Why Mbeki embraced Mobutu

May 28, 1997

By Oupa Lehulere

On one of many recent trips to the United States, South African deputy president Thabo Mbeki made it known that his government would welcome Zaire's dictator Mobutu Sese Seko if he wanted to spend the last days of his life in South Africa.

The ANC's sudden embrace of the ailing dictator is in sharp contrast to democratic values that the ANC has fought for, and which have been enshrined in South Africa's new constitution. South Africa's intervention in the Zaire civil war reveals a pattern that has become a feature of its foreign policy since 1994.

South Africa continues to support dictators and human rights violators, many of whom had relationships with the apartheid government and were at the forefront of breaking diplomatic and trade sanctions.

The first signs that the ANC in government would not champion human rights and a fairer world order came at the Review and Extension Conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May 1995.

The NPT gave five nuclear powers a monopoly of nuclear weapons. Under pressure from the US, South Africa decided to support an indefinite entrenchment of this monopoly.

Nigerian debacle

However, it took the execution of the nine Ogoni activists in Nigeria to focus the South African public on the foreign policy of the new government.

Notwithstanding appeals to President Mandela by Nigerian democrats, South Africa followed a policy of what it now calls "creative engagement". As the deputy minister for foreign affairs, Aziz Pahad, expressed it, "We remain convinced that in most circumstances influence can more effectively be brought to bear on governments through diplomatic dialogue rather than by strident public criticism".

Many in South Africa and abroad felt that the softly softly line was at least partly responsible for allowing the Nigerian military regime to think it could execute the Ogoni activists with impunity.

The public pressure produced by these events managed at least to produce a public commitment to human rights. Pahad vowed that in cases where "an oppressive government is seriously and systematically violating the rights of its citizens, and engaging in foreign aggression, arms sales will never be approved".

How many would bet that Turkey could avoid that description? In August 1995, the South African government imposed a ban on arms sales to Turkey. It recently met a delegation of Kurds living in Turkey. About a week after Pahad promised a foreign policy guided by respect for human rights, the Weekly Mail and Guardian reported that South Africa had quietly lifted the ban.

The Judas kiss

The government's assurances to the Kurdish representatives are an example of another hallmark of South Africa's foreign policy: promising the world to oppressed people while embracing their oppressor.

This is nowhere more evident than in Western Sahara. For two decades, the Polisario Front has waged a political and armed struggle against the occupation forces of the repressive Moroccan government.

Polisario has set up the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in the areas it has liberated. Besides a common struggle against oppression, Polisario and the ANC in the past found common cause because the Moroccan government had ties with the apartheid government.

For more than 20 months, the ANC in government has promised to establish diplomatic relations with the SADR. The recognition and diplomatic relations have not come, despite the fact that all other southern African states have recognised the SADR.

There is speculation that Morocco gave the ANC about R4 million (US$ 1 million) to finance the 1994 election campaign. What is not in doubt is that the foreign policy of the ANC government is influenced by the promise of commercial and political links with some foreign governments.

Taiwan donated $10 million to the ANC for the 1994 election. It also sponsored various sections of the ANC, for example the ANC Youth League. Taiwan has probably sponsored more free overseas trips by South African MPs than any other foreign government. South Africa's dilemma over which China to recognise has been traced to this debt.

Other known dictators and repressive governments that have donated large sums to the ANC include Indonesia and Malaysia. South Africa's softly softly approach to East Timor may be linked to these donations.


Although such funds may contribute to shaping foreign policy, South Africa's largest multinational corporations — collectively known as the Brenthurst Group after the residence of Harry Oppenheimer of Anglo American — are the real driving force.

Since the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, great pressure has been applied to push the ANC to adopt neo-liberal policies. The large corporations behind this campaign have investments in many parts of the world.

Many of these interests, such as their control of diamond mines in Zaire, were established when the country was under apartheid rule, and in many cases were smoothed by the various dictatorships.

With the adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution document (GEAR) by the ANC government, the Brenthurst Group won the battle for neo-liberal policies. The most important element of GEAR is its aim of integrating South Africa into the world economy on terms highly favourable to big business.

International competitiveness, export-led growth, free flow of capital and lower wages are the sweet music the ANC cabinet choir sings to the Brenthurst congregation.

What better place to find competitive profit rates than the dictatorships of Asia, Africa and Latin America? And who can beat Mobutu and his political class when it comes to fleecing whole nations and satisfying the rapacious appetites of the diamond-hungry gnomes of Brenthurst?

Like so much in South Africa today, foreign policy serves a single god: the global ambitions of South African multinationals.


US influence on South African foreign policy first became evident with the NPT and is now being confirmed by South Africa's role in Zaire.

The frequency with which Mbeki visits the US is not the only index of how close the two governments have become. "Creative engagement" is a rather transparent repackaging of Ronald Reagan's constructive engagement.

Throughout the crisis in Zaire, South Africa has been acting for both US and South African capital. With the US in no position to act as a credible honest broker, what luck for Washington to have South Africa try to save Mobutu. The lofty goals of democracy, reconstruction and peaceful resolution of disputes appear strikingly similar to the false assurances given to the Kurds and Polisario.

The dictatorships of Asia, Latin America, Africa are the foundations on which are built the high rates of profit that make them such attractive destinations for foreign investment.

The powerful corporations whose interests are shaping foreign policy made their millions trampling on human rights at home and abroad. The man who sits at the head of the table at Brenthurst, Harry Oppenheimer, made his millions in South Africa's most oppressive and exploitative industry, the gold mines.

For Oppenheimer and his hangers-on human rights are luxuries best preserved for where they take their holidays or for quiet table talk at the philanthropists' banquet.
[Oupa Lehulere is an educator at Khanya College, a labour movement support organisation in Johannesburg and a contributor to Links, the international journal of socialist renewal.]

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