South Africa Stands With Qaddafi

Even after most of the world participated in the Libyan intervention or at least accepted it, why does the land of Nelson Mandela still appear to support Brother Leader?

kirchick sep6 p.jpg

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi visits South Africa in June 1999 as President Nelson Mandela's last official state guest / Reuters

As the six-month war to end the 42-year regime of Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi winds to a close, the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) needs all the help it can get. The TNC has already earned recognition as the legitimate government of Libya from nearly 80 countries, as well as the Arab League, where it has formally taken a seat. The European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and individual countries such as the U.S. have begun the arduous process of unfreezing just $1.5 billion out of the $160 billion worth of Libyan assets to assist the TNC in the urgent task of stabilizing and rebuilding the country.

Despite this global cooperation, the government of South Africa has resisted the multilateral efforts against Qaddafi, a longtime ally, at times intervening on his behalf. As the economic powerhouse of the continent, South Africa plays an influential leadership role in the African Union, which still refuses to recognize the TNC. An emergency AU summit in Ethiopia last week, presided over by South African President Jacob Zuma, reiterated its call for an "inclusive transitional government," that is, one which would include figures loyal to Qaddafi -- who continues to issue statements referring to his enemies as "rats" and "infidels" -- and perhaps members of the now-fallen regime.

South Africa has also opposed releasing the $1.5 billion in frozen funds. It has agreed only to the disbursement of $500 million, directed not to the TNC but international aid organizations dispensing humanitarian relief. Last Thursday, the South African government declined to participate in the international conference set to plan for post-Qaddafi Libya. Even Russia and China, those perennial spoilers of international consensus, and which both called for a ceasefire in Libya as early as March, sent representatives.

In its lingering affection for Qaddafi, South Africa is not much different from many other sub-Saharan African states, whom Qaddafi showered with money for decades, and some of whose post-colonial revolutionary groups he helped fund. If African leaders did not respond positively to his calls for a "United States of Africa" some 10 years ago, they were at least willing to accept his financial largesse. But the case of South Africa is uniquely disappointing, given its pretensions to being the leading expositor of democracy on the continent.

Qaddafi's connections to the African National Congress, South Africa's long-dominant ruling party, go back decades, when he supported its struggle against apartheid. No less a figure than Nelson Mandela has been the Libyan dictator's most respectable booster. In 1990, fresh out of prison, Mandela paid one of his first visits to Libya, where he was the inaugural recipient of the oddly named "Al-Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights." In 1997, Mandela paid Qaddafi back in kind, awarding him South Africa's prestigious Order of Good Hope. "Those who feel we should have no relations with Qaddafi have no morals," Mandela declared. "Those who feel irritated by our friendship with President Qaddafi can go jump in the pool."

The roots of the ANC's comradeship with Qaddafi are not just ideological, but pecuniary as well. When Mandela's ex-wife Winnie was on trial for the assault and kidnapping of suspected South African government informants (one of whom was killed by her bodyguards), Qaddafi helped pay for her legal defense. The final report of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission later found Winnie "politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights." Qaddafi is also rumored to have given $2 million to Zuma to pay legal fees incurred during his 2006 rape trial.

In 1999, just before stepping down as South Africa's first democratically elected president, Mandela invited Qaddafi to Cape Town. There, the South African spoke of "a world where the strong may seek to impose upon the more vulnerable; and where particular nations or groups of nations may still seek to decide the fate of the planet -- in such a world respect for multilateralism, moderation of public discourse and a patient search for compromise become even more imperative to save the world from debilitating conflict and enduring inequality." Mandela repeatedly referred to the Libyan dictator as "My Brother Leader."

Presented by

James Kirchick, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a foreign correspondent based in Berlin. He is a columnist for the New York Daily News, Ha'aretz, and Tablet.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

Just In