Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma—the most important interlocutor during her 11-day, seven-nation tour of Africa—professed their mutual regard. Clinton vowed "to put meat on the bone" of U.S.-South African relations; Zuma said that he, too, wants to take them to "a higher level." Washington was perpetually stymied by Zuma's predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who questioned the link between HIV and AIDS (a disastrous posture that Harvard researchers think led to nearly 400,000 preventable deaths) and defended President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. So the United States hopes Zuma, who often tussled with Mbeki and has promised a more transparent governing style, can be the sort of leader who will fulfill South Africa's role as the political, economic, and military anchor of the continent.
It doesn't look like he will. Just four months in office, Zuma has done so much worthy of obloquy that's it's a small miracle Clinton would even meet with him. He is peddling arms to police states and terrorist havens (in deals that were revealed just a week before Clinton's arrival); continuing, as Mbeki did, to prop up the despotic Mugabe; and even doing China's bidding to keep trade relations intact. Not long ago, South Africa stood as beacon for morality among the nations. ("Human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs," Nelson Mandela wrote in 1993.) Today, it conducts a foreign policy closer to that of a rogue state.
Earlier this month, a senior leader of South Africa's official opposition party (the shadow minister for defense) revealed that the country's National Conventional Arms Control Committee had authorized the sale of high-tech weaponry to Libya, Syria, and Venezuela. According to the opposition Democratic Alliance, the armaments included "bombs that could be used to deliver nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons" (Libya), "grenade launchers" (Syria), and "thousands of multiple grenade launchers and upgraded assault rifles" (Venezuela). The panel is also considering the sale of military equipment to Iran and Zimbabwe, and it has authorized a South African defense contractor to deliver a demonstration of a radar-warning system to officials in North Korea. While the government initially claimed that the opposition was spreading "gossip and rumor," it has yet to refute the allegations. Instead, it has accused the opposition politician who divulged the "illegally obtained information" of having "stolen it" and has threatened to investigate him, implying that what has thus far been revealed is accurate.
South Africa's support for totalitarians extends to diplomacy, too: it recently ended a two-year rotation on the United Nations Security Council, where it opposed resolutions that would have increased pressure on Zimbabwe, Belarus, Cuba, North Korea, and Uzbekistan. On the council, it also fought attempts to toughen sanctions on the Burmese junta and Iran. (In these votes, it kept the company of authoritarian powers like Russia and China.)
Before it entered power in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), Zuma's ruling party, took money and orders from Moscow during the Cold War. Today, it has found a new patron in Beijing. Over the past several years, China has surpassed the United States as Africa's largest trading partner, and nowhere on the continent is it more heavily invested than in South Africa. So deep is Chinese influence over Pretoria that, in March, South Africa denied a visa request from the Dalai Lama to visit Cape Town for a peace conference. "We would not do anything to upset the relationship we have with China," an unnamed government official told South Africa’s Business Day. In April 2008, a Chinese ship carrying weapons for Zimbabwe—then in the midst of brutal post-election violence being carried out by Mugabe's thugs—was prevented from docking in South Africa only after a court intervened and dockworkers refused to unload its deadly cargo.
Given the ANC's own history as a national liberation movement fighting the apartheid regime, you might expect that—once in power—it would sympathize with oppressed people rather than oppressive governments. That has not been true in recent years. The reason for this bias is both practical and ideological. For one, many of these governments—like Cuba and Libya—actively supported the ANC while it was in exile. No less a moral authority than Mandela defended South Africa's unseemly alliances: when he was released from prison in 1990 and triumphantly met in succession with Fidel Castro, Yasir Arafat, and Muammar Kaddafi, Mandela told skeptics that, "Our attitude toward any country is determined by the attitude of that country to our struggle. Yasir Arafat, Colonel Kaddafi, Fidel Castro support our struggle to the hilt." Those tyrants may have jailed their own Mandelas, but according to the ANC chief, "We have no time to be looking into the internal affairs of other countries." That wasn't the credo of the ANC during its struggle against apartheid, when it demanded that the entire world concern itself very much with the "internal affairs" of South Africa.
The ANC's ideological sympathy for rogue states is a little more complicated. For decades, it understood itself as a revolutionary movement fighting a capitalist and hegemonic West. Even though it is now Africa's most powerful nation, that sense of defiance lingers among ANC graybeards. By thwarting the ambitions of the United States and its allies on the international stage, the ANC believes it is representing the aspirations of the Third World.
Still, South Africa does offer positive potential on one front: Zimbabwe. Due in part to his alliance with South Africa's trade unionists—whose brethren in Zimbabwe have been crushed by Mugabe—Zuma has been more critical of the Zimbabwean dictator than his predecessor. Last week, Zuma met with Morgan Tsvangirai—the former leader of the Zimbabwean opposition who now serves as prime minister in the country's shaky "unity government"—and reportedly offered to help Tsvangirai get more power in the cabinet. But African leaders have been promising to coax Mugabe into being less of a tyrant for years, with little to show for it. So even if South Africa joins the chorus of criticism, it's not clear what Zuma can actually accomplish.
With the exception of Zimbabwe, news accounts of the Clinton-Zuma summit didn't report on whether they had discussed any of these subjects, and it is not surprising that the U.S. declined to press the broader matter of South Africa's role in the world. For years, American policymakers have paid lip service to the "Rainbow Nation" ideal while ignoring the ANC's more troubling policies. But America's global interests are simply too important to be sacrificed for the maintenance of a comforting facade.
James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.