In the degraded discourse around local politics a niche backhander on social media — aimed at dissenting or decamping DA figures that are usually black — is “watch out, you’ll soon be sent to Harvard”.

This meme suggests, absurdly, that the official opposition has the magical ability to use Harvard, the world’s pre-eminent and richest university, as a dumping ground for members it wishes to exile. They should be so fortunate.

The origins of this myth date to DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko who, infuriated after a falling out with then party leader Helen Zille, landed at the John F Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics in 2015. I was happy to provide a testimonial in her support.

I was actually the “pioneer” of this “trend” (despite my paleness) in 2007, when I was a Fall Fellow at the Institute of Politics after exiting the DA leadership earlier that year. The party had nothing at all to do with my appointment.

Far from punishment, a spell at Harvard is a remarkable privilege; its Kennedy School is an intellectual powerhouse, home to some of the greatest academics in the world. It does help to be housed at a university with a war chest endowment of about $50bn, around half of the total revenue expended by the national government of this country.

Two of the intellectually groundbreaking personalities there, whose courses I was privileged to audit, are professors Joseph Nye and Ricardo Hausmann. Nye coined the concepts of hard and soft power way back in 1990, and just last week Hausmann published his Growth Lab paper on SA, “Growth through inclusion in SA”. Both “hard” and “soft” power are the implicit link between the two.

Nye defined hard power as “the ability to use carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will”. It hardly needs elaboration just how any claim SA may have had to hard power, whether coercive or as leverage, has evaporated or been destroyed.

For example, independent security and defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman recently raised a red flag over the state of the SA National Defence Force (“Neglecting defence funding amid regional instability is cause for concern”, October 23). And in a recent exposé in the Financial Mail military affairs journalist Erika Gibson pinpointed the extraordinary decline of the SA Air Force (SAAF) (“Mayday for SA’s air force”, November 2).

The SAAF, the world’s second-oldest air force, has the bulk of its planes grounded (165 in total) which means according to DA MP and shadow defence & military veterans minister Kobus Marais, “at least half of our air force cannot be deployed to protect our country”.

The presidential jet — where the charge to the taxpayer of the evening meal seems to come in at R24,000 per head — is one of the few assets still airborne.

At the dawn of democracy in SA the defence force, including its air force, was an African powerhouse despite its controversial deployments and the sanctions against arms acquisitions. Since then, the arc of military retrenchment has been steep and swift, despite our embrace by the world.

“Soft power”, as per Nye, is the complement to military and economic pre-eminence. He defines it as a non-coercive means of “shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction”. Top of the list here are political values and foreign policy when seen by others as “legitimate and having moral authority”.

The opening paragraph of the Hausmann paper on SA offers a glance at the soft and hard power possibilities beamed back from the refulgence of the Nelson Mandela era: “When SA threw off the shackles of apartheid three decades ago the nation captivated the world … There was no telling what could be accomplished with the full force of SA’s human capabilities, creativity and resilience in combination with its industrialised economy and established advantages in global trade.”

The 170 pages that follow itemise how the government has ruinously applied the wrong policies, gutted the state and its capacity and deindustrialised at a rapid rate. It also offers a menu of suggested course corrections; those that do not comport with ANC ideology are all too likely to be binned.

But in truth, our soft power no longer captivates the world — far from it, as a visiting diplomatic grandee advised me recently: “Alas, nobody pays much attention to SA any more, when back in 1994 the world could not get enough of you. Zambia, once the pre-eminent front-line state, regularly votes against you at the UN and Kenya, the East African powerhouse, has gone in the opposite direction to you on Israel.” And that is just in Africa.

Take the Olympian-order hypocrisy of our foreign policy. Its latest iteration on the war in Gaza entails closing the Israeli embassy while claiming to support dialogue with the combatants and referring Bibi Netanyahu to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This when in 2015 the “Butcher of Darfur”, Omar al-Bashir, was enabled by the ANC government (in which both Cyril Ramaphosa and foreign relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor served at the time) to escape an SA court order compelling his arrest on an ICC indictment.

More recently the ANC has been content to outsource its foreign policy to the EFF and repeat the talking points of Hamas on Gaza. But whatever examples of the feeble grasp of our once admired soft power advantage are in plain sight, policy coherence falls apart entirely when viewed through the lens of events closer to home in northern Mozambique.

There we deploy our shrinking army to assist Mozambique in its fight against al-Shabaab, an ideological brother-in-arms of Hamas and chief cheerleader for its assault on Israel recently.

So, we place our army in harm’s way to oppose the export of jihad terror to our region, but vigorously oppose any attempt to stop it elsewhere. Or maybe the department of international relations & co-operation could indicate the precise line of difference between the two organisations, one of which we support and the other we fight.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. One advantage of the extreme limits of SA hard power is that any prospect of a military seizure of power here in 2024 should the election result go awry for certain interests, is off the table.

So one soft power advantage — military non-intervention in civic affairs — survives intact. Count our blessings.