Just what did South Africa's Zuma tell Qaddafi in a phone call?

Conflicting reports about what South African President Jacob Zuma said to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi highlight South Africa's comparatively docile response to Qaddafi's violence against rebels.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Rebels look at a rocket during clashes with pro-Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi forces between Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad on March 9.

The story came up on Libya’s state-owned television station, so consider the source.

Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, reportedly called up Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to offer moral support. He promised to bring up the plight of Libya – now in the throes of a near civil war – to the African Union and to urge the AU to "take decisive action and uncover the conspiracy that Libyan is facing."

From Libyan TV, the report made its way onto the BBC Monitoring service, and from there it made its way onto South African news websites and social media services like Twitter, where South Africans talked of the “embarrassment” of a president throwing in his support for a one-party state dictator like Qaddafi.

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But by nightfall, Mr. Zuma’s office had issued a sharp denial of the details of the report, saying “South Africa has openly condemned the loss of life and attacks on civilians and reported violations of human rights in Libya,” and adding, “The Presidency will not be drawn into rumors and distortions of the conversation with the Leader of Libya, Col. Muammar Gadaffi, who had called to explain his side of the story.”

Whether Mr. Zuma actually expressed support for Qaddafi or not, the most striking quality about South Africa’s position toward the conflict in Libya – and Libya’s liberal use of military force against political opponents, armed or otherwise – is its relative silence. While the United Nations and the European Union have imposed heavy sanctions on Libya and are considering imposing a no-fly zone to prohibit the use of Libyan military aircraft against rebel positions, South Africa and much of the AU have stopped far short of that, issuing a statement decrying the use of excessive force, but declining to impose sanctions against the Libyan regime for actually using it.

South Africa “supports the positions taken by the African Union,” as the official statement from Zuma’s office says. The Zuma government has sparked a quite vigorous debate among South Africans about just what South Africa’s position should be toward the rights of citizens to rebel against a regime they consider to be oppressive. Seventeen years after South Africa’s black majority achieved its own liberation from an apartheid regime, the South African government of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress seems to have thrown its weight behind regimes that have ruled, often without legal or credible opposition, for 30 years or more.

Speaking to Bloomberg news agency about South Africa’s “neutral” stand toward the apparent power grab by former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo – who lost the Nov. 28 presidential election, but has yet to concede defeat – former South African ambassador and now political analyst Tom Wheeler said, “South Africa has lost some of the moral high ground it acquired in 1994 with its peaceful transition. It’s not helping democracy.”

South Africa has also taken a fair amount of criticism for its “quiet” diplomacy in mediating the ongoing political crisis in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe also has used the full force of his extensive intelligence and security apparatus against political opponents, charging those who seek to unseat him with “treason.” By contrast, Botswana’s President Ian Khamma has been much more vocally critical of Mr. Mugabe and his often violent methods, including the forced removal of hundreds of white commercial farmers through “land invasions.”

Do you think South Africa should take a harder line on Qaddafi? Comment below.

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