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Anne Applebaum’s op-ed today is a reminder that just having a new U.S. administration with a boatload of goodwill won’t necessarily deal with underlying policy differences in our foreign relations, hokey plastic “reset” buttons aside. Applebaum was referring to Russia, but this seems to apply equally to South Africa. One of the first tasks of the new Africa team at the State Department (Ambassador Johnnie Carson was nominated to be Assistant Secretary this week) will be to try to rebuild the relationship with the continent’s largest regional power. While America has built solid partnerships with many African nations, relations with South Africa are deeply fraught.

The Obama team will have an opportunity to try again with Pretoria, not least because South Africa will also have a new government after next month’s elections. But the Washington Post also carries another reminder today of how difficult that task will be if South Africa does not also shift its policies. A “peace conference” was cancelled after the government denied a visa for the Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Dalai Lama. This once again places South Africa in the awkward position of taking the side of human rights abusers. After actively backing Iran, Zimbabwe, and other odious regimes against international condemnation, the South African government seems yet again to be on the wrong side of history. This is sorrowfully ironic given the role of the international community in isolating the apartheid regime and South Africa’s own view of itself as defender of the vulnerable. But it is not lost on South Africa’s increasingly frustrated civil society. Nelson Mandela’s grandson, organizer of the peace conference, is quoted:

This rejection by the government, to not issue a visa, is really tainting our efforts at democracy. It's a sad day for South Africa. It's a sad day for Africa…Where are we heading in the future?

Good question for South Africa. And for US-South Africa relations.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.