In early may, just a month before the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, South African Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils paid a visit to Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader and erstwhile Palestinian Authority prime minister. Kasrils praised Hamas, which has been designated by the United States as a terrorist organization, and invited Haniyeh to visit South Africa. Several months earlier, Kasrils did similar PR work on behalf of Hezbollah, another U.S.-designated terrorist group.
South Africa's chumminess with these two well-known terror organizations may come as a shock to Americans, for whom South Africa probably conjures up fuzzy images of Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey opening up a luxurious school for disadvantaged girls and the heroic triumph of democracy and justice over racism. But it shouldn't. It is part and parcel of a broader and troubling trend in South African foreign policy, one that cozies up to tyrants and is increasingly hostile to the West -- even at the cost of its self-proclaimed principles of human rights and political freedom.
So why haven't you heard more about it? Why has post-apartheid South Africa's easy relationship with dictatorships been downplayed by the media for years? That oversight seems to reflect a disinclination to report bad news about the African National Congress -- Mandela's party, which led the fight against apartheid -- and especially any news that might be perceived as tarnishing the popular and comforting narrative surrounding the country's triumphant emergence from apartheid.
Even as South Africa moves slowly into the anti-Western camp, few outsiders are willing to criticize the ANC, partly out of a misguided sense of solidarity and partly because the party cloaks itself in a shroud of moral absolutism that not so subtly implicates its critics as racists, Western stooges or apologists for apartheid. (To cite only one of many examples, in February, the ANC government attacked the British Broadcasting Corp. for supposedly alleging that "Africans are less than human, or, at least, genetically inferior" in a documentary about out-of-control crime in Johannesburg.)
But scurrilous accusations shouldn't be allowed to deter reasonable criticism. And just because the ANC's current leaders were once imprisoned by white racists does not render them immune from censure today.
The reality is that, among democratic countries, none has been more supportive of Iran's nuclear ambitions than South Africa. While the United States and its European allies fret over what to do about the nuclear program of this rogue, theocratic state, South Africa's ambassador to the United Nations, displaying remarkable credulity, declared last year: "We will
defend the right of countries to have nuclear technology for peaceful uses. For instance, Iran." In March, after assuming a temporary two-year seat on the Security Council, South Africa attempted to gut a resolution sanctioning Iran for defying demands that it freeze uranium enrichment. (Although after the attempt failed, South Africa joined the rest of the council in passing a unanimous resolution.)
South Africa has also wasted its opportunity to stand as a clarion voice for human rights at the U.N. On the Security Council, it has regularly sided with Russia and China -- the two powerful, veto-wielding nations that are consistent obstacles to the defense of liberty. In its first substantive vote on the council, South Africa sided with those two states against a nonbinding resolution condemning the human rights abuses of the Myanmar military junta. Archbishop Desmond Tutu admitted that the vote was "a betrayal of our own noble past."
Last week, the South African ambassador to the U.N. warned that any talk of sanctions against Sudan for its actions in Darfur would be "totally unacceptable." How can the ANC, with a straight face, call sanctions against a genocidal regime totally unacceptable when it demanded complete and utter isolation of the white apartheid government in Pretoria?
Rounding out South Africa's disgraceful foreign policy is its stance toward Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe is inflicting what some have referred to as a "silent genocide" against his own people through starvation and the manipulation of food aid. Instead of threatening sanctions or even lightly criticizing his regime, South Africa has kept Mugabe afloat through vast economic aid and, in 2005, strengthened an already dubious military alliance between the two governments. To the ANC, Mugabe is a hero who defeated white colonialism, and even though his reign is worse than the white government he overthrew, the ANC puts its stubborn principle of liberation camaraderie ahead of common humanity.
Why would the ANC, which came to power with such worldwide respect and goodwill, be willing to squander its moral authority so easily? A large part of the explanation rests with Mandela himself. Although he is regarded as perhaps the most inspirational figure in the world, the fact is that throughout his life, Mandela has praised an unseemly crew of dictators -- including Fidel Castro ("Long live Comrade Fidel Castro!" he said in 1991), Moammar Kadafi (whom he visited in 1997 in defiance of American objections) and Yasser Arafat ("a comrade in arms") -- for their support of the ANC while it was in exile. And he has remained quiet about Mugabe even though a strong rebuke might influence current African leaders to do the same, and Mandela's reticence is a stain on his otherwise illustrious legacy.
The roots of the ANC's willingness to overlook totalitarianism go back to its historic hostility toward the West, which solidified during the apartheid years, when it was the Soviet Union that supplied the ANC and the United States, Britain and Israel were unwilling to cut ties to the white government in Pretoria. Regardless of what happened many years ago, previous policies by the U.S. and other Western countries toward South Africa cannot possibly justify the ANC's current friendliness toward Hamas, Hezbollah, Mugabe, Khartoum and Tehran.
Yet the ANC refuses to change. Today, it still governs not by itself but as part of a "tripartite alliance" with the country's trade union coalition and the South African Communist Party. It's no surprise, then, that in a recent weekly letter from South African President Thabo Mbeki recounting an ANC delegation trip to Vietnam, he spoke, even all these years later, of "the U.S. war of aggression against the Vietnamese people" and lauded the communist dictatorship's "struggle for freedom and national independence." Mbeki and his ANC colleagues see South Africa as having inherited an "anti-imperialist" intellectual tradition heroically opposed to the Western democracies.
With the fall of apartheid, a window of opportunity emerged in which South Africa could have come to the fore as an unrivaled advocate for human rights around the world. Given its own struggle against injustice, the ANC is right to regard itself as having a special duty to stand with the innocent against authoritarianism, terrorism and privation. Regretfully, it appears that South Africa -- at least under the rule of the massively popular ANC -- has decided to cast its lot with the likes of Robert Mugabe, the mullahs in Iran and the terrorists of Hamas and Hezbollah.
James Kirchick is assistant to the editor in chief of the New Republic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times