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?

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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."

"There must be a kernel of morality also to international behavior," Mandela said. "Of course, nations must place their own interests high on the list of considerations informing their international relations. But the amorality which decrees that might is right can not be the basis on which the world conducts itself in the next century."

One can appreciate Mandela's bitterness towards the West, which saw fit to carry on with apartheid South Africa while preaching a gospel of human rights. But it was strange to condemn the philosophy of "might is right" while praising a crackpot who, at the time, had ruled his country with an iron fist for three decades and was one of the leading state-sponsors of terrorism. The ANC's positions on a number of international issues (not the least of which was its bizarre response to the killing of Osama bin Laden) a part of a broader worrying trend in its foreign policy, from helping to prop up Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe to selling weapons to the regimes in Syria and Venezuela.

South Africa's stubbornness on Libya is unusual on two levels. For one, it changed its position on the military intervention. From its perch as a non-voting member of the UN Security Council, South Africa backed resolution 1973, which authorized the NATO operation. Yet in June, Zuma blasted the mission, saying, "The resolution is being abused for regime change, political assassinations and foreign military occupation." Zuma visited Qaddafi twice since fighting began in an attempt to broker a ceasefire, both times emerging with proposed peace deals that were so slanted in Qaddafi's favor that it's hard to imagine he truly believed the offers would ever be accepted. When these efforts failed to win support from the rebels, Zuma blasted NATO, accusing it of undermining his attempts at reconciliation.

In July, Zuma's spokesperson said that the South African president was "disappointed" with the International Criminal Court's indictment of Qaddafi. Last month, South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe took the critique further, saying that the ICC should investigate human rights violations committed not by Qaddafi and his men, but NATO.

South Africa's turnaround on Libya is surprising given the ANC's own history. While it was still a banned opposition movement, the group sought international sanctions against the apartheid government as it waged its own armed struggle to bring that regime down. But, in its 17 years ruling South Africa with a massive parliamentary majority, the ANC has never seriously criticized Qaddafi. A charitable explanation for the ANC's conciliatory behavior towards the Libyan dictator might be that it sees a global, transferrable template in South Africa's transition to democracy, which involved a years-long process of negotiations with the apartheid-era National Party. Stubborn and authoritarian as the "Nats" were, moderates did exist among the Afrikaner elite, particularly former President and Nobel Prize winner F.W. de Klerk. In other words, voluntary, within-system reform was possible. But such a moderate faction never existed in the Libyan regime. Though many considered Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the leader's son and possible heir, such a moderating force, few held on to that notion after he warned, in February, that "rivers of blood will flow through all the cities of Libya."

In his opposition to Western intervention against Qaddafi, Zuma seems to be carrying on the legacy of his nemesis and predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who envisioned himself as the leader of an "African Renaissance" and a continental peacemaker. A recent document entitled "Libya, Africa, and the New World Order: An Open Letter to the Peoples of Africa and the World from Concerned Africans," signed by some 200 people, including Mbeki, explains their opposition to NATO's intervention in Libya. "Those who have brought a deadly rain of bombs to Libya today should not delude themselves to believe that the apparent silence of the millions of Africans means that Africa approves of the campaign of death, destruction and domination which that rain represents," the letter reads. "We are confident that tomorrow we will emerge victorious, regardless of the death-seeking power of the most powerful armies in the world."

The ANC's deference to Qaddafi seems myopic. Its support for the Libyan strongman adds evidence to columnist Michael Gerson's 2008 suggestion that South Africa, in a betrayal of the massive international goodwill it earned, has indeed become a "rogue democracy."