Somewhat prematurely, I thought, President Thabo Mbeki announced to his recent guest, Russian President Vladimir Putin that SA would be occupying one of the three nonpermanent African seats on the United Nations (UN) Security Council from January next year. Prematurely, because the election to the seats that have become vacant has yet to take place. This will happen during the annual session of the General Assembly that began last week.
We were told later that African leaders attending the African Union Summit in Banjul had endorsed SA’s candidacy. That seems pretty safe then, but as Australia found out not so many years ago, what it thought was a foregone conclusion turned out differently at the secret ballot.
My somewhat dated UN Handbook, produced annually by the New Zealand foreign ministry, lists the countries that have served a term on the Security Council. Liberia is there, so is Madagascar; but SA’s name is nowhere to be seen.
In the past 61 years of the UN’s existence, indeed in the 12 years since SA’s transition to democracy, the country has never served a term on the council.
It is no wonder then that there was a degree of triumph in Mbeki’s announcement.
SA was very much a part of the founding of the UN in 1945. Soon afterwards, its racial policies came to occupy a great deal of the organisation’s time and energy, and for 23 years, no South African representative was permitted to sit behind SA’s nameplate in the General Assembly.
The delegation’s credentials were rejected in 1970 because they had been issued by authorities that were not considered to represent a large segment of the people of the country.
But that is long past. Why has it taken another 12 years to get the nod from its African brothers? Former president Nelson Mandela was received as a hero in New York when he retrieved SA’s seat in 1994. Long queues of people stood patiently to shake his hand, until he was relieved from this exhausting, but exhilarating task.
SA had expected to take up a Security Council seat in 1999, but in the event, Namibia got the nod and SA had to bide its time for another seven years.
Could it be that the African brothers thought that this new boy on the block was a little too pushy in his emergence onto the world stage as an active participant in debates on issues of global governance, human rights, disarmament, sustainable development?
After all, SA has either headed or been host to just about every other international organisation it has chosen to join — the Non-Aligned Movement, the Commonwealth, Southern African Development Community and the Organisation of African Unity. It also hosted the UN Conference on Trade and Development in 1996, the UN Conference on Racism and the World Summit on Sustainable Development.
This year it is SA that chairs the Group of 77 and China that seeks to co-ordinate the positions of the developing countries on economic and social issues at the UN.
But a Security Council seat continued to elude it. Until now.
Since Mbeki was elected to the presidency, SA has devoted most of its high-level diplomatic energy to dealing with the host of African problems, from the Great Lakes to the peace process leading to elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Cote d’Ivoire.
Its peacekeepers and police have served in hotspots across the continent. And SA has emerged as the main voice for Africa in the halls of the developed world — the annual G8 meetings. Mbeki has been invited back each year.
More and more, SA has been identified as a pivotal state, an emerging middle power, like India, Brazil and Mexico, which are major powers in their regions and can speak on their behalf — but not always with the goodwill and acquiescence of their regional neighbors.
Once SA takes up its Security Council seat, what can it expect?
Very shortly afterwards, its delegate will preside at council meetings as the alphabetic rotation of that task reaches the letter S. The responsibility for guiding the delicate behind-the-scenes deliberations and consultations that make up much of the council’s work will fall to SA, a member with no previous experience in the council. Yet its permanent representative in New York, Dumisani Khumalo, is a veteran of the organisation and is likely to take to the new role with ease and grace.
As a member of the Council, SA will be able to make a direct contribution to the discussions on how to deal with the host of conflicts and security problems that beset Africa and the world in 2007 and beyond. It will sit around the negotiating table, as a member of the inner circle of states meeting behind closed doors — with the five permanent members and the other nine non-permanent members representing all the regions of the world.
It will be able to press issues that are of importance to Africa and the developing world, such as reform of council membership to represent the reality of a world much changed from the organisation’s founding in the direct aftermath of the Second World War.
It will be faced with long-unresolved issues such as the Middle East crisis, possibly the continuing issue of Iran’s nuclear program and the need to send and maintain UN blue-helmeted peacekeepers to trouble-spots such as Darfur, Lebanon and other areas where conflicts arise or persist.
Over the past 12 years, SA has earned its spurs as a responsible global citizen that is prepared to make its contribution to resolving the security problems that continue to beset the world. It will bring a new and greater capacity to the African representation in the Security council.
It is time, and SA will play its part, both in representing the interests of Africa and in participating creatively in working towards resolving some of the intractable problems that preoccupy the Security Council.
Perhaps there is merit in coming to the Security Council as a new, but hopefully not brash, member. It will certainly be a change from times when SA was only invited to sit at the horseshoe table as the problem, not part of the solution.