The government has often been criticised for failing to protect human rights in its foreign policy. However, Jerry Matjila, the new Department of International Relations and Co-operation director-general, insists this will change.
“The president and the minister (of International Relations and Co-operation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane) have told every one of our diplomats that ‘the Bill of Rights is your Bible’,” he said.
“We have a vision to create a better world with more justice and more human rights.”
He recently took up the post of top diplomat after returning from Geneva, where he was ambassador to the UN.
Matjila is a seasoned career diplomat who represented the ANC abroad before 1994.
He said he had seen significant changes in foreign policy over the past two years – under the Zuma administration – not only on human rights, but also in opening international markets and greater forthrightness in dealing with conflicts.
There has been more engagement with countries in the region than before, which “creates a very good atmosphere for us”.
Analysts have seen possible evidence of the benefits of this engagement in Zuma being able to persuade the likes of Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos that the SADC must take a tougher line against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
Probably the issue which ignited most controversy over South Africa’s human rights position during the Thabo Mbeki administration was voting against a resolution in the UN Security Council condemning the military junta in Burma/Myanmar for human rights abuses in 2007.
South Africa gave complex procedural and strategic reasons for its vote, but human rights advocates felt it had betrayed its human rights legacy. Matjila said this wouldn’t happen again. He described how he had “ruffled the feathers” of other African governments by invoking the Bill of Rights to protect lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people – from persecution and discrimination.
In June Matjila sponsored and persuaded the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to adopt a resolution to establish a working group to discuss how human rights law could be used to protect gays.
The Organisation of Islamic Countries told him to leave the issue to the West, and many African countries agreed.
“In sub-Saharan Africa almost 80 percent of countries say it (homosexuality) is criminal because of culture. Among Muslim nations almost 100 percent regard it as criminal, for religious reasons,” he said.
But he told them: “Our constitution enjoins us to tackle this issue. Can we keep quiet or not lead? No. We had to. Of course you lose friends and allies, but as a country we feel we have to defend them because it’s the right thing to do.”
Matjila finds it ironic that homosexuality is branded as culturally “un-African” when most African states which criminalise it inherited those laws from their British or French colonial masters.
“When the colonialists changed, we didn’t change the penal codes. Now we say it’s ‘culture’.”
In the end the debate was close; 23 countries on the UNHRC voted for his resolution, 19 against and there were two abstentions.
He feels strongly about this issue that he will go to Geneva to chair a working group set up to tackle it.
Another important shift in foreign policy which Matjila has identified is towards more aggressive pursuit of our economic interests.
He said Zuma was a super salesman who was never shy to promote South Africa’s economic interests directly with foreign leaders, including those of India and China.
“He said to (Chinese president) Hu Jintao, ‘I’m very worried about the skewed economic relations. There’s too much (trade) surplus (on the Chinese side). Let’s work together to reduce it. Buy more, invest more.”
He said Zuma was one of the proponents of South Africa joining the Bric (Brazil, Russia, India, China) group of large emerging economies this year for economic reasons.
“We are becoming increasingly competitive in producing finished products. We need new markets. We will always have markets for our commodities, but manufactured goods are the challenge. That’s why we are re-gearing our foreign policy towards those markets.”
At last year’s South Africa-EU summit in Brussels, EU officials expressed concern about South Africa joining Brics.
“I said, have no fear, our old, established relations are still important; the EU is still our biggest investor and still provides the greatest technology transfers, tourists and training for our people. Those relations are too mature to do away with or substitute.”
Though South Africa’s foreign policy is anchored to Africa and the developing world – the South – “there is no way we can undermine or sideline North-South relations…”
Multilateralism – addressing international issues through international organisations like the UN – is a key foreign policy platform.
However, multilateralism presents it own challenges as discovered over the Libyan issue.
South Africa’s most controversial foreign policy decision this year was its vote on March 17 for UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorised a no-fly zone to be imposed on Libya, and “all necessary measures” to be used to enforce it and to protect civilians.
South Africa later accused Nato of misinterpreting the resolution by trying to kill or oust Muammar Gaddafi, rather than merely protecting civilians. The country has been criticised, either for supporting Resolution 1973 or for being inconsistent and naive in criticising Nato.
Matjila insisted South Africa did the right thing in voting for Resolution 1973 to prevent further loss of civilian lives.
“We couldn’t keep quiet when one of our own was killing his own people,” he said, adding Resolution 1973 acknowledged the AU’s road- map for resolving the Libyan crisis.
He acknowledged that South Africa had not fully explored how the resolution would be implemented. South Africa believed the UN would implement it.
Matjila said the Zuma administration’s orthodox HIV/Aids policy helped diplomats sell South Africa. Where before they fielded lots of criticism, “now we get only praise”.
He hopes Parliament will adopt the new foreign policy white paper which has been drafted over the past year, and also adopt legislation to establish the SA Development Partnership Agency – which will raise South Africa to the level of a donor country. - Foreign Editor