Peter Fabricius asks: Was President Zuma’s absence from Brussels “strategic ambiguity” or snubbing the EU?
Pretoria - Relations between South Africa and the EU are not great right now. The EU and many of its member states are puzzled, disappointed and annoyed at President Jacob Zuma’s personal boycott of the EU-Africa summit in Brussels last week.
The reasons for Zuma’s decision not to go are a little unclear. On the one hand he gave the distinct impression that he was pulling out because the EU were treating Africans like “subjects” by trying to dictate who should attend the event from Africa.
This may have referred to the EU decision that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace should not get a visa to visit Belgium, because she is under an EU travel ban. Or it may have been related to a decision by the ambassadors to the AU in Addis Ababa to recommend a postponement of the summit because the EU had supposedly written to the AU to say only countries recognised by the EU and the UN could attend the summit.
But EU ambassador to South Africa Roeland van de Geer said this week he knew of no such letter by the EU to the AU and hinted that the meeting of the ambassadors in Addis Ababa had been manipulated by the Zimbabwe ambassador who chaired it, to call on all African states to boycott the summit.
But the Zimbabwe campaign fell flat, as Van de Geer pointed out in a lecture to the SA Institute of International Affairs this week; the only African leaders who had accepted invitations but didn’t come were the presidents of Sudan, Zimbabwe and South Africa, he said. The EU was surprised to find Zuma in this group.
“This is not the South Africa we know as a continental leader, as a champion of human development,” he said.
Unlike Zimbabwe and Sudan, though, South Africa did not boycott the summit as a country. It sent a solid delegation led by International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.
And so some officials insisted that there had been no boycott by Zuma at all and that he had never intended to go to Brussels, because of all the domestic demands, including the elections and Nkandla.
Van de Geer insisted, however, that Zuma’s office had confirmed in writing that he would attend, just hours before he pulled out.
So the Europeans now believe that Zuma really did decide at the last minute that domestic imperatives were irresistible – and yet made the EU the scapegoat.
Perhaps the government is maintaining a stance of “strategic ambiguity” here. If Zimbabwe’s call for a boycott had succeeded, perhaps South Africa would have publicly signed on to it.
But it flopped and so they didn’t. And that also raises the question: Why did practically no one else join the boycott?
Could it be that the rest of Africa is simply tired of the dreary old nonagenarian Mugabe’s quarrel with the West and wants to move on, realising that relations with the EU are much more important?
In any case this does not seem to have been an adroit foreign policy manoeuvre by South Africa.
It is no doubt irksome that the EU tries to dictate who should represent Africa. It is also true that the EU places too much faith in South Africa as a sort of champion of its own values in Africa, not always fully grasping that South Africa’s ultimate allegiance lies with Africa.
But South Africa needed to make up its mind about this. If Zuma wanted to snub the EU summit in protest, he had to be sure he would be joined by the rest of the continent, not left isolated in a corner with the likes of Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir.
If he had to stay at home to fight elections, he should have said so.
In the light of Brics etc, the relationship with Europe may well be fading in relative importance.
But it is still important enough to be treated seriously.
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.