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The New South Africa's New Foreign Policy

Mandela's government has sometimes stumbled diplomatically, but its engagement with regional economic partners has been sure-footed

In January, South Africa's decision to market tank-firing systems to Syria raised a storm of protest from a domestic audience concerned with Damascus's human rights record and from international observers concerned about the already volatile Middle East peace process. The prospective sale also raised interesting questions about Pretoria's stated intention of pursuing an "independent" foreign policy.

The widely unexpected success of South Africa's political transition has been its greatest foreign policy trump card. In the vanguard is the country's own international superstar, President Nelson Mandela, a man revered for his record of conciliatory politics and received with rapturous welcome wherever he goes. The president's stature has also given South Africa new found authority in the area of human rights - an unusual position for some white diplomats more accustomed to backpedaling and defending apartheid in bygone years. But the Syrian deal and other publicized missteps with Iran and Libya have undermined this moral high ground and highlighted problems.

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A misstep with Nigeria

In another example, Pretoria has been criticized for its handling of the Nigerian crisis. In November 1995, following the execution of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues, Mr. Mandela sharply criticized Nigeria's military government and its lack of reform. That was seen to have set back South African-Nigerian relations in the face of a lack of international support for Mandela's stance. Similarly, the handling of the inevitable shift of relations from Taiwan to China left much to be desired - one month promising Taiwan it would be "immoral" to remove ties, and the next doing just that.

In spite of these difficulties, there have been some impressive foreign policy successes for the new South African regime, particularly in arms control. As the only unilaterally disarmed nuclear power, South Africa can punch well beyond its weight in this area. One successful example occurred at the 1995 nonproliferation review and extension conference, where South Africa engineered politically palatable, conditional, but indefinite terms of extension. But there could be much more to come.

Mandela's oft-stated foreign policy priority is southern Africa. Clearly, the development and security of the 12 members, including South Africa, that comprise the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) are closely linked. What happens to one, given the historical, transport, and economic ties, will inevitably affect the others. This is most graphically illustrated through the seemingly unstoppable flood of economic refugees from all over the region to the bright lights and hopes of South Africa's cities. Refugees now number between 2 million and 9 million people. This has led to fierce xenophobia, particularly among South Africa's black working classes, who are already stirred by slow economic growth and 33 percent unemployment.

Regional stability

However, along with the creation of a new regional security architecture - the SADC's 1996 Organ on Politics, Defense and Security - prospects for regional stability are improving through South African-led cooperative programs to remove land mines in war-torn SADC members Angola and Mozambique.

For years South Africa has garnered international acclaim for its land-mine detection and protection equipment. Governments and organizations around the globe, including the UN and NATO, have utilized South African technology. More important, perhaps, South Africa has also emerged as the world's premier repository of mine removal research and expertise. Rather than being selfish or greedy with this commodity, the South African government has now rightly put these assets to work for its neighbors. Through Mechem, a research and development branch of the government's defense complex, South Africa has helped de-mine vital areas of Mozambique and Angola in both United Nations projects and bilateral endeavors. Mechem projects have cleared more than 5,000 kilometers of roads in Angola and more than 1,000 kilometers of Mozambique's Cahora Bassa hydroelectric power system.

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Importance of mine clearing

In addition, South Africa has hosted and funded the training of Angolan de-miners and de-mining managers to supervise regional mine removal operations. Through these cooperative, humanitarian aid ventures, the costs of de-mining can be kept down.

Mine clearance rebuilds a nation's way of life in more ways than safe and secure roads and other infrastructure, however. With the mines gone, people can return to their villages, fields, and schools; economic development and productive capabilities can begin again; and refugees can return home. De-mining is the vital first step to recovery for Angola and Mozambique - and thus for all of the SADC.

Despite South Africa's foreign policy stumbling, the government's good deeds deserve to be in the spotlight. One priority being pursued is the development and reintegration of the entire SADC region. Clearly, basic infrastructure, including roads and power supplies, must be repaired first.

While South Africa's foreign policy implementation may need fine-tuning in some areas, in regional development the new government in Pretoria is already on the right track.

* Greg Mills is national director and Laurie Boulden is researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.

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