South Africa defended its loan to cash-strapped Swaziland against critics who saw the bail-out of the country’s absolute monarch as symbolic of Pretoria’s reluctance to push political reforms on the continent.
Critics say the ruling African National Congress, which was helped in its battle to bring down apartheid by international sanctions against the white-minority government, should be using its status as Africa’s largest economy to effect change in autocratic states in the region.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said it was in South Africa’s interests to have a stable neighbour and it would not force reforms on King Mswati III, who has faced condemnation from global powers accusing him of autocratic rule and gross fiscal mismanagement, Reuters reports.
“Swaziland is a sovereign country, we can only go so far. For the rest, our Swazi colleagues and citizens must use the opportunities rising from these sorts of agreements to ensure that democratic processes take place as they require them,” he said in a national broadcast on Talk Radio 702.
South Africa, which dominates Swaziland’s tiny economy and accounts for almost all of its trade, agreed to lend 2.5 billion rand to help it through a budget crunch that had prompted unprecedented protests against a royal family once cynically propped up by the apartheid government to show concern for its black neighbours.
The post-apartheid government of the African National Congress adopted one of the continent’s most liberal constitutions and has called for an end to the oppression of people worldwide, but has seldom flexed its muscles to bring about change.
“The bottom line is that if South Africa were to toe a tough line on Swaziland, who on Earth would object to it?” said Sisonke Msimang, executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.
“But it is clear that South Africa remains shy about being seen as a hectoring Big Brother.”
Global powers look at South Africa and see a country with governmental institutions and views on democracy similar to their own, overlooking that it would rather stand closer to its African brothers than with the Western countries that colonised the continent.
“It is very easy, given the size of South Africa’s economy and the level of its development, to overestimate what it can actually do, particularly in the case of crises that are essentially internal,” said John Campbell, a senior fellow specialising in Africa at the U.S. based Council on Foreign Relations.
But the region and the world have sought South Africa’s help to push reforms in its neighbouring Zimbabwe as well as Ivory Coast and Libya only to be met with an often confused and mostly ineffective response from Pretoria.
In the Ivory Coast, South Africa at first joined the African Union and others who backed Alassane Ouattara as the winner of vote against incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.
President Jacob Zuma a few weeks later cast doubts over the results by saying there were “discrepancies” in the election. Then, a few weeks later said there was no doubt that Ouattara won.
In the middle of all this, South Africa angered west African states trying to avoid a widening military conflict, by sending a war ship to the region — which Pretoria said was to be used to evacuate its nationals.
South Africa has mostly refrained from criticising Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe despite igniting political violence that led to a mass refugee exodus and economic mismanagement that caused the country to collapse under hyperinflation about three years ago.
It has tried to play the part of honest broker in the Libya crisis with Zuma travelling twice to the state where he was treated by leader Muammar Gaddafi as more of a message boy than an international intermediary.
The ruling ANC is also at war with itself over foreign policy. It ousted former leader Thabo Mbeki in part because he was seen as more interested in international affairs than domestic and replaced him with Zuma, who had little foreign experience.
The ANC’s left-leaning governing partner, labour federation COSATU, has slammed it for the loan to the Swazi King, dubbed by one COSATU union as a “hyena tyranny”.
The ANC’s Youth League has called for the ouster of the democratically elected leader of Botswana, drawing a sharp rebuke from the ANC for not backing government policy.
But the ANC has been mostly silent on the Youth League breaking away from the country’s foreign policy by backing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il over the democratically elected government in Seoul.
“In some ways, it is hard to make heads or tails of South Africa foreign policy,” Msimang said.