At first, Mandela approached the debate over foreign policy with a continuation of the earlier simplicities. In a November 1993 article for the prestigious US journal Foreign Affairs entitled South Africa's Future Foreign Policy, Mandela, still in opposition, famously asserted that the defence of human rights would be the 'light that guides our foreign affairs.'
This stirring declaration signalled a departure from the militarism and grinding realpolitik which had characterised South African foreign policy hitherto, and it grew out of the fact that the 'new South Africa' was itself the product of a protracted human rights crusade.
The new administration could not proceed entirely driven by narrow conceptions of self-interest and would have a pronounced sensitivity to the democratic struggles of other peoples. This established a clear benchmark against which future policy would be judged. In many respects, however, it proved to be rather too demanding a benchmark, one restricting the government's room for manoeuvre and meaning that all of its foreign policy actions were subject to the most rigorous scrutiny and measured by very exacting standards. A number of difficulties and contradictions soon presented themselves, with three in particular standing out.
First, it became clear that foreign policy is rarely about moral absolutes. Instead it is a choice between undesirable options and lesser evils or even a choice between competing moralities.
For example, Mandela stubbornly defended the new government's close links with Cuba, Libya and Iran on the moral grounds that they had stood by the ANC during the liberation struggle and a debt of loyalty and gratitude therefore existed. He was not prepared to yield on this point even in the face of strong American disapproval, though from a strictly human-rights-based perspective a less cordial relationship with such states may have been more appropriate.
Second, Mandela was perhaps too slow in appreciating the tension between the advocacy of human rights and democracy on one hand, and the promotion of other core national interests such as trade and investment on the other. The latter often entailed building closer links with authoritarian states and human rights abusers such as Indonesia, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
Which of Mandela's imperatives was to take precedence given the importance of trade and investment to domestic reconstruction? Similarly, how was a commitment to human rights and conflict resolution to be squared with an aggressive arms sales policy which might generate considerable revenue for the country, given the considerable prowess the new South Africa had inherited in this area?
Mandela often tried to ride these two horses simultaneously, which led to accusations of inconsistency and hypocrisy. Foreign policy will always involve trade offs between values and interests but Mandela's own rhetoric had raised expectations and such pragmatism was now seen as a shabby retreat in view of the earlier moralising.
Finally, Mandela had said that democracy and human rights were particularly important in Africa but this proved problematic on a continent where autocracies of various kinds still dominated. Mandela's rhetoric complicated South Africa's attempt to reintegrate with the continent, as its regimes were in no mood to be lectured by a newcomer state on their own failings.
The new South Africa's ideals also ran up against the traditional African commitments to sovereignty, non-interference and regime solidarity. The best example came in 1995 in Nigeria when Mandela sought to isolate the military regime there following its execution of several dissidents on the eve of the Commonwealth conference. His high handed style alienated African governments and his announcement of sanctions in the belief that Africa would automatically follow was badly misjudged. It was this episode which prompted his successor Thabo Mbeki to attempt to forge a much closer alignment with mainstream African opinion.
Much of this was taken so far under Mbeki that it virtually jettisoned any commitment to democracy and human rights in favour of African solidarity. This was most evident in Mbeki's indulgence of the abuses of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and his government's voting record on human rights issues at the UN, which was so far removed from Mandela's thinking as to make it difficult to believe they shared the same political heritage.
Mandela's policy may have been flawed in design and execution and excessively idealistic but it did have at its centre a clear recognition that sovereignty had become a discredited concept when used to grant a blank cheque to egregious human rights abuses. The replacement of that philosophy with a return to a cynical realpolitik was unworthy of the country, a repudiation of the ANC's history, and one of the greatest setbacks of the post-Mandela era.
There were a number of other charges levelled at Mandela-era foreign policy.
It was criticised for being at the mercy of Mandela's own erratic interventions which often short circuited the bureaucratic chain of command. It was also accused of being directionless, confused and incoherent, with no clear sense of where national interests lay and what South Africa's place in the world should be.
There is some truth in this but much of it is overblown. Mandela did tend to intervene spasmodically and unpredictably and policy was occasionally too driven by his whims, as in the 1995-96 see-sawing over which 'China' South Africa should recognise.
However, two points are worth making in response to the accusation of confusion and a lack of direction.
First, all states' foreign policies were confused and lacked direction with the ending of the Cold War and the removal of the East-West paradigm which had shaped the conduct and discourse of international relations.
Second, there was more order to South African foreign policy under Mandela than such criticisms suggest. South Africa began to establish a niche for itself as a middle power demonstrating some of the bridge building, mediation and diplomatic skills with which such states are typically associated. South Africa used its good contacts with all parties to engineer an extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995, and in 1999 it crafted a resolution to the long running Lockerbie dispute between Qadhafi's Libya and the US and Britain.
On both occasions, Mandela's influence and gravitas were instrumental, and both episodes greatly enhanced the country's diplomatic profile. With Mandela's retirement and withdrawal from political life such a resource was no longer available to South African diplomacy and his successors were less interested in North-South bridge building than in facilitating South Africa's emergence as an activist power of the global South.
Mandela was a priceless diplomatic global asset for South Africa and, sadly, the two presidents succeeding him have drained away much of the reservoir of goodwill he built up, whether through support for authoritarian regimes and bizarre pronouncements on HIV/AIDS (Mbeki) or multiple scandals, corruption allegations and a chronic lack of political depth (Jacob Zuma).
Ultimately, however, while it is important to scrutinise Mandela's record carefully and to resist the cloying sentimentalism and hagiography into which so many profiles of him descend, it is also true that pouring over the minutiae of policy detail fails to capture the essence of the man.
Of course, particular policies failed and Mandela made errors but what makes him such an inspirational figure for the ages is not policy detail but a much grander and more heroic narrative. He demonstrated an implacable resolution in the face of a barbarous system yet demonstrated a willingness not only to negotiate with the architects of that system but to reconcile with them. He projected a message of inclusion and nation building where separate development had held sway and when appealing to narrower sectional interests would have been much easier.
Humanity, humility, and generosity of spirit are what made Mandela truly great and it is that which will give his name resonance through the centuries wherever injustice prevails, wherever people strive for basic freedoms and wherever people seek to resolve conflict in bitterly divided societies. It is an awesome legacy.
Hamba kahle, Nelson Mandela.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.