SA’s acclaim was on the account of consistency between the norms that defined its public institutions, reflected in its human rights ethos and egalitarian aspirations, on the one hand, and its normative fluency on global affairs, on the other. As a result, SA was included in important global decision-making processes, and was seen as a credible voice that also spoke on behalf of other developing countries. This confirmed an important reality about foreign policy: the character of a country’s foreign policy behaviour is often a reflection of the quality of its leaders and institutional makeup. That golden era is now ending.
There are two distinct recent developments that have marked this decline. The first has to do with the Dalai Lama’s visa application. Twice, SA has refused the Dalai Lama entry in deference to the Chinese government. The first time was when the Dalai Lama wanted to attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday in October 2011. In the words of the Congress of South African Unions’s Tony Ehrenreich, the government decided to “trade its values for yuan”. The second time was this year, when the Dalai Lama was asked by the government to abandon his visa application to attend a meeting of Nobel laureates, as a result of which SA is now an object of scorn in the eyes of eminent people globally. The Chinese congratulated SA for its stance, an arrogant gesture South Africans are unlikely to forget.