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Pretoria's blind eye

South Africa's foreign policy toward Zimbabwe and Iran are black marks on the country's democratic image.

March 23, 2007

IF SOUTH AFRICA'S foreign policy continues on its present course, a nation that has been a relative beacon of African development and democracy since overthrowing apartheid in 1994 runs the risk of becoming an international pariah.

Pressure has been mounting on South African President Thabo Mbeki to curb the excesses of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, whose human rights abuses and catastrophic economic policies across South Africa's northern border threaten to turn his country into a failed state. Mugabe's thuggish handling of a political rally last week, which left Zimbabwe's main opposition leader hospitalized after a severe beating, prompted international condemnation -- but not a word from Mbeki. South Africa is Zimbabwe's largest trading partner, and Mbeki wields more influence over Mugabe than any other world leader.

But if Pretoria's silence on Zimbabwe is lamentable, its performance this week at the U.N. Security Council has been deplorable. After the five veto-wielding members of the council, plus Germany, finally hammered out a list of limited sanctions to punish Iran for its nuclear intransigence, South Africa introduced amendments seeking to gut nearly the entire package. Though South Africa is a nonpermanent member of the council with no veto, its interference eliminates the opportunity to send a unanimous message to Tehran and provides cover for China, which is reluctant to approve the sanctions but doesn't want to stand out as their only opponent.

None of this would be surprising if it came from a rogue state like Venezuela. Yet Mbeki has been a leader in fighting poverty and working for good governance throughout Africa. South Africa is widely recognized as a leader in nuclear nonproliferation, being the only country in the history of the world to possess a nuclear arsenal and to voluntarily dismantle it. So how to explain the disgraceful stands on Zimbabwe and Iran?

The answer probably comes down to regional and racial politics. Mugabe became a hero to black nationalists, and a villain to whites, when he seized farms from white owners in 2000 and passed the land to his black supporters. The move was a disaster economically but popular among South Africa's majority black population, which is smarting over racial inequities in land ownership left over from the apartheid era. Pressuring Mugabe might inflame Mbeki's domestic constituents. On Iran, meanwhile, South Africa has sophisticated nuclear power expertise that it's eager to export. Apparently, this possible market is more important to Mbeki than thwarting the arsenal ambitions of Tehran's fanatical regime.

Mbeki's term expires in 2009. On the whole, his tenure has been good for South Africa, which is enjoying steady economic growth and a strengthening of democratic institutions. But his foreign policies are turning a positive legacy sour and sowing instability in the world.

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