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JOTTINGS FROM JOHANNESBURG
Another strange alliance for SA

Published: 29-MAR-05

The visit by the vice-president of North Korea to South Africa raised a few eyebrows, but reaction was surprisingly low key. Given the North Koreans’ position in the 'Axis of Evil’ and their recent public declaration that they possessed nuclear weapons, we may have expected protests against such a visit. But recent demonstrations in South Africa continue to be against the war in Iraq and in favour of cheaper drugs for HIV/AIDS patients. There have scarcely even been any voices raised , although the opposition Democratic Alliance made some token noises.

Why the apparent apathy? Could it be because trade between the two countries is almost insignificant, and does not, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, include any trade in weapons? Deputy President Jacob Zuma, disingenuously, appealed to the media not to misinterpret the visit – apparently a viable possibility – as South Africa has ties with “many countries with nuclear capacity”.

Alternatively, is there a recognition that South Africa has a role to play not just on the African continent but more broadly?

A diplomatic source suggested that the visit has to be seen in the context of ongoing efforts to persuade North Korea to return to the negotiating table, after its high-profile announcement of continuing missile testing and nuclear development. The six-country talks (with China, Russia, the US, South Korea and Japan) around nuclear disarmament are currently hanging in the balance, and mediation could tip the scale one way or the other.

Vice President Yang Hyong Sop overtly linked the visit to these talks, when he acknowledged South Africa’s place in the international community, especially in terms of diplomacy and peacekeeping. Of course, he also took the opportunity to criticise the United States and its “hostile policy” towards North Korea, exemplified by the recent statement that North Korea was an “outpost of tyranny”. Yang observed that, without an official apology, the six-party talks could not go ahead. This restating of North Korea’s position may not be new, but it is clear that the country is looking for new channels of communication – and South Africa could play an important role in this regard.

Zuma appeared to acknowledge this, when he noted that “We developed a (nuclear) capacity in this country and we have a view that the nuclear technology should be utilised to benefit the people of this world, not for destructive purposes. We shared that view ... we believe that our strengthening relations with North Korea will, if anything, help this.”

Some would argue that South Africa is perhaps uniquely placed in the world, in terms of the moral high ground, to apply pressure to so-called pariah states such as North Korea. Under Nelson Mandela, the country became the first to voluntarily dismantle its nuclear weapons programme, and it could perhaps be expected to play a role in mediating for North Korea to remain a part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and, eventually, to step back from its aggressive weapons development programme. Certainly, few other countries have the kind of moral authority that South Africa has garnered to limit nuclear proliferation. And the tactics chosen are significant: communication, respect and alliances, rather than rough-shod policies that attempt to force a state to accede to external pressure.

Zuma’s statement that “Nuclear capacity should be used for the betterment of communities” clearly echoes such a position: at the same time, he downplays the destructive use of nuclear power, and gives countries with nuclear programmes a space to argue that they are developing sustainable power sources. The situation is reminiscent, in some ways, of South Africa’s moves towards rapprochement with an earlier pariah state, Libya. At the time, questions were asked as to the South African government’s motives in inviting a leader such as Muammar Gadaffi to Pretoria. But with hindsight, the country had an important part to play in brokering a new role for Libya on the international stage.

This may be part of South Africa’s current policy focus of broadening its alliances and reaching out to the South, as well as punching above its weight in international affairs, and specifi cally in the area of peacekeeping and peace-making. But are these the kinds of friends the South African government should be cultivating? Indeed, the cynical may wonder whether this may not be a case of going too far in South Africa’s quest for alternative markets and votes for a potential seat on the UNSecurity Council. Rather than playing a neutral role as mediator, is South Africa looking to score points on the international stage?

Elizabeth le Roux is director of publications and communications at the Africa Institute of South Africa, a Pretoria-based research organization.





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