South Africa's policy of quiet diplomacy is being seen as a sign of weakness by other nations in Africa. South Africa must speak out against Africa's failures and not blindly allow to be swamped by their refugees

There is a saying that is popular among Native Americans that goes: “It’s easy to be brave from a distance.”

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Recently, we have seen the ugly face of xenophobia in South Africa. Some argue it was a long time coming. They do not necessarily support xenophobia, but recognise the fact that South Africa has a timid foreign policy despite it being a powerful country with international influence.

Twenty-one years in, that South Africa has yet to effectively lead the region is cause for concern. Rather than having our foreign policy defined in Lagos, it should be coming out of Pretoria.

There are three groups of visitors who can enter a country: professionals, tourists and refugees. South Africa should encourage the former two and seek to limit its status as a paradise for the latter.

South Africa cannot erase its African heritage and create a new national identity conceived from laws enacted by the Dutch since 1652. Instead, it must recast its modern image along the lines of our historical, regional and present-day realities in Africa.

South Africa needs a more rigorous foreign policy that addresses immigration in the region, democracy and security concerns. The last two are interconnected, because a big part of security is democracy and the ability to police volatile regions.

Most South Africans were happy to see Nelson Mandela broker a peace deal between Mobutu Sésé Seko and Laurent Kabila of the then Zaire in 1995.

South Africa under apartheid, despite the racism of the National Party, had a powerful and discernible foreign policy. South Africa was supported by a nuclear apparatus at Pelindaba and had a solid reputation in the region for its formidable military capability.

After 1994, and post-Mandela, South Africa’s foreign policy has become diluted by idealism and a lack of understanding about what to build a foreign policy on. Ubuntu is not a foreign policy doctrine.

If South Africa is ever to take its place in the world, we must have the courage to do what superpowers do: all members of the UN security council have nuclear bombs. South Africa can have a strong foreign policy, along with an atom bomb – and still be African.

In addition, South Africa’s ties with Africa are perilous. Our guns and blood in South Africa are intertwined with the rest of Africa, whether we like it or not. We need to coexist with the continent, but on our own terms.

The time for allowing despotic leaders to use South Africa as a passive partner in the repression of its people is long gone. We cannot afford to be silent and let a country “solve its own problems”.

This silent diplomacy is taxing ordinary South Africans in humanitarian and opportunity terms. The anti-African, antiblack sentiments expressed today are not in line with South Africa’s founding national discourse and should be nipped in the bud before this becomes a “silent policy”. In the absence of a real foreign policy, too much is expected from the ordinary South African.

Some Ethiopians recently asked me in New York why South Africans were not attacking white foreigners. My answer was that most white foreigners did not come in as refugees, but as professionals and tourists bringing something to the table.

When all that South Africans see in an African immigrant is a refugee exporting South Africa’s wealth to his or her home country, resentment sets in, not jealousy. Jealousy usually occurs between equals, as Shakespeare informs us: it is the sticky stuff between Caesar and Brutus and not between the king and his subjects.

South Africa should have a foreign policy that addresses African immigration concerns; that understands the security concerns of the region; a policy that says if you are undemocratic and this leads to a negative international image and standing, don’t expect us to clean up the mess by taking in your people as refugees.

At the moment, South Africa’s foreign policy is that it does not criticise other African countries.

Some call it quiet diplomacy. But South Africa’s lack of criticism is seen as a sign of indecisive weakness in the role it must play in the region and the world.

When African leaders come to Pretoria, we should insist that the issue of their populations be addressed. We should not be afraid to tell foreign countries that South Africa is not their personal refugee camp or that we have too many non-South Africans here. At the moment, our concerns must lie with our own people.

We should not be afraid of sending the message that the kinds of policies that lead to Africans coming to South Africa need to be addressed in those countries sending them our way.

There is a need to demand that African countries address the economic factors that give rise to refugees streaming into South Africa.

South Africa is not a silent partner, by way of its asylum application system, to those countries that decide to embark on policies that take them to the brink of another Iron Age. And as the Native Americans would say, get involved, don’t stand at a distance.

South Africa must enter African politics through the front door and not sit patiently at the back door waiting for Africa’s problems to go away.

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