JOTTINGS FROM JOHANNESBURG
Another strange alliance for SA
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
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
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
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
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
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