Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Is Pretoria shadow-boxing above its diplomatic weight?

Richard Calland's piece on the Mail & Guardian asks some pertinent questions about what South Africa's role is, and perhaps, should be in the current conflict. In many ways, South Africa does have a role to play. South Africa also needs to nail her colours to the mast and take a firm stand. There is a moral duty here, and South Africa can lead by example.

Pity the Nation. The title of veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk’s seminal 1990 book, subtitled Lebanon at War, is resonant again.

After a difficult period of reconstruction -- having finally attracted a steady flow of export business and tourism, and having rebuilt its infrastructure and social cohesion -- Lebanon once again looks into the abyss. New bridges bombed; the port attacked and the airport disabled; tourists fleeing and its people terrorised. Weep again for the nation.

The outrage committed by Israel to its north comes hard on the heels of the terror perpetrated against Palestinians in the preceding weeks. And as Israel escalates the conflict, families are being destroyed, from Gaza to Haifa to Beirut.

We know that the United States generally grants Israel a blank cheque in the Middle East, that Britain long ago ceded an independent policy position to Washington, and that continental Europe is unable to present a united front.

But what of South Africa? Has it become “just another country”, as Professor Jack Spence suggested it might in 1995 -- as the initial contest between the realists and the idealists raged in the Union Buildings -- scrabbling for its slice of influence? Is the government famed for punching above its weight in world diplomacy just shadow-boxing?

Pretoria claims that its baseline position is solidarity with the Palestinian people. Why, then, will it not join the majority of voices around the world who recognise Israel for what it is -- the primary perpetrator -- and who are resolved to apply maximum pressure? Why does it continue to resist the calls made by Palestinian activists for boycotts and sanctions? Surely, South Africa should be able to offer a voice that speaks clearly and calmly for the majority analysis of the Palestinian question.

Instead, there is apparent obfuscation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It is the Congress of South African Trade Unions that offers the clearer public assimilation of the facts. Its joint July 10 statement with the South African Council of Churches was an exemplary exposition of the asymmetry of the conflict and of the reality of Israeli terror in Gaza.

Is it too harsh to ask if Pretoria has lost its voice? Or is it rather a case of an inflated sense of its own importance that prompts muddled thinking?

Certainly, the government has worked hard in recent years to open new channels of engagement with all sides of the Palestinian conflict, including hosting various delegations from Israel.

But if this has allowed Pretoria to think that it can play the role of mediator, as some have suggested, then it is living in fantasy land. The Israeli government would sooner relocate to Mars than permit a “black” government with a history of solidarity with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) to play such a role, let alone one whose political solution -- one state, majority rule -- is so fundamentally at odds with the Zionist ethos.

Perhaps it is the government’s foreign policy groupies rather than its professional diplomats that encourage such distended thinking. I heard one on the radio the other day suggesting that South Africa has “a unique role to play” in the North Korean case.

In reality, South Africa’s policy-making is premised on two main considerations. First, to offer solidarity to the Palestinian cause based on what the PLO regards as useful. “They lead and set the agenda, and we follow,” as one senior government official close to the Presidency put it to me, balanced by recognition of the inherent problem with this approach: the PLO no longer represents a homogeneous expression of the Palestinian viewpoint.

Second, South Africa aims to be a “niche player”, based on a sound strategic understanding of what is going on, aided by its own experience and a concomitant moral weight.

Thanks to this approach, “our principals can now talk to everyone, and we do”.

Excellent. But to what effect? Where is the evidence of progress, of recalibrating global understanding of a problem that one way or another affects us all?

Is it the best use of South Africa’s “moral weight”? With the South African struggle, the core question was always whether the tide of history had turned against apartheid. The global anti-apartheid movement was crucial to proving that it had, as were economic sanctions.

The realpolitik approach that Pretoria apparently now favours in the case of Israel, was, ironically, precisely the attitude that in exile the African National Congress so fervently opposed. Would South Africa not be better to deploy another strand of its potent experience, namely, its capacity for mobilisation, to help channel the tide of history in favour of the Palestinians?

As Israel prosecutes the Sharon doctrine of unilateralism, the Palestinian cause faces its greatest crisis. The advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice will be ignored by Israel and its apartheid wall will soon mark a border.

Palestine will get its “state”, but on Israel’s terms. Sustaining the global movement for Palestinian justice will be much harder.

As Israel imposes its military might on the region, under cover of a spurious Syrian-Iranian threat, now is the time for mobilisation. South Africa should play its part in isolating Israel. The time for waging peace has sadly passed.

Source: Mail & Guardian

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