As a country that brought a racist government to its knees -- at least partly with the help of the international community -- South Africa might be expected to be a voice for the powerless against a brutal dictatorship.
But when Libyan rebels took on President Muammar Qaddafi, South Africa mostly stood aside. Having voted at the UN Security Council for military intervention (on humanitarian grounds), South Africa later opted for 11th hour African Union mediation that would have kept Qaddafi in as interim president. (Both Qaddafi and the rebels refused to participate in the AU negotiations.) Now that Qaddafi’s forces are all but expelled from Tripoli, South Africa continues to insist that it holds the moral high ground. Richer nations were only after Libya’s oil; African Union members would have achieved the same results with less bloodshed, South African officials insist.
“The way forward should include the drafting of a new constitution leading to the first ever democratic elections,” South Africa’s Minister for International Relations Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters on Monday. He said the AU’s effort to negotiate in Tripoli was not a failure, and that South Africa remains committed to the “AU roadmap.”
Ms. Mashabane denied rumors that South Africa planned to evacuate Qaddafi – a man South African President Jacob Zuma called “Brother Leader” -- to exile in South Africa, and took pains to needle NATO for the human costs of its Libyan (and Iraqi and Afghan) intervention.
It is no surprise that South Africa and the US have had increasingly tense relations over global foreign policy, even though the two countries share many of the same foreign policy values, such as support for human rights. But with the effective collapse of the Qaddafi regime, the belated support for Egyptian civilian protestors, the regular support for the Zimbabwe presidency of Robert Mugabe, and the recent bailout of the indebted kingdom of Swaziland, South Africa has found itself increasingly on the opposite side of its supposed human rights agenda, and often in embarrassed support of losing dictators.
South Africa may have a point about civilian casualties. A number of UN Security Council member-nations, including Russia, China, and South Africa, have condemned NATO’s toll on civilians in the six-month long conflict. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has also expressed concern for the civilian toll.
"The secretary-general is deeply concerned by reports of the unacceptably large number of civilian casualties as a result of the conflict in Libya," Mr. Ban’s office said in a mid-August statement. Ban urged all parties to “exercise extreme caution” in order to “minimize any further loss of civilian life."
Yet South Africa may be damaging its reputation, both in the North African region, where Arab uprisings have overthrown authoritarian governments this year, and in Libya itself, where South Africa has withdrawn its ambassador and has no current plans of talking with an interim government composed of Libyan rebels.
“With the imminent fall of the government of Colonel Qaddafi, we wish to urge the interim authority in Tripoli to immediately institute an all-inclusive inter-Libyan political dialogue aimed at building a truly representative and people-centered dispensation," Mashabane’s ministry said in a media statement.
As the US government can attest from its own support of failing dictators, from Cuba’s Juan Bautista to the Shah of Iran, rebel movements have long memories of which nations were supportive and which were not. It remains to be seen how Libya’s new rulers will view South Africa, in this light.