JOHANNESBURG — Revelations that South Africa was planning to sell military equipment to Syria have plunged relations with the United States to a new low and cast doubt over the African National Congress government's professed commitment to ethical arms dealing.
Washington last week threatened to cut off economic aid if President Nelson Mandela's government went ahead with a $645- million contract to upgrade Syria's tank-firing control systems. The US considers Syria a sponsor of terrorism.
The South African Cabinet is expected to meet Jan. 22 to discuss the matter. Officials have tried to downplay the deal, saying it would take up to three years before the arms manufacturer Denel would know it had the contract. Diplomats expect even further backpedaling by South Africa.
But they say that aside from needlessly upsetting a powerful ally, the matter has damaged South Africa's image by exposing the divisions and hypocrisy in policymaking.
The ANC government, which took power in April 1994, has ignored its fundamental foreign policy guidelines - barring arms sales to countries involved in regional conflicts or human rights abuses. In the eyes of critics, this new black majority government is behaving like its apartheid predecessors by putting lucrative arms contracts above ethics.
"There is a consensus that the deal was a bad idea. It holds South Africa up to a lot of criticism. South Africa doesn't need to be meddling in the Middle East conflict," says Glenn Oosthuysen, an analyst with the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.
"They are playing politics like everyone else but pretend to hold up the moral high ground," he adds.
He and other critics say the row, the latest with the US over dealings with pariah states, has the ingredients of past South African foreign policy blunders: lack of coordination between different departments and the use of the cloak of sovereignty to justify naive decisions.
It appears that the deal was leaked deliberately in order to scuttle it, analysts say. The government is widely known to be split between those more sensitive to political pressures and the camp of Defense Minister Joe Modise, who actively promotes the arms industry as a way to enhance South Africa's international prestige.
Once the proposed deal became known, damage control was difficult. The sensible thing would have been to walk away from the deal, but that would have meant a loss of face, analysts say.
Instead, Mandela and his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, took a defensive line. Mr. Mbeki said the ANC would not follow the former government's policy on the Middle East, when South Africa was an ally of Israel and hostile to its Arab neighbors. Mandela accused the US of bullying, adding: "There is no country that will dictate to South Africa. What will be decided upon will be in the interest of South Africa and South Africa alone."
Mbeki's portrayal of the deal as being in the early stages has been met with skepticism by some analysts. They note that it received provisional endorsement by the arms sales committee and had Cabinet approval pending Mbeki's OK.
An editorial in Johannesburg's Sunday Times expressed incredulity at Mbeki's assertion that a final decision would only be taken when the company was ready to submit the bid.
"This is nonsense. What government would allow one of its arms manufacturers to go to the enormous expense of competing for a foreign arms deal and then refuse its consummation at the last moment?" it said.
The Syria deal appears to be part of a larger foreign policy shift away from human rights. Late last year, the South African government was forced, under public pressure, to end arms sales to Rwanda that were revealed embarrassingly as the conflict in eastern Zaire reached a head.
Then on Sunday, a foreign affairs official confirmed that South Africa had approved the sale of "nonlethal" military equipment to the Algerian government. That government has been criticized for its human rights record in fighting Islamic fundamentalists.
Diplomats expressed the conviction that, despite public posturing, the South African government was concerned about the US threat to cut off aid. This is the most serious dispute of several over South Africa's moral support for countries such as Cuba, Iran, and Libya, which the US considers pariahs.
"This is much more serious because it involves military support," says one Western diplomat. "It has much more serious implications."
Mandela now risks losing US aid, which has totaled some $562.4 million since his election, as well as the unqualified support of an important ally.
The issue is expected to come up during a visit by US Vice President Al Gore to South Africa, which had already been scheduled for mid-February.