Loyalty to one's friends is an honorable thing; it normally wins respect and admiration. For Nelson Mandela, it is creating problems.
South Africa's first black president is a gentleman who remembers favors, particularly those rendered by countries that helped his African National Congress when it was a persecuted liberation movement and he was jailed under apartheid-era laws.
The problem is, some of these countries are pariah states for the West: Cuba, Iran, and Libya. And Mr. Mandela's refusal to renounce such long-standing close ties is alarming the United States and possibly jeopardizing foreign confidence and investment at a time when the rand currency is losing value.
Critics say that South Africa, having been accepted into the fraternity of nations after years of isolation, has a blurred focus when it comes to diplomacy. They question the wisdom of placing historical sympathies above pragmatism and say there is no coherent foreign policy strategy. Too much emphasis is placed on siding with Africa or old friends, whether or not it is in the economic interests of the country.
"It's like wanting to have your bread buttered on both sides. They think they can have relations with the outcasts of the world and not have problems," said Glenn Oosthuysen, a researcher with the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.
"The government doesn't have a clear-cut, long-term strategy. We don't have a foreign policy, it is more like a guideline. People don't know where we stand," said Mr. Oosthuysen.
South Africa as a sovereign nation should not have to base its foreign policy on the approval of the European Union or Washington, the Foreign Affairs Ministry reiterates time and again. "This is the price we have for our new independence," said one ministry official. "The president has said clearly that he has allegiances to friends during the apartheid era. He feels no one should dictate to us ideologically."
But to make what some consider naive statements and ad hoc policy, or to ignore Libya and Iran's role in destabilizing the Middle East is another matter, South African critics say.
Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo's biggest blunder to date was during a visit to Libya in April. He endorsed a statement expressing tacit support for Tripoli over the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight that killed nearly 300 people over Lockerbie, Scotland. After criticism from Britain and the United States - and even back home - the government backtracked, claiming that the press had misinterpreted the statement. But the damage had already been done.
Likewise, potentially damaging is a scheme to store Iranian oil, which has been temporarily shelved. Pretoria cannot ignore the implications if the Iran Foreign Sanctions bill proposed in the US becomes law - it forbids trade with companies that have invested more than $40 million in Libya and Iran's oil and gas.
South African warmth towards Cuba - including an invitation for Fidel Castro Ruz to visit - is an irritant to the US, but does not provoke the same concerns about security as Libya and Iran, diplomats say.
But potential investors may well be cautious, considering the Helms-Burton act, which seeks to penalize companies doing business in Cuba.
"It is certainly noble but unrealistic, this notion that they can have universal relations," said one Western diplomat. "For 40 years South African foreign policy was single issue. Now it's multi-issue. They have a steep learning curve making the transition from an ideological party to pragmatism."
Discomfort about South Africa's warmth towards pariah countries was brought up by Vice President Al Gore during his visit here in December. But the issue, described by one South African official as a "thorn in the side," does not obscure the otherwise good bilateral relations, and the encouragement by the US of companies to invest in South Africa.
Another weak spot in Pretoria's foreign approach is that it tends to side with Africa whether or not it is in the best economic interests of the country.
Likewise, there is a fair bit of vacillating, such as Mandela's withdrawing from an initially critical outspoken stance on Nigeria's military dictatorship and an ambiguous policy on China and Taiwan.
Adding to the perceived lack of coherence is the fact that the government has de facto two foreign affairs chiefs with sometimes conflicting styles - Foreign Minister Nzo, who is prone to making ad hoc statements, and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's heir apparent who spends practically as much time abroad as at home.
It is often unclear who originates decisions on diplomacy. There is also a tendency to rely heavily on Mandela's international stature to obscure problematic issues.
Diplomats feel a good sign is that South Africa is getting more involved in long-term issues in a more coordinated way, by hosting international conferences such as a recent meeting of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, of which it is now president.
"This means they want to play a leadership role internationally. That's a good sign. After all, you have to give them a break," said one Western diplomat. "It is still a very new government and they deserve a chance to make mistakes."