15 July 2007

15 July 2007 - South African foreign policy for sale?

Since I’ve been in Jerusalem, I’ve encountered lots of questions about South Africa. My colleagues in human rights activism want to know more about the post-apartheid legal world, and in anti-apartheid political strategies. Those I have encountered in the academic and policy world want to know why it is that South Africa has such a skewed and one-sided policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Over the past few months, there has been growing international criticism of South Africa’s foreign policies in general and towards Israel in particular. An article in the Washington Post observed South Africa’s policies are being condemned by human rights activists, while an article in Israel’s Azure journal concludes: “What a shame . . . that the ANC pursues policies hearkening back to its country’s discredited past.”

In addition, the past few weeks have been particularly embarrassing for South Africa’s chief Israel-hater, intelligence minister, who was caught encouraging Palestinians to attack Israel. Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Ilan Baruch, produced the following translated quote from the Palestinian daily Al Ayam on May 6, reporting on Kasrils’s speech at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah:

“Kasrils called for national unity, as the only road to success, particularly because the enemy conspires to divide and control. Kasrils emphasised that the guns should be pointed towards the enemy, to better serve the struggle for liberation and independence.” Kasrils has protested that his words were “spun” and taken out of context, and he did not back attacks against civilians. (Guilty as charged, I’d say.)

The question I am often asked is whether Kasrils really believes some of the things he says, or whether he’s being put up to the job by the ANC, President Mbeki or someone else. The answer I give is that I am certain Kasrils’s views on the Middle East are his deeply held convictions. However, the timing and intensity with which he expresses those views may possibly be the result of political calculations.

I think part of the reason that Kasrils has been especially vocal lately is that he is trying to protect his political position on the central committee of the South African Communist Party (SACP)—which he appears likely to do—as well as the National Executive Committee of the ANC, to be elected later this year. Kasrils has been seen as too close to Mbeki by those supporting Jacob Zuma or a leftist alternative.

By taking up the Palestinian cause with such vigor, Kasrils has tried to show the SACP and the ANC’s left wing that he is indispensable in at least one respect—namely, as the Jew who opposes Israel. (And we who oppose his stance so vigorously have played our part, however unintentionally, by adding to the controversy and allowing him to impress his comrades with the contrived mantle of victimhood.)

But there is another reason, and I believe it has to do with South Africa’s growing relationship with Iran, among other rogue nations. The inexplicable positions that South Africa has taken on the UN Security Council, in the UN Human Rights Council and elsewhere are partly the result of lingering nostalgia for Cold War politics, and the desire to create a “multipolar” world in opposition to the US.

Beyond the ideological connections, there may be more concrete connections as well. It is widely known that the ANC is strapped for cash for party activities. Before 1994, it received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments, but these turned off the taps when the party came to power. Since then, the ANC has been seeking a way to keep money flowing through the sieve-like party coffers.

One method has been to use domestic laws, such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation, that direct the government to do business with companies that meet certain race-based criteria. The ANC then helps create BEE companies, or makes sure that the ANC is represented on existing corporate boards. BEE deals are then awarded to these companies, which then kick back funds to the ANC.

This is the pattern that was followed in the Oilgate scandal, in which the ANC-front-cum-BEE-company gave the party R11-million ($2 million) after receiving an oil contract from the state energy company (a contract it never fulfilled). In addition, the ANC has set up local front companies, such as Chancellor House, that secure lucrative BEE stakes in local businesses for the enrichment of the ANC.

However, the party is also thought to have sought outside fundraising opportunities as well. The Mail & Guardian newspaper investigated the ANC’s links to Saddam Hussein and alleged that party officials had used state visits to discuss potential oil deals with the Iraqi regime, which could have brought the ANC billions had Saddam stayed in power. These claims have yet to be properly investigated.

So far, the ANC’s overseas fundraising efforts have not borne fruit, which is perhaps why it has shifted back to domestic fundraising schemes. The ruling party has proposed increases in public funding for political parties in parliament—much to the irritation of opposition parties, who see the plan as a naked cash-grab. But it is possible the ANC has not given up entirely on finding foreign sources of money.

In 2004, defense minister visited Iran and signed a memorandum with his Iranian counterpart. It was initially reported by several sources that the deal provided for South Africa to sell uranium to Iran, though this was later denied. The precise contents of the memorandum are unknown. However, more South African mining companies have been getting into the uranium market in recent years.

Earlier this year, Kasrils visited Iran and was quoted by the official Iranian news agency as having endorsed the Iranian nuclear programme. Again there were denials, and it is unclear what the purpose of his visit actually was. South Africa certainly seems to spend a lot of time on foreign policy; at the moment, at least five ministers seem to be involved in foreign affairs on matters outside their portfolios.

South African Cabinet ministers have sometimes been accused of using overseas visits to further their personal business interests. Another question, however, is whether their travels are connected to fundraising efforts for the ANC. It is difficult to know, given how little is known about what ministers do on foreign visits, what agreements they make, or what investements or arrangements follow afterwards.

However, I believe there is a strong possibility that South Africa’s foreign policy is being hawked to rogue regimes. Hypothetically, these regimes would provide the cash and the contracts to the ANC, while South Africa would offer international diplomatic protection. Such deals would utilize the old links of the Cold War era, which may have morphed into a post-Soviet network serving private interests.

There is still plenty of ideological enthusiasm for the old Soviet connections. ANC-aligned political analyst Adam Habib recommended last week that South Africa build support in “Moscow and Beijing” for a new anti-Israel, anti-US alliance. This would, he said, help South Africa out of its dilemma on Palestine, where it seems to be eager to abandon its old PLO ally in favour of Iranian client Hamas.

Whether the ANC's ideological inclinations are truly backed by financial considerations is purely speculation on my part. It would be impossible to follow up any of the theories I have outlined without serious and difficult research. However, one day we may know the true story of whether—and if so, to what extent—the ANC’s fundraising priorities are dictating its foreign policy stances. The sooner, the better.

Update: The South African intelligence services include a branch responsible for “economic intelligence,” which is defined as “the identification of economic opportunities for South African entrepreneurs.” This prompts the question of who the government is conducting “espionage” for, as well as how and why. The label could potentially provide cover for foreign visits on behalf of ANC front companies.

Second update: Kasrils has been dumped from the central committee of the SACP.


At 1:35 PM, Anonymous mike said...

After South Africa’s public campaign to water down UN sanctions on Iran, I was discussing the issue with a friend of mine who is involved in South African politics. He made the point that the government are so ideologically on side with the anti-Western block that he doesn’t even think they needed to be paid for providing diplomatic cover. Any financial rewards are just a bonus.

Perhaps its one of those rear opportunities where ideology and financial gain meet.


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