Forays to Taiwan and Israel show a willingness to put trade before the ANC’s outdated political solidarity, writes Tony Leon

Tshwane DA mayor Solly Msimanga brought out the dragon in the pro-Sino ANC with his recent jaunt to the Middle Kingdom’s enemy Taiwan. No doubt, this week new heights of apoplexy will be scaled in governing party circles on news that DA party leader Mmusi Maimane and key aides travelled to the heartland of another perceived opponent of Pretoria (as in the seat of government, not the city), Israel. Incandescence is also likely after their meeting on Wednesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Offsetting that, of course, is their planned get-together with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Of dance supremo Ginger Rogers, it was written — “she did everything her partner Fred Astaire did — only backwards and in high heels”. Something similar had to be performed by local politicians on the opposition side of the aisle here to get a look-in overseas until fairly recently.

When Nelson Mandela was president, the entire world beat down the door of the Union Buildings, or his home in Houghton, or sought invitations to address Parliament in Cape Town. Very unusually, president Bill Clinton hosted, during his 1997 state visit, a tea party for the opposition leadership in Parliament.

For the rest, the only point of acknowledgment of parties outside the magic circle of government was as testament that SA was a multiparty democracy.

The Thabo Mbeki era — given the president’s background in diplomacy — commenced with a key focus on international engagements. What Mbeki lacked in his predecessor’s gifts of charm and storied history, he compensated for by placing his office and persona at the helm of what he termed the “African Renaissance”.

When Mbeki fumbled his response to the rising tyranny of neighbour Robert Mugabe — or perhaps intended to promote its continuance — his perceived strengths as a presumed honest broker for democratic governance became questionable. His AIDS denialism placed him further away from the high tables of mainstream international discourse. But while the aura of Mandela faded, the renewed interest by the West and rising giants from the East in Africa still made Mbeki an essential interlocutor for the Group of Seven heads of state and a founding member of the expanded Group of 20.

His explicit criticism of George W Bush and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not prevent the US president from paying an official visit to Mbeki and declaring — with a combination of condescension and mystification — Mbeki his “point man” in the region and on Zimbabwe.

Emboldened perhaps by his expanding role in foreign matters, Mbeki decided that the uniquely South African compact that led to the successful constitutional negotiations here was capable of export — even into the violent and historically contested cauldron of the Middle East. Local officials who presided over FW de Klerk’s decommissioning of the country’s nuclear weapons were sent on a futile mission to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Later, Mbeki commenced what his officials termed the Spier Initiative to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Little was achieved for either side or their hosts other than perhaps for some enjoying the nectar and views of the Winelands, where talks were held. Indeed, the head of the Israeli Likud side to the initiative cynically remarked after meeting National Party negotiators Pik Botha and Roelf Meyer, “We know who to contact if we want to give up power, but it is not on our agenda.”

Departing US President Barack Obama’s attempts at changing the Middle East, despite the enormity of US blood and treasure expended there over decades, resulted in little other than frustration if not downright failure — the Iran nuclear deal aside.

At no time or stage could SA hope to achieve any influence in the region where it is not even a bit player – except perhaps for the premium the Palestinians place on Pretoria’s support. But Mbeki’s Middle East forays were at least founded on the notion, vaporised often in contrary statements, of even-handedness in stressing both the right of Palestinian self-determination and Israel’s right to exist within secure borders. Further, he presided over a nation that stood, in the afterglow of Mandela, the constitutional transition and relatively pro-market policies, as a country of political exceptionalism.

Notional Recognition

Our days of exceptionalism have long since passed. Almost to underline the point, even that notional recognition of mutual rights in Israel/ Palestine disappeared from the latest script on the issue enunciated by President Jacob Zuma in the ANC’s January 8 statement. With nary a word about stolen elections in Gambia or the unconstitutional clinging to power by Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zuma’s expression on the Palestinians “suffer[ing] in their rightful quest for self-determination” sounded pretty obtuse.

Indeed, as Bret Stephens asked in The Wall Street Journal, “what gives Palestinians the preferential right to this claim?” The Kurds have waited longer and the world is filled with unresolved claimants to statehood: Assamese, Basques, Baloch, Druze, Kashmiris and Northern Cypriots are among many cited.

Doubtless, the Palestinian cause, no less than the fury unleashed at DA toenadering in Taipei, has more to do with the results of the Cold War and the essentially anti-western solidarity impulses in local governing circles. Taiwan and Israel are viewed from this vantage, without too much nuance, as outposts of Washington.

But the DA venture into contested foreign terrain arrives at an interesting moment for the party, this country and the wider world. Current governance and leadership lapses and economic decline have pushed us out of the front-row seats in international circles reserved for emerging nations of primary importance. Political solidarity, not economic or strategic interests, determines our entirely predictable and unimaginative responses to an array of foreign challenges.

Yet the current world disorder is the precise moment when imagination and nuance in the absence of authoritative global leadership could make a decisive difference. Into this gap, whether as a consequence of chance or by calculation, steps the DA. Its enhanced place in local politics, with the mayoralty of four major metros under its belt, has stirred some international interest.

While few politicians in the government or opposition are immune to the pleasures of junketeering, there are some considerable advantages for the DA of ploughing its furrow in foreign fields. First, it’s an almost open space for exporting the party and the country’s soft power, especially reanimating the idea, in a world today clouded by nativism, xenophobia and protectionism, that both nonracialism and open markets still have a constituency in SA. And the increased support for these ideas here can encourage movements elsewhere.

Second, piloting an alternative foreign policy — especially in places no ANC politician would dare to venture — allows contrasts to be drawn without the parochial and stale rejoinders about race being used to close down the debate.

Real Deliverables

Third, with significant budgets and investment destinations now under its control, the DA could start to demand that both our trading interests and the metropolitan economies — not outdated struggle solidarity — drive our international engagements.

Some clear and fresh thinking in the field, bolstered by foreign forays to underline the point, will not just drive the contrast between the government and the opposition here. By attracting investment, bolstering employment and, in the case of Israel at least, providing solutions to enduring problems like severe drought, there are some real deliverables for its constituency as well.

Going to meet the mayor of Taipei or the prime minister of Israel has some hazards in terms of affronting the politically correct. Doubtless, too, would be to quote the imperialist prime minister of Britain, Lord Palmerston. In 1848 he said: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” That is perhaps even more relevant today than it was nearly 170 years ago.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition in SA, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonS