Much has been read into the photo of Presidents Barack Obama and Jacob Zuma crossing paths at a UN lunch last week. We have no way of knowing what was going on in either man’s head. But it’s fun to guess.
Here’s what I hope. Mr Obama was table hopping, saw the South African leader and graciously stopped by to say hello. Mr Zuma, cell phone pressed to his ear with one hand, proffered the other. Mr Obama shook it, gestured “call me when you have a moment”, and moved on not wishing to interrupt.
What I fear is that Mr Obama, as he shook Mr Zuma’s hand, was amused to see a head of state on the phone at such an occasion, mimicked him by playing the telephonic equivalent of air guitar, and as he focused elsewhere, said to himself in his cool way, “What a strange little dude.”
Going with the first scenario, one wonders whether Mr Obama would later have regretted the “call me” gesture. Quite apart from the time to be spent on the call itself, what would have made it worth his while to get briefed up for it?
Wasn’t Mr Zuma just the latest in the line of African leaders who had made Mr Obama so leery of engagement with continent in the first place – the ethnic chauvinists who did in his father?
Could he forget how Mr Zuma haughtily thwarted one of the signature initiatives of his administration to minimize global stockpiles on weapons grade uranium?
SA, in the larger scheme of things, is a little country. What, for several shining moments, gave it heft in the world was the wonder of its transition, the moral stature of Nelson Mandela and the creative diplomacy of Thabo Mbeki, at least until he was undone by Robert Mugabe, HIV/AIDS and the infantile left.
Now it is no longer even the go-to nation to get things done in its own back yard where it is widely resented for its arrogance, sanctimony, xenophobia and superannuated ideology.
“Mandela is gone,” Secretary of State John Kerry told his counterpart, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, after the latest episode of the latterly very episodic US-SA Strategic Dialogue, “but his legacy remains as a challenge to all of us as we aspire to show or to try to show the same wisdom, the same loyalty to the truth and the same willingness to work together…”
“Us”, in diplo-speak, generally means “you”. The truly challenged party, Mr Kerry suggested, was the ANC government, unwise, untruthful and uncooperative.
SA’s shrinking stature is closely connected – irony of ironies — to its membership of a big boys’ club, the BRICS, or at least to the price it is paying to belong as the most junior of partners.
Obeisance to Moscow and Beijing is scarcely the path to respect, even in Moscow and Beijing. How it advances SA’s quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council is not obvious when there are larger, more authentically African alternatives.
If SA has any hope of being part of a transformed Council it had better rethink its strategy of sucking up to Vladimir Putin and his doctrine of sovereign dictators forever whatever the quantum of poison gas and barrel bombs they drop on their own people.
Happily, SA’s hopes of a larger say in the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and related institutions, long overdue, are much more likely to be realized. Its fiscal and monetary policy remains in the hands of adults respected globally if not by every cadre at home.
From newspaper headlines, it may seem that the difficult issues in the US-SA relationship concern blocked exports of chicken parts, pork shoulders and beef, and the threat of expropriation allegedly posed by The Private Security Industry Regulation Act.
Yes, it’s technically true that failure to satisfy the US on these matters could result is the loss of duty-free access to the US the market for cars and wine, denial of official bilateral finance and even US vetoes loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, should they ever be sought.
None of that is going to happen. Nor, so long as there’s money to be made, is investment going to dry up regardless of who the government of the day aligns itself with.
From a US policy perspective, SA will be forgiven in order to spare its people from the folly, greed and ineptitude of its government. Its government will be treated with telephonic air guitar.