation.”

Nevertheless, Mandela and then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki spent most of their time out of the country establishing and furthering diplomatic relations. The President and Deputy Presidents combined paid 46 foreign visits in the period of 18 months from January 1996 to June 1997 and another 40 in the period of 13 months from July 1997 to July 1998. This can be seen as one of Mandela’s greatest foreign policy achievements; helping transform a pre-1994 South Africa with its bilateral relations with approximately 20 to 30 countries to bilateral diplomatic relations with well over 100 countries in the post-1994 environment.

Overall, South African foreign policy during Mandela’s term could be seen as ‘idealism’ or the importance of moral values and universalism. This was evident by his attempt to peaceful settlement in Nigeria.

In the years to come, Mandela will be remembered for his triumphant fight against apartheid, a symbol of freedom. However, he will also be remembered as a champion of reconciliation and we often saw that in his foreign policy.

Rest in peace Tata Madiba. You will never be forgotten.




Scott Firsing

Dr. Scott Firsing, an American residing in South Africa, is an expert on US-Africa relations. He is the Director of the North American International School (NAIS) in Pretoria, an Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University, South Africa, an Executive at the Aerospace Leadership Academy and CEO of LINK Advisory, a consultancy helping American businesses enter Africa. Also a founder of the African NGO Young People in International Affairs, Scott is the former Head of International Studies at Monash, a former employee of the United Nations, Department for Disarmament Affairs, and a former fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).