NATO and Mandela’s South Africa: A Complex Relationship

As Nelson Mandela remains in a “serious, but stable condition” in a Pretoria hospital, the possibility of the anti-apartheid icon dying becomes as real a possibility as ever before. South Africa’s foreign policy during the tenure of its first black president is marked by deeper engagement with the African continent, but also one of mixed relations with the West. Though Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth are considered good friends of Mandela, he was also worked closely with the late Muammar Gaddafi. The anti-apartheid icon may soon be gone, leaving behind a complex legacy of cooperation and antagonism that continues to guide relations between South Africa and the Transatlantic Community.

The Long Shadow of Apartheid

A source of this tension is likely a holdover from the friendly relations between NATO, the United States, and the Apartheid regime of South Africa. NATO and Pretoria maintained a clandestine relationship out of the greater geopolitical concerns of fighting communism. This took place amidst the backdrop of publically decrying Apartheid’s dehumanization and wide-ranging sanctions. This relationship continues to cast a shadow on contemporary relations. By the 1970s, South Africa had convinced a number of NATO policymakers of the importance of defending shipping lanes around the “Cape route”, thus currying additional favour with the alliance. Though Secretary-General Josef Luns denied any cooperation between the transatlantic alliance and South Africa, high-level, though informal meetings with President PW Botha took place in 1980. The two were said to be quite friendly with one another.

American President Ronald Reagan was also relatively sympathetic to the Pretoria regime, viewing the country as a key regional ally against communism. South African armed forces had, at the time, been engaged in low-level conflicts with communist groups in a number of neighbouring countries, as well as occupying Namibia. It was only after bipartisan outcry in Congress in 1985 that Reagan reversed his position, though he attempted to veto the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act a year later.

During his presidency, Mandela increasingly spoke out against what he perceived as Western imperialism. South African foreign policy under Mandela was, in his own words, centered upon the use of international law and diplomacy as guiding principles for conducting international affairs. To this end, he blasted the NATO war in Kosovo and Western no-fly zones over Iraq, charging that such unilateralism undermined respect for international institutions. Mandela viewed NATO as a vehicle for the United States to “police the world.” He reiterated his view at a 2000 speech in Ireland, stating that South Africa’s own peaceful transition from Apartheid demonstrates that diplomacy should not be so easily dismissed.

Nelson Mandela and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi were close friends.

The Libyan Connection

Mandela’s personal friendships with both Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro irked the ire of the United States, and NATO as a whole. Libyan forces had helped train Mandela’s African National Congress during their militant days, and their friendship was such that one of Mandela’s grandsons is named Gaddafi. In 1994, still considered a global pariah, Gaddafi was invited to Nelson Mandela’s swearing-in ceremony. Mandela responded to Western criticism of his attendance by telling their leaders to “jump in a pool.” Though he had been out of public life for some time, Mandela spoke out against NATO airstrikes against Libya during the 2011 war.

The personal friendship between Mandela and Gaddafi translated into official government policy. Bilateral relations between South Africa and Libya strengthened with the end of Apartheid in 1994. South Africa, hoping to wield its central position in the African Union and strong ties with Libya, was set to send President Jacob Zuma as part of an African Union delegation to broker a peace plan at the onset of the 2011 civil war. As the NATO campaign against Gaddafi began, this plan was scuttled, leading to deep divisions within the AU. The sidelining of the AU peace plan and the overstepped mandate of the Libyan intervention has led to a general sense of betrayal by NATO among South African leaders.

Libya had long been rooted in the African continent, and under Gaddafi, had pursued a bombastic vision of pan-Africanism. Gaddafi was also well-known for referring to himself as the “King of Africa”, and for his grandiose vision of a “United States of Africa.” The Organisation of African Unity’s Sirte Declaration of 1999, held in the Libyan city of Sirte, laid the ground work for the establishment of the African Union in 2002. The organization received nearly a third of its funding from Libya, an estimated $40 million per year. Post-Gaddafi Libya is now firmly oriented towards the Arab World, much to the dismay of South Africa. Attacks on black African migrant workers in Libya further underscore the shift in the new Libya’s orientation. The NATO intervention has led to the loss of not only a key ally of South Africa, but for the efforts of pan-African integration as a whole.

Though deathbed stories of Mandela spring up every time he checks into a hospital, the signs are not entirely bleak: Mandela’s health has steadily recovered in recent days, and is said to be “engaging with his family.” The former President is, however, 94 – an advanced age by any measure. His legacy hangs heavily over all aspects of South African politics, and it remains to be seen which direction a post-Mandela South Africa will take with transatlantic relations.

Daniel Bodirsky

About Daniel Bodirsky

Daniel is an Asia-Pacific Research Analyst with the NATO Association of Canada. He is currently an MSc candidate in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Daniel was previously based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he wrote freelance for a number of online publications and tutors English. Daniel’s research interests concern security in the Asia-Pacific, specifically the rise of China-balancing coalitions in Southeast Asia and Canadian interests in the region. He is a former Program Editor at the NAOC. Daniel received his BAH from Queen’s University, where he majored in Political Studies with a Minor in World Languages (German, French, Japanese). Contact: danielbodirsky@gmail.com Twitter: @danbodirsky