President Cyril Ramaphosa unveiled Nelson Mandela’s statue at the UN alongside UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres this past week. The statue symbolises more than the physical structure.
It represents the return of South Africa under Ramaphosa to the foundational norms and values that underpinned the country’s foreign policy advocated by Mandela for a democratic South Africa.
It marks a clear break with Jacob Zuma’s decade-long desecration of South Africa’s foreign policy that is informed by the African Agenda and anchored in human rights. There are, however, numerous challenges the Ramaphosa presidency will confront on the world stage.
For the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries, Africa has enjoyed consistently having individuals (both men and women) who have transcended its borders and stood like a colossus over the continent. These giants were revered in the chambers of international diplomacy.
The African continent has been home to these leaders, from Zimbabwe’s Mbuya Nehanda to Kenyan Dedan Kimathi, Cetshwayo kaMpande to Haile Selassie, to Mandela
The two white elephants (well, one of Indian descent) in this assembly of heroes fall into dishonour and shame because while their fight for the plight of Africans and humanity in general on the international stage was legendary, their domestic policies were riddled with debilitating racist dogma.
Jan Smuts practically wrote the UN preamble and presided over the first General Assembly meeting, setting up the body to prevent large-scale atrocities.
Gandhi successfully levelled a non-violent campaign against British colonial rule on three continents.However, while Gandhi’s high moral standing remains intact, some of his recorded utterances about blacks were simply racist.
Smuts knew tyranny all too well as he had fought it his entire life, but when it came to the African question at home he described them as a child-like people who had no original religious beliefs, literature or art, or desire to improve themselves.
In an era of unspeakable injustice, a champion emerged. Here was a leader who appeared on a BBC TV interview in 1961, articulating his plan to reconsider the passive methods of protest against the violent apartheid state, in effect declaring an armed struggle.
He appeared clean-polished and articulate, but the warrior in him radiated and burnt though his eyes.
Fast forward 40 hard years and Mandela had become a global leader.A father figure who was trusted and expected to fix the biggest social problems in the world, especially in conflict. He was an African champion embraced by the entire world.
Today these leaders are mere memories. A General Assembly meeting that used to have Mandela at its epicentre has given way for Trump and a tolerance for the absurd.
While rightly advancing Mandela’s legacy in South Africa’s foreign policy, it is equally important to realise that norms and values for justice and universal human rights are hard to achieve in an untransformed UN.
South Africa can positively influence the world as Mandela did if it works tirelessly to strengthen the Southern African Development Community and the AU. South Africa’s foreign policy should prioritise key African countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Algeria, Angola and Zimbabwe.
The road to the UN should, and must, go through the SADC region and the AU in Addis Ababa.
More importantly, the restoration of Mandela’s legacy in foreign policy should go hand and hand with pragmatism rooted in the African needs and priorities of attaining peace, security and development.
Dr David Monyae, is the Co-Director of the University Of Johannesburg (UJ) Confucius Institute (UJCI)
*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg