JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa’s refusal to recognise Libya’s new rebel rulers has again exposed the excessive bureaucracy that often stymies decision-making in Pretoria and could have disastrous consequences for its standing and influence in Africa.
South Africa’s snub of the interim ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) puts Africa’s largest economy at odds with the West and African economic rival Nigeria.
Political analysts and commentators said if President Jacob Zuma’s government did not adopt a more realistic foreign policy soon, the country’s status as Africa’s powerhouse and regional leader could be in jeopardy.
“They have painted themselves into a corner,” said Gary van Staden, political analyst at NKC Independent Economists.
“If they don’t act now and say: ‘It is a new phase entirely now and we better get involved’, there is a very strong possibility that South Africa will lose the influence it has on the African continent.”
South Africa’s support of Muammar Gaddafi had its roots in a long-standing close relationship between the two countries.
During apartheid, Libya was one of the first countries to offer support to the ruling African National Congress, then fighting an armed struggle against the white-minority government, and the ANC maintained close ties to Gaddafi.
Gaddafi’s first trip abroad after sanctions against Libya were suspended in 1999 was to South Africa in the final days of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. Mandela was fond of referring to Gaddafi as “My Brother Leader”.
But while other Gaddafi backers have said they were ready to change alliances, South Africa has stood firm.
“There is an argument that the situation is beyond redemption. South Africa’s position has been so inconsistent and arguably naive that it is in the unique position of having angered all sides in this dispute,” financial daily Business Day said in a recent editorial.
More than 60 countries have recognised the NTC so far, with China saying on Tuesday it will recognise the NTC as the legitimate government “when conditions are ripe”.
Pretoria has insisted that African problems should be solved by Africans under the auspices of the African Union and with South Africa playing a leading role in the grouping, the AU still has not recognised the NTC.
Gaddafi considered his role in formulating the declaration which led to the creation of the pan-African body as one of his greatest achievements.
Analysts say the position is misguided and that as South Africa becomes more and more isolated on Gaddafi it could lose support in the group.
Greg Mills, director of economic think-tank the Brenthurst Foundation said in a blog post that South Africa’s diplomacy has infuriated many diplomats.
“They (diplomats) are angered by what is increasingly viewed by some as Pretoria’s destructive stance. The term ‘rogue democracy’ is now on people’s lips.”
Nel Marais, managing director of risk consultancy Thabiti Africa, pointed to a bureaucracy transplanted into government from the ruling ANC as a big part of the problem.
The policy-making process required collecting input from several ministers and officials before any decisions were made, he said, which meant the government could not react nimbly to changing political events.
“Too many structures, committees and people have to be consulted before anything can be changed,” Marais said.
“They cannot seem to get it that circumstances and relations change and that one should be able to re-evaluate foreign policy at short notice,” he said.
Analysts pointed to other examples of South Africa dragging its feet diplomatically, from continued support for Zimbabwe’s long-time ruler Robert Mugabe to its delayed recognition of Alassane Ouattara as winner of Ivory Coast’s disputed presidential election.
The government also can get tangled up taking “principled” positions.
“South Africa will often resort to certain principled arguments on why it is taking certain positions but that is often not in line with a public mood or sentiment,” said Mike Davies, analyst at risk consultancy Maplecroft.
For example, it initially supported the U.N. resolution authorising NATO intervention in Libya on the grounds it was a humanitarian mission, a position that was out of sync with its fellow BRIC members Brazil, Russia, India and China who abstained from the vote.
It later became a vocal critic of the resulting bombings which it said NATO was misusing to engineer a “regime change”.
In hindsight, South Africa’s diplomatic position would have looked sounder if the country had abstained from the beginning, Business Day said.
“The position of Brazil, Russia, India and China was much more distant and passive, which may in fact have been the more sensible diplomatic, if not moral, position for South Africa to adopt.”