When the late anti-Apartheid activist Nelson Mandela emerged from prison and became South Africa’s first black president, he carefully steered the country away from the radicalism of the African National Congress’s Marxist past and toward a policy which embraced moderation and responsibility in international affairs. Rather than precipitate conflict, he sought to mediate and resolve. South Africa gained widespread respect as a country embracing peace and looking toward the future rather than catalyzing the radical causes which have sown conflict around the continent and wider world.
Alas, Mandela was unable to make his changes permanent. After his five-year presidential term ended in 1999, and especially after his 2013 death, the leaders who followed Mandela—Thabo Mbeki, and especially Jacob Zuma and now Cyril Ramaphosa—have spent South Africa’s moral capital shilling for increasingly radical regimes, terrorist groups, and causes.
In December 2017, for example, the ANC both downgraded its embassy in Israel and invited representatives of Hamas to its party conference. While the Palestinian Authority exist because it in theory foreswore terrorism and recognized Israel’s right to exist, Hamas opposes the two-state solution and seeks not only the eradication of Israel, but also genocide against Jews. South Africa has also proven itself a central location for the acquisition and smuggling of sensitive technology to Hezbollah, another terror group. Students affiliated with the ANC’s student union at the University of Witwatersrand praised Hitler and waved Hezbollah flags. Bilateral ties between South Africa and Iran are at an all-time high and Iran has recruited Palestinians in South Africa in order to conduct terrorism against Israel.
South Africa’s new radicalism has now spilled over into piracy. Nearly a year ago, a Marshall Islands’-flagged cargo ship carrying phosphate made an unscheduled stop in Port Elizabeth. At the request of activists from the Polisario Front, an autocratic Marxist group which claims both to lead the self-styled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and refuses to allow an U.N.-mandated referendum to determine what people living under its control really want, the South African government impounded the ship and its cargo. The Polisario claimed that phosphates mined in the Western Sahara should really belong to it. When the Polisario Front tried the same tactic in Panama, a Panamanian court rejected it outright.
But South African officials now favor terrorist groups and radical causes over international law. On March 19, it began to auction the cargo and transfer the proceeds to the Polisario Front, the same group which during the Cold War forcibly separated children from their parents in order to train them in Cuba and which continues to embezzle humanitarian aid. In effect, South Africa’s government and courts now signal they are willing to seize ships belonging to nationals of countries they dislike in order to seize cargo.
There’s a name for that: piracy. The precedent is chilling, and not only for shipping. The South African move comes less than a month after parliament embraced a bill to seize white-owned farms without compensation, the same policy which led Zimbabwe to ruin. In short, South Africa’s government and courts seem ready to confiscate funds from American and Western investors as radical activists and terror groups use South African courts to offer a legal patina to such looting.
Many Western diplomats, journalists, and academics have long seen South Africa as a model for tolerance and development. They have invested widely throughout the country. But, the South Africa of Mandela is over, and the country is increasingly signaling that it will decline into Zimbabwe version 2.0.
Radicals may find favor with South African judges and parliamentarians, but such policies will come with a price: Ruin for South Africa and a resurgence of terrorism in the Middle East and the Sahara.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.